Yehudah Halevi: My Heart
by Henry Rasof
Yehudah Halevi was born around 1075 in Tudela, Spain, where Abraham Ibn Ezra also was born. He later moved to Granada and also either visited or lived in other Spanish cities, including Lucena, Seville, Toledo, and Córdoba. Eventually he left Spain, determined to reach the Holy Land. Whether he made it there or not, no one is sure, but he did get as far as Egypt, visiting Cairo and Alexandria. He died in 1141.
Halevi is best known for his great philosophical work The Kuzari and for his poems about Zion, in particular the poem whose first line may be translated “My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west.” Although his philosophy expresses the essentiality and uniqueness of the land of Israel for Jews, the poem expresses the emotional essence of this idea, and expresses it as a deep longing, a feeling no philosophical treatise, even as imaginative a treatise as the Kuzari, can express. In this poem the Hebrew word libi—“my heart”—is an inexact homonym for the poet’s name, Levi, spelled differently but sounding similar, a reflexive statement that Halevi—and his essence—is in the east even though the rest of him is still in the west, in Spain.
Continuing with the homonymity of his name, it is fair to say that in the case of Halevi, the name also represents his own essence and the locus of his fame. For surely this fame rests upon the nature of his heart, and the name itself perhaps became or has become synonymous in the minds of many Jews, especially those associated with the founding and growth of the state of Israel, with all that heart symbolizes and stands for. Then again, the heart is a universal symbol, and so in spite of his religious particularity Yehudah Halevi, like all great writers and great thinkers, transcended his birthright as a Jew and penetrated the realm of universality.
In some of his religious poems Halevi expresses an ecstatic kind of awareness of the presence of God. It is a feeling akin to standing naked with rubbery knees before one’s lover. For example: “O Lord, where shall I find Thee?/All-hidden and exalted is Thy place.” Of course, this is a translation, and an old one, yet even more recent, more modern translations express this same sort of sentiment.
Wandering through Andalusian cities like Córdoba and Seville and spending time as well in Toledo, the modern-day visitor strains to imagine what these cities were like over 900 years ago, with sizable Jewish populations and poet-philosophers such as Yehudah Halevi walking the streets. Most likely he walked through the Jewish quarter in Córdoba, past the Maimonides family home, or down along the Guadalquivir River a few blocks away, perhaps even to watch the egrets in the trees. And undoubtedly he walked the streets of the Jewish quarter in Seville. And maybe he went down to the Guadalquivir as it passed through Seville as well on its ever-widening way to the ocean. If so, did he see in the river the river of his life and imagine himself on a water voyage to the Holy Land?
Although we can never know any of this, we do have the record of his feelings and thoughts, which themselves are like signposts of the river of the imagination as it flowed through one man in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.