Skip to main content

God's Call to Man

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg


R. Yehuda HaLevi was born in the second half of the 11th century in Moslem Spain and spent most of his life traveling around both Moslem and Christian Spain, in contact with the leading intellectuals of his time. Deeply involved in the Iberio-Judaic culture of his time, he is considered to be one of the finest poets in Jewish literature, both for his secular and religious poetry. Towards the end of his life, he left Spain in order go to the Land of Israel, to the amazement and consternation of his friends. It is not known for certain if he ever arrived, but legend recounts that he reached Jerusalem and was killed by a passing horseman as he knelt to kiss the stones.

His philosophic masterpiece, The Kuzari, is loosely based on the historical episode of the conversion to Judaism of the King of the Khazars in the Middle Ages. The book begins with a recurring dream of the king, in which an angel tells him that his intentions are acceptable to God, but not his actions. He then initiates a confrontation between the major contending ideologies of his day - inviting representatives of Islam, Christianity, and philosophy. Sympathetic to the philosopher, he elicits from the religious representatives the admission that their beliefs are based on Judaism. He then invites a Jewish sage. The rest of the book consists of a dialogue between the sage and the king.

Sharply critical of Aristotelian philosophy, R. Yehuda HaLevi argues that immediate religious experience is superior to deductive reasoning. Prophecy, the highest stage of this experience, does not teach eternal truths so much as it propounds a way of life which leads to religious experience. The book has been highly influential throughout the ages, and is today seen as one of the foundations of Jewish thought.

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg teaches Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew University and at the Herzog Teacher’s College of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and lectures widely on Jewish thought and modern Judaism. In this course, he makes use of the philosophy of the Kuzari to examine major issues in modern life. The course is not so much a presentation of the philosophy of R. Yehuda HaLevi as an application of basic Jewish values and categories to a host of issues which face any Jew in the modern world.

The Kuzari is available in English translation, for those who wish to follow the text along with these lectures. It is not, however, necessary to do so.

We hope you enjoy this set of lectures by Prof. Rosenberg, based on the Kuzari of R. Yehuda HaLevi . - The VBM Staff



Difficult Beginnings:


     You have just finished writing a composition, a short story, a scientific article or a philosophical work.  And yet, your greatest creative challenge remains before you.  How to begin?


     How to begin?  How can you succeed in transporting your reader from his own reality, and entice him into this new world that is of your making?


     This question, the plague of every writer, arises in areas far beyond the sphere of the pen and quill.  The enigma of beginnings appears during any attempt to effect a profound change of direction.  How can we break the chain of everyday experience and begin afresh?


     You long for someone to open his door to your new ideas.  What course should you take?  Should you ring the doorbell, or knock?  Bashfully or boldly?  And is there indeed only one correct approach, or are there many ways to begin?  How must man approach his listeners?  And how does God approach man?


     Once upon a time, a righteous and upright man heard a knock at his door.  The visitor was a heavenly angel.  A messenger of God appeared to the king of the Khazars in a dream, and endeavored to change his life.  The door remained unopened.  And yet the angel knocked again and again, until his approach was acknowledged.


"This king...dreamed one dream repeatedly.  In his dream he beheld an angel speaking to him and saying:  'Your intention is acceptable to the Lord, however your behavior is not acceptable to Him.' ...This caused the king of the Khazars to search and explore religion and philosophy, and finally he converted to Judaism along with many of his subjects." (Kuzari, Chapter 1, Introduction)


Gateways to God:


     What is the significance of a dream?  Certainly, a dream can be viewed as a miraculous beginning.  God, in His benevolence, opened the door for this righteous man, opened the path to a relationship with the spiritual.


     The Talmud (Berakhot 57a) tells us that a dream is one-sixtieth of  prophecy.  It confronts man with the spiritual mysteries that float beyond his reach.  Through the prophetic dream, God approaches man.  An appropriate beginning indeed, to a relationship with the divine:  Man's religious faith is awakened through a supernatural extraordinary experience, which summons him into another world.


     This, then, is our first lesson from the Kuzari.  And this conception of God's relations with man does in fact tally with the other components of Rav Yehuda Halevi's philosophical methodology, as we will yet discover.


     Our discussion of beginnings requires that we move past the issue of the dream and its significance, to address a larger existential question:  What is the starting point, the original impetus, for man's search for God?  As we consider this theme, we will probe the depths of the king's dream and its implications, beyond the specific instance which it describes.


     A prophetic dream is indeed an invitation from the Divine, a spiritual beginning initiated from above.  However, it is not the only option.  The familiar midrashic tale tells of Abraham, who beheld an illuminated castle and concluded that the castle must have a proprietor.  God's prophetic communication with Abraham stemmed from Abraham's previous religious inquiry.  There are turning points whose sources lie within man, stirrings from below which precede the divine call from above.


