Morality, Religion, and the Lure of the Ascetic in Halevi’s “The Kuzari”


Judah Halevi’s primary philosophical text, The Kuzari, recounts in dialogue form the conversion of the king of the Khazars, al Khazari. This paper has two goals: to elucidate the meaning of Leo Strauss’ statement that “moral man as such is the potential believer” as it pertains to The Kuzari; and to show how, through an esoteric style of writing, Halevi does not argue against the tenability of the philosophic way of life — despite the apparent evidence to the contrary — but, instead, shows where that way of life falls short, at least with regard to prescribing a definitive moral code. While, on Halevi’s account, philosophy cannot provide the categorical imperatives for which al Khazari yearns, religion, or rather Judaism, can.

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    In his essay on the law of reason in Judah Halevi’s The Kuzari, Leo Strauss concludes with the trenchant, if enigmatic, statement that “moral man as such is the potential believer.”1 Although he does not fully explicate this statement, its importance for understanding the central issue of morality in The Kuzari cannot be overestimated. This paper attempts to elucidate its meaning as it relates to the character after whom the book is named, al Khazari.

    The only time that Halevi refers to himself while addressing the reader is at the beginning of Part One of The Kuzari. He explains that he was asked to proffer arguments against the philosophers, the followers of other, i.e., non-Jewish religions, and sectarian Jews. Recalling the conversion to Judaism of the king of the Khazars, al Khazari — about which Halevi “had once heard”— Halevi says that he decided to present, in dialogue form, the exchange between, first, the king and a philosopher, then the king and a Christian scholastic, thereafter the king and a doctor of Islam, and, finally, the king and a Jewish rabbi.2

    Halevi provides two accounts of dreams that came to al Khazari. In the first account, he writes that it appeared as if an angel addressed the king. The angel said: “Thy way of thinking is indeed pleasing to the Creator, but not thy way of acting.”3 After the king devoted himself wholeheartedly to the Khazar religion, Halevi explains that the angel reappeared to him, again saying: “Thy way of thinking is pleasing to God, but not thy way of acting.”4 This led the king to inquire into different beliefs and religions, eventually leading to his conversion to Judaism. In the second account, Halevi writes that “when the King of Khazar (as is related) dreamt that his way of thinking was agreeable to God, but not his way of acting, and was commanded in the same dream to seek the God-pleasing work, he inquired of a philosopher concerning his religious persuasion.”5 In the first account, note that the as if is missing when the angel reappears. In the second, Halevi omits the angel’s appearance altogether. While it may seem irrelevant or perhaps trifling to emphasize these omissions, their significance will become clearer in what follows.

    Morality and the Philosophic Way of Life

    Al Khazari first meets with a philosopher. This is important because it shows the king’s affinity for philosophy in comparison to the revealed religions. In their conversation, the philosopher explains that God neither favors nor dislikes individuals. Moreover, God does not even know anything about individuals or listen to their prayers.6 This rather blunt remark must have disappointed the king because, in effect, it implies that the king’s dreams were misleading. Furthermore, it implies that precisely that which the king desires, namely, a way of acting that is pleasing to God, is illusory because, according to the philosopher, God neither derives pleasure from, nor desires, any particular way of acting on the part of humans.

    Nevertheless, the philosopher does offer some reassurance. He says, “The philosopher, however, who is equipped with the highest capacity, receives through it the advantages of disposition, intelligence and active power, so that he wants nothing to make him perfect.”7 He even goes so far as to say that the “. . . perfect man [i.e., the philosopher] whose soul, after having been purified, has grasped the inward truths of all branches of science, has thus become equal to an angel. . . .”8 Although the king does not disagree with anything the philosopher says — indeed, the king is convinced by the philosopher’s words — he is not willing to accept the implications of those words, namely, as the philosopher says, a life of contemplation, without concern “. . . about the forms of thy humility or religion or worship, or the word or language or actions thou employest.”9 Despite the rewards of the contemplative life, which include contentment, humility, meekness, and every other praiseworthy inclination,10 Al Khazari says: “Thy words are convincing, yet they do not correspond to what I wish to find.”11 But why?  How can he disregard that of which he is convinced? Although he turns to other matters and apparently dismisses the philosopher’s arguments, he never forgets the philosopher’s remarks.  Nonetheless, there must be something in addition to words, even words used in rational argumentation, which the king desires.

