Yehuda Halevi was one of the great Hebrew poets of all time, “the first great romantic figure in Jewish history,” Hillel Halkin tells us in his fascinating biography of this key figure in the rich culture of medieval Spanish Jewry. Born in Castile somewhere around the year 1070, Halevi began to write Hebrew poetry in his school years. “In the Arabic-speaking Jewish society in which our young man lived,” writes Halkin, “the language of these poems was always Hebrew. Yet the central role of poetry did not stem originally from a Jewish impulse. Its history went back to the preliterate life of the Arabian desert, whose Bedouin tribes had poured out of it following the founding of Islam in the early seventh century and rapidly overrun much of the world under the new religion’s martial banner. Among these desert nomads, the ability to extemporize verse had always been valued greatly. Poems were an everyday vehicle for the expression of emotion; for the sending of messages and requests; for the carrying of news…for the wooing of the opposite sex…the derogation of one’s enemies, and the like.” In the case of Halevi, his leaving the Christian North as a young man and setting out for the Muslim South, to seek his fortune in the promising literary environment that existed in Andalusia, was a quest “in the same spirit of adventure that, centuries later, brought a Balzac and a Stendhal to Paris from the French provinces and a Hart Crane and a Thomas Wolfe to New York from rural America.”
Halevi’s moving life story—he was a doctor as well as a poet, whose famous “songs of Zion” are still with us, as is The Kuzari, his seminal and controversial defense of Judaism in dialogue form—culminated in his passionate wish to travel to the holy land of Palestine. This, Halkin points out, was a dangerous and unlikely prospect at the time, especially as, in the wake of the First Crusade, during which Jews and Muslims were slaughtered and banned from resettling in a Christianized Jerusalem, there was no appropriate community to take him in if he did arrive safely. But Halevi, with his “heart in the East/ …the rest of me far in the West,” nourished this dream in all its impracticality. At some point in his fifties, he wrote a poem about his frustration with himself for not yet having made the journey, in spite of the fact that his friends reasonably counseled against it —”taking himself to task,” writes Halkin, “for clinging to material pleasures and social enjoyments in disregard of the duty to set out.” In the poem, given below, Halevi imagines the dangers of the sea voyage and the ship’s safe passage toward Jerusalem. (The translation is Hillel Halkin’s.)
“A man in your fifties—and you still would be young?”
A man in your fifties—and you still would be young?
Soon your life will have flown like a bird from a branch!
Yet you shirk the service of God, and crave the service of men,
And run after the many, and shun the One
From whom the multitudes of all things come,
And laze about instead of setting out
On your true way, and for a mess of pottage
Sell your immortal part. Has not your soul had enough?
Why then yield each day to its lusts?
Leave its counsel for God’s, put the five senses aside,
And make amends to your Maker before your last days rush away.
Don’t pretend you have to seek to know His will,
Or wait for auguries. Will but to do it!
Be bold as a panther, swift as a deer!
Fear not the open sea, though mountains of waves crest and crash,
And hands shake like rags in a gale,
And speechless ships’ carpenters quail,
And crews leap to the task and in dismay stagger back,
Trapped in an ocean with nowhere to flee
While the sails flap and crack, and the deck creaks and groans,
And the wind whips the water into haystack-high bales.
One day it towers like ricks and the next it’s flat as a field,
A ripple of snakes without even a whisper or hiss.
Yet when roiled to a prideful of lions, each hot on the other one’s heels,
Mighty fleets reel and are wrecked. Masts totter and fall;
Bulwarks are breeched; the tiers of great triremes are pierced,
Unmanning their oarsmen; men, women, grow faint with dread;
Sailors stand stunned by their shrouds; the living would rather be dead;
The heft of the yards counts for nothing, for nothing the tricks of old tars;
Tall spars are no stronger than straws; cedar beams snap like stems;
The ballast cast out is but chaff; keels have the resistance of grass.
At such times, when each man prays to what is holy to him,
You turn to face the Holiest of Holies.
Recount, then, stamped in men’s memories,
The wonders of the Red Sea’s parting,
And of the Jordan’s in the days of Joshua.
Praise the Soother of the storms that stir the depths,
The Pardoner of stained souls, who for His sainted Patriarchs’ sakes
Will pardon yours. Sing Him a Levite’s song while He renews
His awesome world, restoring souls to bodies, life to dry bones.
Now the waves subside; like flocks of sheep they graze upon the sea.
The sun has set, departing by the stairs
Up which ascends the night watch, led by its silver-sworded captain.
The heavens are an African spangled with gold, blue-black
Within a frame of milky crystal. Stars roam the water,
Flare and flicker there, outcasts far from home.
The seaward-dipping sky, the night-clasped sea, both polished bright,
Are indistinguishable, two oceans cupped alike,
Between which, surging with thanksgiving, lies a third, my heart.
Read more from Yehuda Halevi