Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Kuzari

Physical and Spiritual Vision in the Kuzari

"I am a harp for thy songs" – "Ode to Zion" by Judah Halevi

            Provoked by opposition from philosophers, different religions, and dissenters from the faith, Judah Halevi assumed the daunting responsibility of defending Judaism.  His apology, shaped into a dialogue, grapples with intrinsic religious difficulties while simultaneously demonstrating the simplicity of the task.  This is not to say that the effort invested in the apology is minimal, but that its ultimate expression is as basic as experience, and as familiar as sense perception.  The aparent incongruity of Halevi's enterprise, that it is at the same time extraordinarily difficult and astonishingly easy, finds expression throughout the Kuzari.
            For example, the original title, The Book of Refutation and Proof on Behalf of the Despised Religion, laments the arduousness of the road ahead, whereas early on the Khazar’s dream proclaims its simplicity.  Halevi’s work attests to the fact that reason and logic alone stand no chance against their awful offspring, the great enemy philosophy, but testimony and personal experience suffice only when combined with proper mental preparation.  In other words, the Kuzari, in reaction to philosophy, aims at establishing a genuine relationship between human reason and divine revelation.
            In no way is this objective better portrayed in the Kuzari than through Halevi’s descriptions of vision.  The dialogue between the physical and the spiritual eye, mirroring in many instances the dialogue between the Khazar and the Sage, underscores the apologetic nature of the Kuzari and magnifies the bond between reason and revelation.  Indeed, sight unifies the two ostensibly disparate worlds in such a way that the physical eye, as a symbol of reason, learns to follow what at first only the spiritual eye, or revelation, can see.  Both eyes are needed for vision in depth, just as both reason and revelation are required for an effective defense of religion, but the spiritual eye must guide and direct the physical eye.                            
            Even with both eyes clearly in focus, vision can hardly penetrate the surface of religion on behalf of someone else: the Sage cannot give his sight to the Khazar; he can only persuade the Khazar to obtain that view for himself.  The same impenetrability applies to any religion, but Halevi seeks out the angles that are particular to Judaism, and those which the Khazar must eventually encounter.  Perhaps the most difficult angle of Halevi's defense is that he focuses on observable historical facts and traditions at the expense of personal testimony.  Thus, the physical eye, the eye of reason, looks beyond the spiritual eye.  Nevertheless, this exercise in looking prepares the Khazar for the time when will truly be able to see for himself.       
            Halevi incorporates optical symbolism as a part of a longstanding philosophical and mystical tradition.  Drawing from the sources of the Sufis and the Sages, such as Ibn Ezra, he transforms the eye from an intellectual to a spiritual symbol.  For Halevi, the inner eye is separate from the intellect although not completely unrelated.  In fact, one might say that the intellect is in the likeness of the inner, spiritual eye, and that the physical eye is a material manifestation of both.  That which the outer, bodily eye sees sensibly and passively the intellect sees symbolically and actively, and the inner, spiritual eye sees wholly or essentially.  Thus, spiritual vision is the most important way of seeing, but it operates in conjunction with the mind and the body.  To see with the inner eye is to know on the deepest level, but this vision does not occur unassisted by lesser forms of knowledge.  Halevi adopts optical symbolism for two main reasons: first, because vision is the most fundamental source of knowledge, and second, because seeing best simulates the process of comprehending the reality of God.  Of course, Halevi's argument weighs heavily on the sense of taste as well, but the effects of experiencing God finally tend toward syncretism.
            The mission of the Sage in the Kuzari, one who has experienced God, is to present concrete evidences for the veracity of Judaism in the form of a personal witness or testimony.  In short, he must teach the Khazar to see spiritually.  Luckily for the Sage, most evidences communicate themselves, and his personal experience is real, but the Khazar is not immediately convinced.  Even by the end of the book, the Khazar's faith rests on the decision of the Sage to return to Israel.  All of the facts, history, traditions and experiences, although perfectly clear in the Sage's inner eye, are but a faint blur in the inner eye of the Khazar.  This does not detract from the reality of the Sage's lifestyle; rather, it illustrates the process of conversion, the opening of the inner eye, in the Khazar.  Elliot Wolfson, in his study of visionary experience in the Kuzari, describes the authenticity of such an experience:
The implication of Halevi's rejection of the standard philosophic view is that from the Jewish perspective, as he presents it, the object of prophecy is a real objective entity, albeit spiritual in nature, that is apprehended by the individual.  The content of prophecy does not result from the prophet's intellectual conjunction with the Active Intellect as mediated through his imaginative faculty; it is, rather, an objectively verifiable datum, although the means of verification may exceed the bounds of the normal processes of sense or intellection.  For Halevi, that is, prophecy is more than a mere psychological state; it entails the same presumption of veridicality as normal sense experience, but in the case of prophecy the objective correlate of the vision is a spiritual form that, in the prophetic state, becomes tangible.  Indeed, for Halevi, the fundamental paradox of prophetic revelation, that which the believing Jew cannot explain but must accept, is predicated on the fact that in the moment of prophecy the spiritual, incorporeal intention of God becomes tangible in both a visible and audible form known scripturally as the God of Israel.[i]

