Adam Shear. The Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity, 1167-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xvi + 384 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-88533-1.
Reviewed by Barry Kogan (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati)
Published on H-Judaic (June, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
The Life and Afterlife of a Great Book
Over the past fifty years, historical investigation has devoted increasing attention to aspects of ordinary life and activity that are certainly familiar, but not necessarily well understood. Often such studies are occasioned by changes in social practice, of which some are closely associated with technological innovations. The invention of printing is an obvious example. One relatively new field of inquiry, which reflects these developments, is “the history of the book.” It is a genre that is interested not only in the practices associated with reading, writing, and publishing, but also in the broader impact these practices have upon the transformation of ordinary life in politics, culture, and religion.
The volume under review represents a remarkable and, indeed, pathbreaking scholarly inquiry within this new field. What Adam Shear undertakes to do is to trace the cultural and intellectual history of one of the great classics of medieval Jewish thought, Judah Halevi’s Book of the Kuzari. He does so by focusing on its reception by Jews and Christians over nearly 750 years of translation, interpretation, commentary, criticism, and selective appropriation by individuals, groups, and even movements responsive to its teachings. However, his aim is not so much to chart the almost kaleidoscopic reconfigurations of ideas, arguments, images, and themes drawn from the Kuzari (though chart them he does and in considerable detail), but to clarify their use in creating and shaping new paradigms of Jewish identity over the centuries covered. In the Middle Ages, these range from the ideal of simple, yet intense, personal piety to that of the philosophically informed defender of tradition, and on to the kabbalistic master of sefirotic truths. They move on to the erudite and rhetorically skilled proponents of Hebrew humanism during the Renaissance, and then to the proudly Jewish, yet increasingly worldly and universalistic, modern rationalists of the Berlin Enlightenment, to the Wissenschaft des Judentums scholars able to study the Jewish past critically and in historical context, to the east European creators of a Hebraic Haskalah, and on to the “Lovers of Zion” and other Jewish nationalists, to name but a few. In sum, Shear presents us with what he calls the “biography” of a book, and the story he tells gives us a comprehensive history of its reception.
Early in the preface, he provides a helpful summary of the Kuzari’s contents and identifies what he understands to be its essential character. It is an anti-rationalist defense of rabbinic Judaism which addresses a variety of intellectual and religious challenges to both Jews and Judaism, not only in Halevi’s own day, but over the centuries. Here, the title under which the Kuzari first circulated, The Book of Refutation and Proof in Behalf of the Despised Religion, captures its thrust perfectly. His basic argument is that the publicly witnessed and widely acknowledged revelation of divine commands to Israel at Sinai constitutes the clearest and most direct statement possible of what is pleasing to God. The Jewish people, in turn, were able to receive, understand, and reliably transmit this divine instruction to subsequent generations only because they were religiously and culturally superior to all other peoples. Indeed, their wide-ranging wisdom traditions were indispensable in helping them to fulfill the commandments properly and to flourish once they had settled in the Promised Land. What they understood, for example, about differentiating one day from another by conceiving of time zones and an international dateline, their notion of a common global calendar, their insights into the physiological, psychological, sociopolitical, and religious dimensions of the sacrificial system, their command of Hebrew (the original language in which God spoke with humanity), as well as their knowledge of cosmology and zoology--all of these were preserved in the famous sciences of the rabbis. More to the point, the Jewish sage of the Kuzari readily introduces the Khazar king to these subjects in response to the latter’s queries and thereby creates an extraordinary connection between Halevi’s anti-rationalist defense of the Jewish faith and his high regard for his ancestors’ intellectual achievements. The links and tensions implied by that connection represent the subtext of much, if not most, of what Shear discloses about the book’s reception history.
His first concern is to show how the Kuzari came to be regarded as a classic wherever it was so received and disseminated. Here the focus is mainly on the image of the book and/or its author and the construction of their semi-canonical authority. In these discussions, Shear identifies and skillfully analyzes a wide array of evidence, ranging from the colophons of scribes to the designs and rhetoric that printers employ on title pages, from scholarly introductions to commentaries on and new translations of the work, to the booklists and library inventories that record its acquisition. He concludes that Judah Moscato’s encyclopedic, late sixteenth-century commentary on the Kuzari played the decisive role in establishing its “classic” status. Of equal, if not greater, importance is the use to which the book was put. This, of course, is bound up with what the reader or community of readers understood its message to be. Was it a specific thesis that could be discerned regardless of the dialogue’s shifting subject matter, or was it the book’s variegated content taken as a whole? Or was it perhaps a combination of both? Once these questions are answered as clearly as possible, the issue of how the Kuzari was used in constructing Jewish religious or cultural identity can then be addressed and hopefully resolved. Here again, Shear builds his case on an impressive array of evidence and examples, usually discussed in great detail.