     And yet, perhaps Abraham had previously received a divine hint or call, which constituted the impetus for his spiritual quest.  God can speak to man without the aid of dreams.  He speaks to you, who have never heard God's word in your sleep.


     The prophetic dream is only one of the divine hints.  Other hints of Godliness abound.  These hints compose a central theme in the writings of Rav Y. D. Soloveitchik, most particularly in his important work, "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham."  The hints mark the numerous gateways to God and spirituality.  Just as people's faces differ, so do their personalities and philosophical perspectives.  Each individual must therefore discover his own personal gateway to God.  One gate opens with a supernatural, miraculous key, and the dream of the Kuzari is a case in point.  In contrast, Rav Soloveitchik describes other, more "natural" experiences, whose sources well up inside man - a stirring from within.


     Let us examine one such hint, one which cannot be described as a positive experience.  It is rather a result of and response to a negative state:


"Man is tired and weary, dissatisfied with his life and accomplishments.  He wanders aimlessly along the pathways of existence.  That which he most ardently desires, eludes him, and yet his failure does not prevent him from persistently groping after what he can never achieve.  This "thing" gives him no rest, aggravates his nerves, pulls him with enormous strength.  What is the essence of this desire?  It is none other than the yearning for God.  What is the mysterious thing that escapes man again and again?  It is the connection to God, his ultimate source.  Through man's frustration and yearning, God is revealed." (U-vikkashtem Mi-sham, p. 131)


     In other words, man is driven by an internal force which requires that he deviate from the mundane and search for something beyond the ordinary.  We experience this force through the negative phenomenon of frustration with mundane daily life, a feeling common to all people to some extent.  However, this experience can be termed a "negative" phenomenon only to the extent that hunger for bread and thirst for water are "negative."  This is a thirst for something that daily life cannot provide.  In the Selichot (penitential prayers) we speak of ourselves as "hungry for Your goodness, thirsty for Your benevolence, desirous of Your salvation."  Here, we have reached a deeper level.  We are hungry for God's word, thirsty for meaning, desirous of answers to the ultimate questions of existence.  The frustration and discomfort that we experience as we move from stage to stage in our search, exist because what we are searching for is an encounter with God.


     At times, we find ourselves caught in a trap.  In the words of A. J. Heschel, we are like a small child who cries and does not know why, and refuses to accept the very thing that would dry his tears.  Sometimes the hunger and thirst disturb us, and yet we are unaware of the fact. Water cannot relieve us.  This thirst can only be quenched by God's word.


     Rav Soloveitchik does not offer us a miraculous response or an angel from heaven, but he does teach us that another angel exists within each one of us.  The call of the angel to the Kuzari is actually the call that wells up inside all of us.  We need only listen.  Our negative feelings are, at times, a blessing, just as hunger, thirst and pain can be blessings.  Woe unto the person who senses no pain, or who experiences it too late.


     Spirituality can quench our thirst.  However, these divine waters cannot replace the fulfillment of man's basic needs.  The greatest sin of Europe in the Middle Ages was the use of religion to conceal the poverty and misery of the masses.  Instead of attempting to change and perfect the world, that society contented itself with soul salvation.  The church joined forces with the royalty and gentry, robbing and trampling the masses.  The focal message of the Bible is that the thirst for God cannot soothe the other, more basic thirst for water.  Man's basic needs must be fulfilled.  Nevertheless, we must always remember that there are needs beyond food and water, and that the satisfaction of mere physical needs will not grant man the happiness he seeks.  We are faced with desires that transcend the physical, hunger and thirst not for bread and water, but for the word of God.


An Ultimate Yardstick - The Search for Objective Truth:


     The Kuzari wanders through an existential "marketplace."  Each stall offers the buyer a different point of view.  The Kuzari searches the market for an opinion to call his own.  What force compels man to approach the marketplace, to desert his daily life, leave his immediate pursuits behind?  What force compels us to ask life's ultimate questions, and thus to immerse ourselves in the problem of faith and religion?


     The ultimate existential questions confront man when, looking afresh at his own religious convictions, he wonders if they constitute the key to objective truth.  It is possible to be absolutely sincere in one's religious sentiments, and yet be uncertain of their objective value.


     Let me explain this idea with the aid of a parable:  A man enters a town in which each and every store has its own weights and measures, its own yardstick.  The obvious question rises to the stranger's lips:  Is there no common yardstick to measure all these different yardsticks?  The Kuzari worshipped his God according to his own "scale."  His intention was acceptable: he did not cheat, he was scrupulous in his measurements.  And yet the glaring question remains:  Is this the ultimate true yardstick?  What is the objective standard?  It seems that the search for God is actually the search for objective truth.