    The king must have known beforehand, at least to some extent, what the philosopher would say with regard to his dream, for this was not the first time that the king conversed with a philosopher. We know this from a remark made by al Khazari in the last part of the book, where he says that he formerly consulted with philosophers, i.e., with not only the philosopher presently discussed, but with others as well.12 Yet, if he had an idea as to what the philosopher would say, why would he consult him at all? What else did he expect to hear? Perhaps he was looking for a final confirmation, through the philosopher’s insufficient response, to inquire into the revealed religions. Indeed, although the philosopher, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, says that after union with the “Active Intellect,” the king might receive “. . . the knowledge of what is hidden through true dreams and positive visions”, the king ignores this remark completely.13 The only explanation for this is that the king must have picked up on the philosopher’s irony. For shortly after this statement, al Khazari, seemingly somewhat stubbornly, wonders why the philosophers have never received the gift of divine prophecy. Rather than press the philosopher about his view on this matter, which would most certainly be a negation of prophecy altogether, the king, on the basis of the putative bestowal of prophecy on non-philosophers, says that “. . . the divine influence as well as the souls have a secret which is not identical with what thou sayest, O Philosopher.”14 It seems that he says this not so much as to refute the philosopher, but rather to reassure himself that his dream was true.

    We are now in a position to determine what the king desires. He says to the philosopher that he longs for actions that in themselves are pleasing to God, rather than actions conducted because they, as the philosopher says, “. . . will help thee to effect truth, to gain instruction, and to become similar to this Active Intellect.”15 Al Khazari replies that he is looking for “. . . a way of acting, pleasing by its very nature, but not through the medium of intentions”, i.e., a morality that is good in itself.16 It should be noted, however, that even if al Khazari’s dreams were veridical, his desire to find a way of acting that is pleasing by its very nature did not come directly from his dreams. The dreams only indicated that his way of acting was not agreeable to God. Thus, his longing comes from his own inclination. Since the philosopher would never agree to a morality good in itself and actually says that the king is free to choose whatever forms of religion, humility or worship he wants, the king seeks out practitioners of the revealed religions who, on the basis of their affirmation of prophecy, can vindicate the king’s dreams, as well as, he hopes, teach him the type of moral code for which he yearns.

    Asceticism and the Religious Way of Life

    Following his discussion with the philosopher, al Khazari questions a Christian scholastic and then a doctor of Islam. After unsatisfactory responses from them regarding their knowledge and actions, al Khazari decides to ask a Jewish rabbi about his belief. Throughout the course of their dialogue — which, presumably, took place over a substantial period of time — many philosophic and religious issues are discussed. As the title of this essay indicates, asceticism is an important issue with regard to morality. Analyzing the conversations between the king and the rabbi on this issue will enable us to make sense of the King’s understanding of philosophy, its appeal, and its limitations with regard to morality in general.

    The topic of asceticism first comes up after the king has converted to Judaism, presented at the beginning of Part Two. Al Khazari says to the rabbi that he “. . . should expect to see more hermits and ascetics among [the Jews] than among other people.”17 When the rabbi asks him if he thinks that ascetic practices, e.g., “meekness, humility, etc.,” enable one to approach God, the king answers in the affirmative, quoting Deuteronomy and Micah for textual support.18 The rabbi, however, does not let the king’s answer stand. He says that the biblical passages in question are only preludes to the divine law; they are laws that must be preserved for any group to function and are “. . . guaranteed by irrefutable evidence.”19 The rabbi then says that “[t]he divine law imposes no asceticism on us.”20 This must have bewildered the king; for it seems that the king’s attraction to the morality of revealed religion was at least in part tied up with its ascetic characteristics, e.g., meekness and humility, both of which were mentioned by the philosopher as rewards for the contemplative life.21 As previously mentioned, the king does not forget the words of the philosopher. In fact, he keeps returning to philosophy throughout the remainder of the book. And this is precisely what the rabbi wanted.

    The rabbi said that the law imposes no asceticism on its adherents for pedagogic purposes because, as the discussion proceeds, the rabbi describes prophets and other adherents of Judaism in a more ascetic fashion than the philosophers. For example, at the beginning of Part Three, the rabbi says that the servant of God “loves the world and a long life,” even to the point of being “happier in complete solitude,” even welcoming     “. . . death, because it leads to the step beyond which there is none higher.”22 Yet when discussing the philosophers, the rabbi fails to mention happily embracing death, saying instead that they “. . . love solitude to refine their thoughts and to reap the fruits of truth from their researches. . . .”23 The more ascetic position is obvious.  Perhaps the rabbi denied asceticism early in the book in order to have more time to show the king the importance, possibly even the necessity, of approaching Judaism with the proper intent and not merely because of the lure of the ascetic.