This visible and audible form is exactly the form that the Sage would like to show to the Khazar, but such a vision depends upon the ability of the Khazar to open his inner eye.  The Sage cannot cause sight to happen in the Khazar's soul, but he can show by example how and why to open the inner eye.
            But how is the Sage's example most effective?  To demonstrate the power of example in teaching, Halevi employs another symbol in connection with the symbol of the eye.  A good example is comparable to one with transparency of soul.  In other words, the soul becomes a conduit of the light that illuminates spiritual vision.  Rather than roughly prying open the inner eye, the Sage channels light toward the Khazar, who already desires to open his inner eye.  Purity of soul affects both the one conducting the light and the one receiving it.  The Khazar's ability to understand derives in part from his own transparency of soul:
Your statement is certainly persuasive, but it's not in keeping with my request because I know by myself that I am pure [in my] soul and direct [my] actions toward pleasing the Lord.[ii]

The Khazar's surety of his purity springs from the dream that prompted him to seek out the true religion.  Thus, with the help of God, he has already begun to open his spiritual eye.  He has begun to know profoundly, beyond mere intellection.  The Sage arrives on the scene at a convenient moment because the Khazar's spiritual eye already shows a significant aperture.  For those tucked safely under Judaism's wing, the Kuzari might serve the same purpose, that is, to help open further or to keep open the spiritual eye of believing Jews.  The primary targets of the Kuzari, as suggested by the dialogue between the Sage and the Khazar, are faithful Jews, and not the philosophers, dissenters or proponents of different religions.  The conversion of these latter groups, like bright morning light barraging the eyelid of a closed spiritual eye, was only a secondary purpose.
            But with Judaism sprouting so quickly before his spiritual eye, the Khazar naturally reverts to his old method of seeing in order to augment his vision.  His dream spurs him forward, but the Khazar is used to only one way of knowing, one way of seeing: by reason or the physical eye.  Reason eventually leads him to investigate Judaism, but he soon finds that the physical eye is easily distracted.  The purpose of the initial dream was not to open the spiritual eye of the Khazar and then immediately afterward to watch it close.  Despite his continued reliance upon reason, the Khazar recognizes his folly:
You have actually confirmed my opinion about both what I believed and what I saw in my dream – that man does not arrive at the divine order {except by means of a divine order}, I mean, through actions that God ordains.[iii]

Thus God, with the Sage as a transparent instrument, opens the Khazar's spiritual eye and causes light to be shed upon it.  God is both the source and the object of vision.  He gives power to open the eye, and light to make it see.
            With the realization of his mistake, the Khazar begins to study Torah.  Reason or the physical eye follows the path that revelation or the spiritual eye has blazed.  But why does it follow?  Is it not enough to see with the spiritual eye?  The Sage asks the Khazar rhetorically: "Well, isn't the light of insight keener and nobler than the light of eyesight?"[iv]  Earlier he had explained that vision with the spiritual eye, although superior, is in some way predicated upon vision with the physical eye:
Consequently, when something is properly ordered and disposed to receive its governance, it does not withhold it nor is it prevented from pouring forth light, wisdom, and inspiration upon that thing.  But when its order has been disturbed, it does not receive that light, and so its corruption ensues.  [By contrast] the divine order is far beyond [the possibility of] weariness or disturbance overtaking it.[v]

When the physical eye is modeled after the pattern of the spiritual eye, the soul is ready to receive light in proportion to its preparation.  Reason, molded by revelation, receives more revelation.
            In her book Between Mysticism and Philosophy, Diana Lobel elaborates upon the symbol of the inner eye, borrowed from Arabic philosophy, as it relates to direct religious experience.  Lobel explains why vision dominates the hierarchy of sense perception:
Vision, too, shares this characteristic; whereas a person can hear a report second hand, one cannot see an ex\vent through another person's eyes.
Halevi realizes, however, that unlike taste, vision can have a collective as well as an individual dimension: many people together can witness the same event.  In fact, the most rigorous evidence is the corroborating testimony of several eye-witnesses; collective visual testimony (shahada) can be mutually reinforcing.[vi]