His own underlying argument is that, over time, successive generations of readers clearly found enough within the Kuzari’s memorable summaries, affirmations, and analyses of Jewish teachings that they wished to use it in constructing and communicating their own paradigms of Jewish identity under quite different cultural circumstances. But to use the book convincingly, they had to engage in a dialectical process of working through the images of the Kuzari that they inherited from earlier generations and reconceptualizing both its message and at least some of its content so as to address the concerns of their own generation and others soon to follow. In tracing this process through the centuries, one of the most interesting conclusions that Shear reaches is that, while there were a few works that emphasized Halevi’s anti-rationalistic defense of Jewish faith and ethnocentric particularism to the virtual exclusion of Israel’s more universal intellectual and scientific traditions, most interpreters of the Kuzari tended to affirm the connection between them to a greater or lesser extent until the late nineteenth century. From that time forward and well into twentieth century, however, a pattern of dichotomization predominates in which Halevi is presented as the unequivocal spokesman for faith as opposed to reason and particularism as opposed to universalism, while Maimonides is assigned the opposite role. As a result, the extraordinary connection noted above is either passed over in silence or treated as incidental.
Among the many strengths of this fascinating study is Shear’s excellent introduction. In it, he provides useful background on reception theory and reader response criticism, examines contemporary scholarship on “the antiphilosphical Kuzari,” outlines his methodology and thesis, and explains clearly and concisely why he approaches the sources as he does. Each chapter, in turn, begins with a helpful précis, which contextualizes the discussion to follow by identifying key issues, raising important questions, or simply noting significant transitions. Each chapter also ends with a well-formulated summation that clarifies and integrates the main elements of what has just been discussed--surely a valuable service when the chapters are long, detailed, and disparate in content. The book’s greatest strength, in my view, is its ability to present both the “big picture” of the periods under discussion and the many factual details about events, personalities, and texts in a mutually illuminating way, while allowing for and sometimes also identifying alternate explanations.
Notwithstanding these important accomplishments, however, the book also contains a number of problems and weaknesses, which have important ramifications. Thus, while summarizing the ways in which the Kuzari affirms the superiority of Jews and Judaism before turning to its more universalistic emphases, Shear tells us that the work “proclaims the racial superiority of born Jews” (p. xiii). Later, he speaks of this as “an inherent biological (racial) superiority” and stresses the importance of “recognizing Halevi’s racism” as opposed to offering “apologetic justifications or rationalizations for Halevi’s ‘racialism’” (pp. 3, 7). He is correct, in general, about Halevi’s claims for Jewish superiority over non-Jews and, more specifically, about the separate species status of born Jews. Both claims are made early in the Kuzari. But race was then and still is most often associated with biological, i.e., physical, characteristics which cannot be changed. Shear is aware that this poses a serious logical problem because the literary framework and even the success of Halevi’s project is predicated on the conversion of the pagan Khazar king to Judaism, which racism would surely oppose and strive to discourage (p. 7). Yet apart from a footnote mentioning two secondary sources (p. 7, n. 30), he tells us nothing at all about what Halevi says elsewhere in the Kuzari to resolve the problem, much less what any of his interpreters say about those statements. The point here is not about apologetics and rationalizations, but understanding what the book ultimately says about the issue. In fact, both the superior status of the Jews and the king’s conversion are rooted in the soul, which can change in important ways, both in kind, i.e., species, and status, and in relation to which God-pleasing actions actually make all the difference.
