Yehuda Halevi’s “The Names of God,” notes on selections from his Kuzari
Yehuda (Judah) ben Samuel Halevi (ca.1075-1141): A Spanish Jewish philosopher, theologian, physician, and, most notably, poet of the early “High Middle Ages”—while educated in philosophy, he is perhaps predominately a poet (writing over 800 religious and secular poems) who turned to religious clarification and philosophical defense in large part due to the social and political upheaval in this period of Spanish history spawned by both Muslim and Christian attacks against the Jewish communities. Aristotle inspired his medical practice, and he was talented in logic and mathematics, but he also feared the mysteries of religion being corroded by the philosophical goals of truth as knowledge over belief as opinion (this led his thought to an almost Kierkegaardian view: faith requiring a ‘leap’ beyond reason). The socio-political climate also led to his use of dialogue (anonymous narrator) for his main work, Kuzari (originally: Book of Refutation and Proof on Behalf of the Despised Religion); he based the work upon the then-well-known historical account of the Khazar kingdom converting to Judaism four centuries prior, a conversion that was chosen through dialogue and decision amongst many competing religions, with Judaism being chosen for its unique grasp of the truth, yet also because the king had repeatedly dreamed the same dream of an angel appearing to him. Just as the style and form show a synthesis of rationalism and mysticism, the work’s philosophical themes echo this synthesis, stressing an ordering of being (a Neoplatonist tendency to hierarchy as well as an Aristotelian refinement of the Platonic soul creating a hierarchy of beings), proofs for God’s existence (employing mainly rational but some mystical features), delineations of spiritual exercise and his truth’s esoteric dimensions (predominately a Neoplatonist tendency), and arguments for creation and eternity (employing both Neoplatonist theories and a rational, systematic approach to their argument and sometimes against overly Neoplatonic mysticism).
Reading Guide Questions:
General Reflection (considering your own thoughts and/or textual ideas):
What does it mean to name something?
What does it mean to know something’s name?
How is naming knowing?
What are the different ways by which one can acquire knowledge of names?
What are the distinctions between the faithful and philosophers?
What are the rational dimensions of Halevi’s project? (e.g., the logical, technical, analytic, etc. aspects)
What are the affective dimensions of Halevi’s project? (e.g., the sensible, emotive, passional, etc. aspects)
What do you make of the “seed” idea he ends on?
Notes On and Beyond the Text:
Our reading comes from his Kitab al Khazari, The Book of the Khazars, which is most often called just Kuzari, to which he gave the subtitle The Book of Refutation and Proof on Behalf of the Most Despised Religion. The Kuzari is a dialogue between a rabbi (not specifically representing Halevi on a literary level, although I will refer to this position as his below) and a pagan (representing the historic king of the Khazars who had invited a rabbi to instruct him on Judaism, but the dialogue is not a historical record of that conversation, although it may have been in its spirit) in five parts (our selection comes from part four; the full part has 31 sections, and our selection shows the section numbers from which it was drawn); it was originally written in Arabic, and then soon after translated into Hebrew.
The main themes to pay close attention to throughout: Knowing/Naming; Esotericism; and the Mystical (will be discussed, below).
§1: In a style very common for middle medieval Jewish philosophy, Halevi begins with by working with language. While written in Arabic, this beginning is discussing the meaning of the Hebrew terms Elohim, Eloah, and the Tetragrammaton, which literally means “four letters” and demarcates the proper name of God—our translation transliterates the four Hebrew letters ‘Yod, He, Waw, He,’ which we usually transcribe as YHWH or Yahweh (Jewish tradition is to not pronounce the name itself, out loud or to one’s self, nor even the transliteration ‘Yahweh;’ Christians typically transcribe and pronounce it as Jehovah).
