15.11.13, Krinis, God's Chosen People

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G. Mick Smith

The Medieval Review 15.11.13

Krinis, Ehud. God's Chosen People: Judah Halevi’s 'Kuzari' and the Shīʻī Imām Doctrine. Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 2014. pp. x, 352. ISBN: 978-2-503-54396-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
G. Mick Smith
Strayer University

Krinis addresses medieval Jewish interaction within an eleventh and twelfth-century Jewish-Andalusian intellectual world. Judaism posits "chosenness" as the belief that the Jews via descent from the ancient Israelites are the chosen people of God by virtue of their unique covenant with God. The idea of the Israelites directly chosen by God is found most pointedly in the Book of Deuteronomy and as developed in the related notion in the Hebrew Bible using related terms and phrases such as a "holy people". Nonetheless, Krinis attempts to show that it is Shia influence and not the Jewish tradition that dominated Judah Halevi's Kuzari.

Krinis' volume is characterized best as a study in the history of ideas and traces how Halevi (c. 1075-1141), the Spanish Jewish physician, poet, and philosopher, incorporated notions of the Imam doctrine from the Shi'ites. Although he is borrowing ideas, in an ironic twist of elucidation, Halevi proves the necessity of Judaism in his work. His major work, Kuzari, relies on the Shi'ia Imam doctrine while appropriating the idea of the chosen people but as referring to the Jewish people as the chosen ones (4).

From ninteenth-century research until today, the Kuzari has been viewed as anti-philosophical or rationalist and therefore simply typifying its era as characteristic of other works in its day. Most interpreters then, before Krinis, viewed the Kuzari as trendy and embedded in its direct philosophical roots, rather than original and related to Shia thought. This is not to suggest that all interpreters viewed the Kuzari as confined in its philosophical affinities but Ignac Goldhizer and Shlomo Pines interestingly identified traces of Shia thought preceding Krinis.

Krinis presents a unique perspective though in claiming that Halevi appropriated the Imam doctrine of Mohammed's Shia followers. This critical split in the question of succession among the followers of Islam, for Halevi at least, led him to this central connection between the Shia successors and Halevi who creatively and selectively picked appealing ideas from the hadith and other texts.

Krinis' argument then rests on the circumstantial evidence of familiarity between Jewish writing and Shia literature. Krinis' method here is to perform a textual analysis to reveal Halevi's acquaintance and depth of influence or affinity for Shia writers. Krinis' claim, which requires analysis, is to weigh the scope of influence and, most importantly, "the formulation of the central ideological position of this treatise--the idea of the chosen people" (32).

The idea of the chosen people requires elucidation. There at least two ways to interpret the notion. An afrad is defined herein as a unique individual, or a series of individuals throughout history; or, the concept may refer to a collective group. In the Kuzari this could refer to chosen and successive individuals from Adam to Jacob, and in the second example, the word refers to the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

In Shia thought, there are two models for the principle of meta-historical continuity: the spiritual, universal model, and the material, particularist model. The spiritual universal model is identified with the Shia concept of prophetic legacy wherein the tradition "is transmitted and handed down in a straight line of God's chosen prophets and 'successors' from the very beginning of history" (43). This chain of transmission consists of leading figures representing four unique periods in time: 1) the early progenitors--Adam to Abraham; 2) the Israelite era--Isaac to Zachariah; 3) the Christian period--Jesus until Mohammed; and 4) the Islamic period--Mohammed as transmitted through the Imams. In this prophetic legacy model, there is a continuing presence of the universal, monotheistic religion throughout the course of history. The legacy of monotheism is thus preserved and transmitted by chosen individuals until the idealized Islamic period.

The second model, the material particular, is expressed by the primordial concept known as Mohammed's light. In this way, the primordial light is projected into the historical record in the form of a hidden light dwelling in human semen, and transmitted hereditarily from the loins of men into the wombs of women. This direct family lineage ultimately triumphs in the birth of Mohammed and the Imams. This model, analogous to the first, is based on three different stages: the progenitors from Adam to Abraham, the Arabic era from Ishmael to the immediate forefathers of Mohammad and Ali, and the final stage, which is that of Mohammad and the Imams. This latter model emphasizes Arabic superiority in the lineage of the chosen.

In Shia literature, the discrepancy between the model of prophetic legacy and the model of primordial lights is often subdued and not explicit, so that the distinctive features of both models often converge considerably. In any case, in the Kuzari aspects of both Shia models are highlighted by Halevi's exposition of his salient, unique individuals model.

The key idea is that the transmission of the chosen characteristics, similar to an inheritance as that of a father to a son, is exemplified by the unique possession of the historical caliphate. In him and in historical concreteness, the caliph inherits the land of Israel, knowledge is transmitted through succession, and is the most virtuous of humans. Although there are differences between the afrad unique individuals and the Shia models of continuity (71) the afrad model is itself an adaptation of patriarchal precedent.

The question to consider is why Halevi diverged from a Jewish cultural model, as that of the three patriarchs, and replace the chosen people model with a disparate patriarchal model so completely foreign to canonical rabbinic literature? The traditional Jewish sources limit the chosen lineage at a point in middle history but in Halevi's Kuzari a full and complete linkage blossoms between the beginning of history and the emergence of the chosen group. Closely examining the Kuzari reveals that the unique individuals model is based in principle on Shia terminology, concepts, and thought patterns. The answer to Halevi's question then relies on the evidence that Krinis can accumulate to demonstrate his evidence. Krinis' claim is that the Shia doctrine of primordial chosen-ness is in the Kuzari. Unique individuals in the Kuzari are the appropriate ones who inherit the land and are "the progenitor of the election-determining entity for all who followed" (103).

Historically then, God's Proof, or the term Hujja, represents that Shia individual who is the ultimate authority, claim, evidence, or proof of a polemical argument during an historical time period. God's chosen individual as proof gave way to an entire collective serving as God's evidence in history as the Chosen People.

Also, there are features of hierarchism in the Kuzari as borrowed from Shia thought. There is a holistic, hierarchical distinction between the chosen and the non-chosen as well as the People of God as opposed to other nations which can be attributed to Shia thought. Superhuman attributes of these chosen divine humans are on the upper level of the hierarchy. There is a shift in emphasis from the prophet-messenger type, as reflected in the Quran to the divine human type, which is demonstrated in a plethora of Islamic literature: hadith, sira, literature, dogmatic treaties, mystical treaties, and so forth. Another aspect of Shia thought in particular should be noted and that is the issue of mediation. The God of mediation, in Islamic monotheism, is non-personal, non-interventionist, and non-revelatory. The Shia divine order in the Kuzari results in "inserting Shia terms and perceptions into frameworks of a philosophical basis" (223).

In conclusion, Krinis is to be commended for pointing out the creative maneuver of Halevi who transformed the intended group of recipients from descendants of Mohammed to Jews; during a time of Arabic literary vibrancy Halevi strengthened the view that the Jews of Israel are the Chosen People. Krinis provides a sound summary: "the originality of the Kuzari is manifested, first and foremost, in the unique ability of its writer to borrow terms and motifs from a variety of worlds and to weave them together into a significantly unified ideological frame, one which is manifestly original and completely his own" (313). On the other hand, the drawbacks of the volume are not to elaborate upon Jewish tradition and the liveliness of Judaic thought that is part and parcel of the Kuzari. Krinis' work might be richer with a more of a nod in the direction of Judaic thought. Finally, one minor corrective should be mentioned: "is" should be "it" (172).

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