     Do you remember the story of the Little Prince?  Traveling from one planet to the next, he investigated and probed the various lifestyles that he discovered.  Each planet presented a microcosmic "human ideal."  The Little Prince, like all of us, young and old alike, visits the existential marketplace, where every opinion and ideology spreads its wares.  The stalls come together to form a cosmic fair.  And where, among all those glittering offerings, does the truth hide?  What is the objective yardstick?


     This is the meaning of the Kuzari's dream.  It is a divine call to the king, to abandon his safe dwelling-place, and venture into the marketplace of ideas.


Fit for a King - The Spiritual Need:


     Now let us return to one of the basic ideas touched upon at the outset of our discussion.  We must not overlook the intriguing fact that our protagonist is a king.  In fact, the image of the king in search of spiritual meaning is hauntingly familiar.  The Biblical Kohelet (Ecclesiates) comes to mind immediately.  The recurrent theme of the monarch deliberating the meaning of life is no coincidence, and it can in fact teach us something essential about the search for faith and meaning.


     People suffer from hunger or lovelessness.  We suffer from illness and physical pain.  Religious commitment must never use those human miseries as its foundation.  Many anti-religious thinkers have dismissed religion as a mere crutch, whose sole purpose is to comfort man in his weakness when he is overcome by life's trials.  The Kuzari teaches us that the opposite is true.  Beneath and beyond all those needs, a separate desire exists: man's desire for God, his thirst for spirituality.


     Imagine that you have suddenly become king.  You are rich beyond measure, no comfort is beyond your reach.  It would seem that your troubles are over.  All your problems are solved, all your needs fulfilled.  Kohelet and the Kuzari remind us that riches will not wash away existential pain and suffering.  The opulent monarch is lonely.  He searches for something that floats beyond the void which he has filled.  He searches for God.  The king's misery exceeds that of the working man.  He cannot even lose his pain in the sleep of the weary laborer.  His need is intense, constant, unrelieved.


     When speaking of spiritual inquiry, we must understand that the search for spirituality does not cancel the pursuit of other quests.  Faith, as Judaism perceives it, is not the ally of empirical rulers; it does not substitute life in this world with visions of the world to come, and refuses to leave control of this world in the hands of the oppressor.  Judaism promises salvation, but first and foremost it upholds the dream of redemption, the vision of changing the world.


     To explain the Jewish perception of religion, we must find an appropriate model.  Perhaps the most fitting model for the religious experience is the experience of love.  The comparison between religion and love has much to teach us.


     Love can be viewed as the fulfillment of a need.  However, it can be seen from the opposite perspective as well.  Love was not created to fulfill a need.  Rather, the need itself was brought into existence to compel man to discover the love experience.  Let us examine a more mundane example.  We cannot say that eating exists in order to satiate hunger.  A deeper look will clarify that we must thank God for the sensation of hunger, because it alone guarantees our survival.  To use the words of Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loewe of Prague, 16th Century):  There is a cause behind the cause.  We must discover the need behind the need.


     A desire for spirituality is planted deep within each and every one of us.  The drive toward spiritual involvement exists as an independent human need.  We may attempt to quell this desire through other means, but without ultimate success.  Let me give you a revealing, if facetious example.  If a person who is experiencing some sort of emotional difficulty, attempts to dispel his frustration by eating chocolate, we all know that his real problem is not hunger!  Religious striving is a real need, an independent existential desire.  Of course, this need interacts with man's other emotions, but the spiritual quest exists regardless of one's other needs and desires.


     Religion compels us to ask life's ultimate existential questions.  Often, man finds himself pursuing goal after goal, without a spare moment to ask himself why.  Each limited goal is motivated by another goal or desire, and man is thus effectively prevented from facing the question of his ultimate spiritual aims.  This reality is a natural human condition, but it is aided and propelled by philosophies built upon the here and now, and by the hidden thesis of triviality proposed by certain elements of modern theater.  The unstated purpose of these movements is to suffocate the ultimate questions.  The search for satisfaction in the here and now is part of the chocolate that man must swallow if he would escape from life's ultimate questions.


     And yet, in the end, the questions will not be silenced.  This hope and belief is expressed most eloquently by Rav Kook in "Orot HaEmuna" (p.5):


"The idol worshipper lives in fear of the encompassing belief in God, because of the intense spiritual quality of its perception...he is afraid of being swallowed up and consumed in the endless fiery tide, and so he hides among the rocks of material desires, of passing time and hilarity, of all of life's involvements, both necessary and unnecessary, in his desire to conceal himself from the glaring light of Godly elevation which blinds him.  But all his efforts are of no avail.  The light fills every corner, it penetrates the depths, enters his very soul and demands that he adapt to its brightness, that he behold the pleasantness of God and visit His dwelling place."


This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.

Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.


This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!