    As the conversation progresses, the rabbi is able to convince the king of the difference between Judaic asceticism and the asceticism of the philosophers. In Part Four, after a discourse by the rabbi, al Khazari says that he understands the difference between those that yearn for God (Adonai) out of love and devotion and those that attach to God(Elohim) through speculation:

    A feeling of the former kind invites its votaries to give their life for His sake, and to prefer death to His absence.  Speculation, however, makes veneration only a necessity as long as it entails no harm, but bears no pain for its sake.24

    In other words, the former represent devotees with the ascetic impulse, willing to give up life altogether for the sake of God; the latter represent the philosophers, who would never bear pain for its own sake or out of veneration for, or a command by, God.


    Perhaps Halevi omitted the angel from the second account of the king’s dream because he wanted to tacitly assert that al Khazari’s longing to be good was due to his own character and not due to divine revelation. There is some evidence for this in the first account of the dream as well.  Halevi writes that it appeared as if an angel addressed the king. However, in the extant historical records of the king’s conversion, the as if is missing.25 Also, as already mentioned, the king’s desire for a way of acting that is pleasing in its very nature does not stem from the dream itself but from his own inclination.

    One final point of consideration is the absence of a discussion between the philosopher and the king in the historical records.26 This discussion was doubtless added to provide a position against which to argue. Indeed, the book’s original title is not The Kuzari, but Book of Argument in Defense of the Despised Religion.27 Yet the discussion might have been added, not to show the untenability of the philosophic viewpoint or way of life, but to show where it falls short, at least with regard to a definitive moral code, which prescribes actions good in themselves. This is exemplified by the king’s longing for a way of acting, pleasing in its very nature, as well as his confusion about where to find it, i.e., through asceticism. The king’s desire for morality compelled him toward religion. Although the hermetic appeal of philosophy remained attractive to the king throughout the book, even after he realized that the asceticism of the philosophers is not practiced because God commanded it and that the philosophers do not act for the sake of morality itself, he turned to other religions for the answers. Al Khazari did not desire to be equal to an angel, communing with God through the Active Intellect, but, rather, to act in a genuinely moral manner. He interpreted his dream in such a way that authorized pursuing the revealed religions, one of which provided him with what he most desired: morality as such. We conclude where we began, with the words of Leo Strauss:

    . . . natural morality being what it is, only a law revealed by the omnipotent and omniscient God and sanctioned by the omniscient and omnipotent God can make possible genuine morality. . . .  One has not to be naturally pious, he has merely to have a passionate interest in genuine morality in order to long with all his heart for revelation: moral man as such is the potential believer.28


    • Strauss, Leo. “The Law of Reason in The Kuzari.” Chap. X in Persecution and the Art of Writing, rev. ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.
    • Halevi, Judah. The Kuzari: An Argument for the Faith of Israel. Translated by Hartwig Hirschfeld. New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1964.


    1. Leo Strauss, “The Law of Reason in The Kuzari,” in Persecution and the Art of Writing, rev. ed. (1952; repr., Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 140.
    2. Judah Halevi, The Kuzari: An Argument for the Faith of Israel, trans. Hartwig Hirschfeld, rev. ed. (1905; repr., New York: Schocken Books Inc., 1964), 1.1, 35.
    3. Ibid.
    4. Ibid.
    5. Ibid., 36.
    6. Ibid.
    7. Ibid., 37.
    8. Ibid.
    9. Ibid., 38.
    10. Ibid.
    11. Ibid., 1.2, 39.
    12. Ibid., 5.1, 248.
    13. Ibid., 1.1, 39.
    14. Ibid., 1.4, 40.
    15. Ibid., 1.1, 38.
    16. Ibid., 1.2, 39.
    17. Ibid., 2.45, 111.
    18. Ibid.; Deut. 10:12 and Mic. 6:8.
    19. Ibid., 2.48, 111-12.
    20. Ibid., 113.
    21. Ibid.
    22. Ibid., 3.1, 135.
    23. Ibid.
    24. Ibid., 4.16, 223.
    25. Strauss, Persecution, 106, note 31.
    26. Ibid., 104, note 28.
    27. Ibid., 98, note 9.
    28. Ibid., 140.