Sunday, August 2, 2009
The Khazar Enigma
The Khazarim are an enigma. From what we understand of ancient Khazaria, it was a Tartar Kingdom on the borders of the Black and Caspian seas that thrived between the eighth and tenth centuries and as quickly as it arose, it vanished even more spectacularly by the late twelfth century. During its existence it minted its own currency, controlled the trade routes from East to West and back again, and was responsible for stopping the spread of Islam into Europe by defeating the Muslim armies in fiercely fought battles.
During the 7th and 8th centuries the Khazars fought several battles against the Umayyad Caliphate, which was attempting to expand its domination into the Caucasus. The first war was fought in the early 650 and ended with the defeat of the Arab forces led by Abd ar-Rahman ibn Rabiah just outside the Khazar town of Balanjar. But once again the Caliphate tried to expand through conquest between 710 and 730 but finally the Khazars, led by a prince named Barjik, invaded northwestern Iran and defeated the Umayyad forces at Ardabil in 730. The Arab governor Al-Djarrah al-Hakami was killed and the Khazars occupied the town. But Arab armies led by Prince Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik and later Caliph Marwan ibn Muhammad crossed the Caucasus and eventually defeated a Khazar army led by Hazer Tarkhan in 737, briefly occupying the Khazar city of Atil. But shortly afterward the Arab armies were forced back and Khazar independence was re-established. The last major battle between Khazar and Arab forces took place in 758, when the Khazar army under Ras Tarkhan invaded and occupied parts of Azerbaijan and Arran. The Arab pursuit of a Muslim empire through warfare never managed to penetrate into Khazaria after that. There are records that by the tenth century King Joseph of the Khazars reported to the Jewish histographer Hasdai ibn Shaprut that the Khazars had established trade relations with the Caliphate suggesting that the state of war had ended. King Joseph also indicated in his communications that his Kingdom practiced Judaism as its state religion which immediately led to rumors that it was one of the lost tribes of Israel.
That in itself was a mystery and it was later discovered through subsequent communications between Khazaria and Jewish scholars that there had been a mass conversion in the eighth century to Judaism, the story of which has been told in many books, the most famous being The Khazari which appeared in the twelfth century and was widely known a few hundred years later.
It is strange that events which are a thousand years old have now come back to haunt us today. Besides the Khazars being one of the most feared enemies of the Muslim world and still held in much disdain by that population, seeing them as the reason that Islam failed to stretch across the known world, they are now being revived into the Islamic propaganda machine for an entirely different purpose. It is the argument today, in regards to the Mid –east crisis that the Ashkenazi Jews that formulated the Zionist philosophy for the reestablishment of Israel, ethnically weren’t Jews at all, and therefore were never entitled to have the restoration of their ancient homeland. What these Muslim propagandists are claiming is that the Ashkenazi Jews are nothing but the descendants of the Khazars and they never actually disappeared as a civilization, merely migrated westward into Europe where they became recognized as being the Jewish populations of Poland, Ukraine and Romania that manifested in the twelfth century. Hence their new argument that Israel should not exist since it was established by a race that weren’t Jews. Of course the corollary would then be true that if they were Jews then the State of Israel has the right to exist and they have to realize that showing a picture of an Israeli soldier and writing on it that this is a Khazar does not mean he is any less entitled to live in the land of his religious beliefs. But for all others, whether they be Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Karaite, Bene Israel or Fellashim, they are entitled to live in the land of their origins. A land where they have been a continuous presence for three thousand years in one form or another even though Muslim historians attempt to gloss over that fact.
I am surprised at how many adherents this faulty theory of Ashkenazi being Khazars has garnered over the last couple of decades. Despite the genetic typing of Ashkenazi Jews as Semites, not to mention phenotypic characteristics which are more common to the eastern Mediterranean than to the Caucasus, there would still appear to exist this determination of these Muslim propagandists to insist that their flawed theory is the truth. One of their arguments being that amongst the Jew’s own books there was nothing but Sephardic Jews (North African and Spanish) in existence in the late eleventh century or why else would the meeting with the King of Khazaria have to be conducted by Sephardic Jews if he had close by Ashkenazi neighbours? Conveniently they choose to ignore the Mizrahi Jews in Arab lands who were very much a presence in that part of the world and who now live predominantly in Israel.
But let’s deal with the misconception of Ashkenazi’s not being descendants of original Jewish stock. I will admit that this book, The Kazari, does give that impression on first reading, and the emphasis that it was a great Sephardic sage from Toledo Spain that had to travel all the way to Khazaria to conduct the interview would suggest that there was an absence of East European Jews at the time. Hopefully, this is where I can put an end to any misconceptions that the Ashkenazi Jews were only the product of Khazars that had migrated west. Some probably were but far more Khazars probably became Karaites due to the similarities in language and beliefs between the two populations. A commentary amongst the Karaite authors lists the population of our people measuring around 400,000 at the time of Saadiah Gaon. This sudden burst in Karaite population made the Gaon furious as he considered the battle for Jewish minds being lost by the Rabbinate. I would think that the most likely explanation for this population explosion in the tenth century was the fact that the Khazars were being numbers amongst the Karaites.
