Is This Your Judaism? The Jew in Sefer HaKuzari

Author: Esther Ehrman, Iyyar 5770/April 2010

In the dialogue presented by Yehuda HaLevy in the third essay of his Sefer Hakuzari, between the King of the Khazars and the Chaver, the discussion focuses on what distinguishes the observant Jew. Which of the G-d given commandments mark him as specifically Jewish?

The Chaver opens the discussion by explaining that there are laws that we can understand and others that we accept because we know that they are Divine. He is, however, less interested here between the, generally accepted, division between mishpatim (social laws, including the Sabbath, where a rationale is often given) and chukkim (commandments usually beyond our understanding, such as the laws of the 'red heifer'). The distinction here is between 'civil and rational laws' and 'Divine laws that were additionally given to the nation of G-d'. The Chaver had already explained earlier (2, 48) that the concept of civil laws was universal. 'No community of people can function without these laws. Even a community of robbers cannot exist unless equity governs them'.

What, about the additional commandments 'given to the nation of G-d'? The first of these is brit mila, circumcision. 'Consider how little circumcision has to do with philosophy and how small is its social influence', says the Chaver. Abraham accepted it in his old age because it was a sign of the Covenant, 'the sign of the Divine Influence'. Circumcision has no moral or social rationale, the Chaver explains. This is not quite the way that others understood circumcision. Maimonides, who taught that all commandments have a rationale, writes 'As regards circumcision, I think that one of its objects is to limit sexual intercourse and to weaken the organ of generation...Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust' However, he adds 'It gives to all members of the same faith, i.e., to all believers in the unity of G-d, a common bodily sign..' (Guide for the Perplexed, 3, ch.48). In this, Maimonides is in agreement with Yehuda HaLevy. The king of the Khazars elaborates, by pointing out the importance of the blessing that accompanies the brit mila, namely 'Blessed art Thou..Who hast commanded us to make our sons enter into the covenant of Abraham our father'. Circumcision was not unique to the Israelites; the Egyptians, amongst other nations, had circumcision. It is the motivation, the fact that it is the hallmark of the Abrahamic Covenant that makes the brit mila a vital characteristic of the Jew. The first statement of the Chaver in defining the Jewish religion at the beginning of the Sefer haKuzari was that, as a Jew, he believed in the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The Sabbath is the next defining commandment of the observant Jew – the Chaver speaks of him as 'our chassid' , the 'pious person' amongst us. Interestingly, Maimonides speaks of his model Jew as a tzaddik, a righteous, just person. The Sabbath is presented as one of the 'divine laws', even though the Torah gives reasons for its observance and the Chaver had said (3,7): Reason is out of place in matters of divine action, on account of its incapacity to grasp them. Reason must rather obey, just as a sick person must obey the physician..' As already said, HaLevy presents laws as divine because they were given specifically to the Israelites. In the case of the day of rest, it is once again the motivation , - 'remembrance of the Creation', 'remembrance of the Exodus', remembrance of the giving of the Law' are the ones mentioned – that sanctifies the day for Jews. Other nations have a day of rest, too, but even a king in a place where a day of rest exists, has to abandon it, if duty calls him. Not so the Jews. During the Sabbaths and Festivals, they are not at the beck and call of anyone other than G-d and that lends them independence and makes the Jew a free man, says the Chaver, for one sixth of his life, 'in rest of body and soul'. This is, of course, very important in a book that seeks to defend a 'despised faith'. As with circumcision, Maimonides is in partial agreement, stating that the Sabbath is 'a confirmation of our belief in Creation' (Guide, 3, ch.41).

To these two commandments, the Chassid adds the observance of a list of ritual laws, laws of purity, laws concerning plants, orlah that forbids fruit in the first years, kilayim that forbids planting mixtures, kashrut that limits the consumption of animals to specific species, laws concerning the Festivals, such as the blowing of the shofar and the four species used on the Festival of Tabernacles as well as the laws prescribing the various sacrifices. Since there were no sacrifices after the destruction of the Temple, it is assumed that learning about them is what is required of the Chassid.

All of these commandments constitute the distinctive religion of the Jew. They are divinely ordained and understanding them is a secondary consideration. Maimonides does not seem to agree that sacrifices distinguish the Jew: 'G-d allowed these kinds of service to continue. He transferred to His service that which has formerly served as a worship of created beings' (Guide, 3, ch.32), which seems to indicate that sacrifices were tolerated by G-d, rather than specifically prescribed. However, Maimonides continues 'By this Divine plan, it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out and the truly great principle of our faith, the Existence and unity of G-d, was firmly established' (ibid.). It is a different perspective. Both thinkers recognise that ritual laws, including sacrifices, constituted the divinely ordained way of serving G-d and, as with circumcision, formed a bond between the members of the Jewish faith. It should be stressed again that, whereas other nations had sacrifices, many of the sacrifices of the Jew were intended to make him aware of his trespasses, aware of what was right and wrong.

The image of the Chassid that emerges is of someone wholly dedicated to the Covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. We do not see the Chassid as a universal figure. Because Yehuda HaLevy set out to distinguish his faith from other faiths, the emphasis here is on the individual. Even when the Chaver discusses the conviction of divine justice in the world, it is presented as conscious background for the seeming injustices that the Jew endures, 'he will then find no difficulty in picturing how we may recover our greatness..' (ibid).

The modern Jew , while agreeing with this image, tends to look beyond it. If we take one example from the twentieth Century, the Halakhic Man of Rav Soloveitchik, we will be struck by the difference in emphasis. The ideal of Halakhic Man is the halachah as a whole, with all of its Rabbinic input, that marks him as it did his Medieval ancestor, as a member of the Jewish faith.

'When halakhic man approaches reality, he comes with his Torah, given to him from Sinai, in hand. He orients himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and principles...When halakhic man comes across a spring bubbling quietly, he possesses a fixed, a priori relationship with this real phenomenon... the spring is fit for the immersion of a zav (a person suffering from impurity)...' (p.19, vi).

'Halakhic man implements the Torah without any compromises or concessions, for precisely such implementation, such actualisation is his ultimate desire. When a person actualises the ideal halakhah in the midst of the real world, he approaches the level of that godly man, the prophet...Halakhic man cannot be cowed by anyone...for is he not a creator of worlds, a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation?...He publicly protests against the oppression of the helpless, the defrauding of the poor, the plight of the orphan' (p.90, xv).

This modern Chasid/Tzaddik is conditioned by the same Torah as the Jew of Yehuda HaLevy or of Maimonides. His awareness of the real world and his interaction with it are determined by the Torah. It is this that distinguishes him as a Jew. He carries with him, as it were, the earlier character and takes him into his, present-day world.