The strength of Halevi's defense of Judaism rests as much on the collective testimony of the children of Israel at Mount Sinai as it does on the testimony of each individual Jew.  As Lobel later indicates, Halevi's testimony appears to waver at this point because he adopts a philosophical method to defend Judaism against philosophy.  Herein lays the paradox of Halevi's defense, as well as the tension between complexity and simplicity, between reason and revelation, between the physical and the spiritual eye.  Nevertheless, the paradox is resolved when it becomes clear that the philosophical method adopted to defend religion is itself a product of revelation.  Simply, God inspires man with testimony and personal religious experience, but He also inspires man with the intellectual tools needed to defend that religious experience.  God opens the spiritual eye with revelation, and he reveals how to keep it open or how to open it further.
            Like earlier philosophers, Halevi maintains that even physical vision ultimately takes place inside of the soul.  But Halevi criticizes the philosophers for their lack of spiritual vision.  Lobel notes:
Ha-Levi asserts that ordinary human beings, including philosophers, are blind to the divine world, while prophets witness the divine world with their inner eye (IV:3:155); that demonstration leads astray and cannot give reliable knowledge of God, while God can be pointed to directly in prophetic mushahada (IV:3:148).  He assumes that once Abraham has directly experienced God in mushahada he would scoff at the way of qiyas, the path by which he had previously sought to know the Divine (IV:17:169).[vii]

Reliable knowledge of God comes only through the inner, spiritual eye, through testimony or direct experience.  The challenge of the Kuzari, and the defense of religion in general, is to communicate that testimony in a way that stimulates rather than shocks the spiritual eye.
But there is another aspect of the spiritual eye that Halevi must approach more carefully.  The relationship between the Sage and the Khazar foreshadows the relationship between God and man.  The Sage and the Khazar, like God and man, are similar.  The Sage is wiser than the Khazar, and God is infinitely wiser than man.  The communication between the Sage and the Khazar depends in large degree upon their similarity.  Halevi chooses the form of a dialogue between two people, who, although separated by wisdom and experience, are nevertheless united by testimony and desire.  The Sage and the Khazar both direct their spiritual eye toward the same objective, but the Khazar has just begun to see that which the Sage has seen all along.
Does Halevi border on blasphemy?  Is it wrong to compare God to a man?  The Sage explains:
Therefore, comparing a human being to the Creator should not trouble you, when, from the point of view of the intellect, one compares Him in the first place to light because it is the noblest and most refined of the objects of sense perception as well as the most powerful [of them], when it comes to embracing and including the [different] parts of the world.
Now, when he has thought about the various attributes that must be used [either] metaphorically or literally [with respect to God], such as "living," "knowing," "powerful," "willing," "governing," "arranging," "giving everything its due," "decreeing," and "being just," he does not find anything in our experience more like Him than the rational soul, that is, the perfect human being.[viii]

Plainly stated, the ability of man to communicate with God is rooted in man's closeness or similarity to God.  The greater the similarity, the greater the vision.  The Sage expounds:
Just as the faculties of sensation perceive only through becoming like what is sensible, so too, the faculties of intellectual understanding perceive only through becoming like what is intelligible by abstracting the form from the matter [in which it inheres] and becoming attached to it, except that the sense faculty does not act at will, as the rational [faculty] does.[ix]

Therefore, the crux of Halevi's defense of Judaism rests on man's ability to become like God, thus to see Him, with the spiritual eye, as He really is.  But of course, the ability to become like the divine order springs from the divine order itself.     

Works Cited and Consulted

Chidester, David. “Word and Light: Seeing, Hearing, and Religious Discourse.”
Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Judah Halevi. The Kuzari. Trans. Barry S. Kogan and Lawrence V. Berman. To be
published by Yale University Press, New Haven.

- - - . “Ode To Zion”.

Lobel, Diana. Between Mysticism and Philosophy.  “The Language of Perception.”
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000

Strauss, Leo. “The Law of Reason in the Kuzari.” Paajr (proceedings of the American
Academy for Jewish research), vol. 13, 1943. pp. 47-96.

Wolfson, Elliot Reuben. Through a Speculum that shines. Princeton, N.J., Princeton
University press, 1994.

[i] Wolfson, pp. 165
Kuzari, Treatise 1:2[ii]
Kuzari, Treatise 1:98[iii]
Kuzari, Treatise 2:54[iv]
Kuzari, Treatise 2:26[v]
Lobel, pp. 92[vi]
Lobel, pp. 106[vii]
Kuzari Treatise 4:3[viii]
Kuzari Treatise 5:12[ix]