Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Persecution and the Art of Writing Pt V - The Literary Form of the Kuzari

(continued from here)

After a short appetizer of a discussion on the relationship between Rational Laws and Revealed Laws, Strauss begins the analysis of the literary character of the Kuzari. So first let's review the basic form of this book.

We start out with haLevi setting the stage by saying that he will relate to us the story of the conversion of the Khazars. In this story, the pagan king is visited by an angel who tells him that while his "intentions" are pleasing to God, his "actions" are not. This introduces the rest of the work which is a series of conversations between the king and first a philosopher, then a Christian, a Muslim and a Jewish scholar. In the end, the King is convinced that Judaism is the religion that his people should accept.

The first question that Strauss poses is - why did haLevi choose this literary form to write his work? He clearly did this intentionally and he must have thought that this is the most powerful defense of Judaism. Obviously, showing the superiority of Judaism to other Jews would not have been very dramatic. Arguing for it in front of Muslims and Christians would also not be as hard since they both already accept the Divine origin of Judaism, but having a Jewish scholar convince a pagan, and not just any pagan, but a king, of the superiority of Judaism, is quite a feat! Given that this is a retelling of actual historical events, it would really demonstrate how powerful these arguments must be - right?

Or will it? Strauss brings up the counter-argument that in many ways this is a slam dunk for the Jewish scholar. First of all, the king is no match for the scholar in terms of rhetorical skill or knowledge of the subject matter, and secondly, the king has already decided that it is preferable that he should become an adherent of one of the Revealed religions. The king is easy prey.

Strauss points out at the outset that although haLevi engages in a form of Jewish Kalam, meaning, he uses rational arguments to advance the foundations of Jewish theology, he believes that such arguments are inferior to the revealed nature of Judaism. However he will use such arguments since his main intellectual adversaries in this work are not the Muslims, Christians or pagans, but philosophers. And it is at this point that Strauss asks a critical question. At no point is there a disputation between the philosopher and the Jewish scholar in front of the king. Surely, this would have been the real coup de grace? It seems from the historical evidence that the real debates in the conversion of the Khazars were not structured the way that haLevi presents them. They were set up as disputations before the king, and there was no philosopher present, just the representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths. So why does haLevi set up a fictional situation and yet refuse to put the nail in the coffin of the philosopher?

According to Strauss, haLevi omits any explicit arguments for philosophy because he believed that a true philosopher would never be able to accept the notion of Divine revelation and so was impossible to "convert" to the other side. He felt that being able to accept the notion of "revealed wisdom" was an inherent trait of some people, and philosophers by their natures were incapable of such an understanding. But this in itself would not preclude haLevi in setting up a confrontation between the Jew and the philosopher. The philosopher would have to admit, a la Stephen Jay Gould, that philosophy and religion occupy separate magisteria, and he would have to admit incompetence in the matters of a revealed religion. So why the silence?

Strauss hypothesizes that haLevi was so burned, so traumatized by his, most likely short time spent as a philosopher, that he refused to even give the philosopher any type of voice, because even though haLevi felt that he could provide convincing counter arguments, perhaps some of his readers would not be swayed by them, or perhaps, his readers would be tempted to learn more about the points of the philosopher and go down the path to apostasy. Even when the Jew rehashes the philosopher's positions in the most basic and unappealing way for the king as part of his conversation, the king is impressed enough by even that summary to the point that the Jew needs to go back and straighten him out again. HaLevi felt that he could not take this risk with his audience as well.


Blogger Shoshana said...

That's kind of a scary thing to hear. Or maybe disappointing would be a better word.

November 28, 2007 4:18 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Shoshana, can you elaborate?

November 28, 2007 6:01 AM  
Blogger Shoshana said...

Yes, I suppose I wasn't incredibly clear (at all).

The fact that the author of the argument that is so commonly heralded as the strongest case for the veracity of Judaism would be so scared by philosophy that he refuses to give it air time, in my opinion, is scary, or disappointing. Though neither of those words are quite right. It's more that it weakens the argument so much to admit to being afraid of a thought system and in turn, makes that thought system all the much stronger. It, in essence, admits defeat without even playing the game. I doubt philosophers would have chosen such a strategy. That bothers me.

November 28, 2007 10:38 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Actually, Strauss addresses this as well. He says that this is not something unique to haLevi, but was routinely done by everyone, including philosophers. The notion of intellectual honesty really didn't exist...

November 28, 2007 11:18 AM  
Blogger Shoshana said...

Do you think something has changed that has made us at least give lip service to the idea of intellectual honesty now?

November 28, 2007 12:17 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Don't know. It would be interesting to find out - I think it is pretty recent though.

November 28, 2007 12:34 PM  

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