Elohim is a grammatically plural noun meaning both deity and gods. Its grammatical singular form is Eloah, which means god (typically a god, not the God). There is a tradition of using the plural form (Elohim) even when speaking of a monotheistic single God that plays with the plural-singular ambiguity of the word, hence offering a meaning like “God of gods.” Halevi’s first paragraph in our selection is discussing this term, and he then designates it as a name of God (which our translation writes in brackets as “God”) that is distinct from the “exact expression and characterization” that is the “sublime name” of Yahweh (which our translation writes in brackets as “Lord”) (§1, p.443).
The Khazari then asks: “How can I indicate a being I am not able to characterize, but can only infer from his actions?” (§1, p.444).
While the Rabbi quickly disagrees, pause here to consider his question.
“… indicate a being …”
We immediately understand this to be asking how can I name something?, but think about the choice of the term “indicate” … this suggests more a pointing out or showing (the red lines indicate where to walk; the big hand indicates the hour), but also a sign (a fever indicates a cold), a suggested course (the results indicated a round of antibiotics), an admittance (her shrug indicated her willingness to take them) … although, taking this further, the Latin from which our word “indicate” comes is indicare, which etymologically is formed by in- (toward) + -dicare (make known). Consider all these meanings to be wrapped up in this question … the Khazari is not just asking how to indicate a being in the sense of how can I name something, but also how can I point to (the meaning of) something, which means there is something that can have meaning, mean a variety of things including having values and consequences … through a name, we come to know and can make known a thing.
“… I am not able to characterize …”
If I characterize my dog as small, black and white, with one floppy ear, slightly cross-eyed, a rescued stray, part terrier and part chihuahua, crazy, sweet, loves company, hates squirrels, is indecisive about rabbits, knows the names of his toys, very loyal, etc., I am describing his distinctive features and nature (attributes and essence), by which you can come to know him, even if you never meet him. Notice that these characterizations include the material attributes (small) as well as the intelligible (loyal), and by knowing these traits, you know more than only these (e.g., by knowing that he knows the names of his toys, you know that he has toys and cognitive gifts (hence, more material and intelligible attributes), and you can reasonably infer that he is playful, he gets played with (hence, more about his nature and about his intersubjective world)).
Now … think about the quote’s assertion that one cannot characterize “a being” that we know to be ‘indicating’ God. So … one cannot describe the material or intelligible attributes of God, one cannot describe His essence, one cannot then thereby describe (directly or indirectly) His world and relations in and to it … If one cannot describe anything like this, one can neither know nor name it (for, if I could know it, I could say what I know; if I could name it, that name would denote something about it, even if only it was such a thing that could have a name).
“… but can only infer from his actions …”
However … the Khazari quickly qualifies the last fragment to affirm that the ‘being’ can be ‘indicated’ by ‘inference’ from His ‘actions.’
Inference: to logically derive conclusions from known premises. While he does not clarify what types of inferences he means, typically, inferences are divided into two main types, which help to illustrate the general range of what he could mean:
Inductive Inference: a probable conclusion drawn (from the bottom up) from premises, e.g., my cats like to lie in the sun, so, it is probably true that the sun feels good to them, that sunshine is a healthy part of cat life, and that other animals could benefit from lying in the sun … that is: if A is true, then B, C, and D are probably true (work from a premise that is typically a particular instantiation up to conclusions that are more general).
Deductive Inference: a certain conclusion drawn (from the top down) from premises, e.g., all cats are felines, the cat on my lap, King Henry’s cat, and the cat that will be born next year are all felines … that is: A is true, therefore B, C, and D are true (work from a premise that is a general truth down to necessary logically following conclusions).
So … we could safely say that the Khazari is asserting that God can be indicated by conclusions more or less certainly known that are drawn from premises more or less certainly known from God’s actions. Presumably, these premises would include God’s creation and governance of the universe, e.g., if God created the world, then people and butterflies are created (to be really strict and not use characterization, we would not go on to induce that God is a creator, for this would name both an attribute and essence); God created the heavens, the stars are heavenly bodies, thus the stars are created by God; etc.