Equally problematic is the translation Shear offers for one of the key concepts of the Kuzari: the ‘inyan elohī or amr al-ilāhī. In the preface, he states that all translations from the dialogue will be those of Hartwig Hirschfeld unless otherwise indicated (p. x, n. 10). Subsequently, however, he speaks about “the ‘divine substance’ (‘inyan ha-elohī) which inhabits the faithful and obedient Jew” and later still of “the ‘divine substance’ (ha-‘inyan ha-elohī)” being identified with prophecy according to the Provençal commentators (pp. 3, 92). In neither case is the translation from Hirschfeld. No explanation is given for it in the first instance, or even in the second, despite its reference to the Provençal commentators, since the Hebrew source noted uses the standard Hebrew terminology. Interestingly, employing the word “substance” goes a long way towards supporting the notion of a racial difference between Jews and others because substance is typically regarded as something physical. However, accepting this unexplained translation also creates a remarkable irony in both Halevi’s teaching and Shear’s presentation of it. That is because he correctly claims elsewhere that Halevi’s stance is anti-Aristotelian. Yet the very idea of “substance” and the meaning most commonly associated with it were not only conceived by Aristotle, but are among the most fundamental constituents of his philosophic outlook. To use the term in explaining what Ibn Tibbon meant by ha-‘inyan ha-elohī is not merely to borrow from one’s opponent, but to be engulfed by him in the process. In fact, the correct meaning of the term is discussed in a long article by Shlomo Pines (“Shiite Terms and Conceptions in Judah Halevi’s Kuzari,” 1980), included in Shear’s bibliography, but never mentioned or discussed in the text or notes. If the reason for this is the author’s concern with reception history alone, then much of the background he provides about Halevi and the original Kuzari in the preface and elsewhere, not to mention the relevant scholarship about both, would likewise be passed over in silence. Wisely, he discussed both and moved on. The same should apply to scholarship relating to key terms and concepts, even if it is confined to the notes.
At several points in his exposition, Shear also speaks of Halevi, the Kuzari, or its interpreters presenting fideistic arguments or expressing views supportive of or parallel to fideism (pp. x, 116, 117, 222). If these terms meant only that reason is inferior to faith or dependent upon it for at least a few basic truths, there would be nothing particularly problematic about their use in connection with the Kuzari. However, the terms have a history with a far more rigorous meaning. Fideism holds that the intellect is totally incapable of attaining knowledge of God and religious truths. It is only through faith, feeling, and mystical insight that one may know them. Accordingly, faith must precede reason because of the latter’s incompetence. This view goes well beyond what the Kuzari teaches, even when it valorizes faith and uses language associated with mystical experience. It would make the book’s original title, noted above, entirely misleading. More to the point, it would render the book’s argumentation concerning the reality, activity, character, attributes, and, in certain cases, names of God, based on empirical evidence and rational analysis, not only compromised, but essentially worthless. Obviously, this is not the author’s intention. All the more reason, then, to allow a better of choice words to match the correct intention.
Finally, Shear’s characterization of his work as the biography of a book should occasion reflection. Intuitively, it is a wonderful metaphor. It promises a life history of a worthy subject and its unfolding identity, which will take us through all or most of the different historical contexts and interactions with others that made it what it became. Such a work would undoubtedly tell about the subject’s many roles in life, its achievements, its failures, what it has contributed to others along the way, and perhaps much more. All of this naturally requires paying considerable attention to the perceptions and understanding of those who knew the subject best. However, it would be a curious biography, indeed, which also refrains from citing the public and, where relevant, private statements of its subject on those topics mentioned by others, especially if the subject addressed those topics more than once, but spoke about them differently over time. Shear is by no means culpable of such an egregious omission, but his conception of the project as a reception history prompts him to keep direct quotations from the Kuzari to a minimum (with the clearest exception on p. 100). While he is more generous with brief references to it in the text and footnotes, there are stretches that are either barren or uneven. The outcome, therefore, is less a biography of the Kuzari than an extraordinarily rich, well-researched, and well-written history of its reception, interpretation, and use.
In sum, Shear’s work effectively shows how the life and vitality implicit in Halevi’s argumentation and verbal artistry could generate a long afterlife for the Kuzari, which continues even today. Within the framework of its own subject matter, Shear’s innovative study will likely stimulate renewed interest in the Kuzari among scholars and students of Jewish cultural and intellectual history as well as historians of Jewish philosophy and theology. Within the broader framework of tracing the reception history of any great book and the dialectical relationship it can develop with its readers, Shear’s multifaceted approach can and should serve as a model of what can be achieved, for an even wider audience of thoughtful and attentive readers.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Barry Kogan. Review of Shear, Adam, The Kuzari and the Shaping of Jewish Identity, 1167-1900.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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