One of the advantages of descending from a very old family is that in my personal library I happen to have some very old books that have been passed down into my possession from various family members. This one I’m about to discuss in particular was printed in Berlin in 1795. I know some of you are probably looking at the photographs of this book and probably cursing me for not taking better care of a two hundred plus year old book and keeping it under sealed glass, etc, etc, but books are meant to be held, to be touched, to be read. I have some even older than this one and I’m not ashamed to say that I finger through them often. But that is not the point of this article and any bibliophiles that wish to admonish me on proper book care please save it for another time. The point I wish to make is that the beauty of these older books is that they have not undergone the distortions and alterations of later translations. As much as old books should be considered sacred and should not be subject to adulteration, sadly that is not the case. In later attempts to embellish and perhaps even clarify as may have been the belief of these latter day editors the fact is that with every change something is actually lost, not gained.
For example, I have enclosed the front page of my book and what should be the identical front page from a copy over a hundred years later from Warsaw which I’ve taken off the web.
The translation of my older Berlin copy of the title and first paragraph is roughly as follows:
Book of the Khazari
Between the king of the nation of the Khazars and between the (associate/colleague/partner) whose name is blessed many times in heaven in dialogue about the details (history) of the king and his people.
The ancient and wise Judah son of Saul the Levite, knowledgeable of the languages of the Arabs recording and guarding that all is correct.
Whereas the same section translated from the younger Warsaw copy is as follows:
Book of the Khazari
Rabbi Isaac the Sangari whose name is blessed in heaven in honest dialogue.
Translated from the Arabic by Rabbi Judah Ha Levi the Sephardi
Immediately it can be seen that these two opening paragraphs, although having some words in common are for the most part entirely different. Judah Ha Levi was a famous Jewish poet, scholar and writer in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Born in Spain, he was naturally Sephardic and would have spoken Arabic fluently, living in an Arabic ruled society. Because he was famous, his name would lend authenticity to any book and it would appear that is what the later editors were trying to achieve. Without a high profile name, there would have been the fear that the book, the Khazari would have been accused of being a fake, or even worse, a fairy tale. My German copy of the book if you notice mentions a Judah ha Levi but he is the son of Saul. The father of the famous Judah ha Levi of Spain was named Samuel, not Saul. This would have created an immediate problem if someone was trying to attribute the original book to Judah ha Levi of Spain. We do know that Judah did write his own version of the Khazari and we also know that he based his book on earlier versions that he had come across. I would postulate that my German copy is based on one of those earlier versions. There is no mention of a Rabbi Isaac Sangari in its cover page because the person discussing the issues with the King of Khazaria was far greater than any rabbi. The word actually used in my older version of the book is suggestive of someone who could sit across from a king and be considered an equal or as a partner, colleague, etc. This individual’s name was blessed numerous times in heaven suggesting that he was a great leader of the Jews. Multiple blessing would infer that he was carrying an inherited blessing which I’ll discuss later in this article. As for Judah ben Saul the Levite, he was there for one reason only; his ability to translate everything both fluently and accurately between Arabic and Hebrew. He was a scribe and translator with no mention of him being the great poet and scholar, nor is there any mention of this person being Sephardic. Why? Because all that was a later addition and deliberate alteration in an attempt to have the book gain recognition by attributing it to someone famous at that time. As for Isaac of Sangari, it is thought this may be a reference to the region in Turkey known as Sangaros, but no one knows for certain. His addition to the manuscript came much later and the only letters or poems proving his existence were held in the possession of Avraham Firkovich, a leading Karaite scholar which only further emphasizes the Khazar-Karaite connection.
Therefore, my older version of this famous book would suggest that the Sephardic connection was a later addition and that it may have been Karaite influences on the Khazarim that actually took place in the eight century as the development of Karaite teachings were occurring simultaneously at that time.
Even in Judah ha-Levi, the Sephardic poet’s version, he admits that there were many things that the Jewish sage in discussion with the King of Khazaria said that were in common with his own beliefs. This would also imply that there were many things the sage said in the original document that weren’t. The Sephardic poet therefore decided to exclude these points of difference from his version. In itself this would imply that the Sage of the story had certain beliefs and practices that were contrary to Judah ha-Levi’s rabbinic Judaism. The act of exclusion is an admission by the poet that the original story wasn’t rabbinic. Although Judah ha-Levi does let it slip that the King of the Khazars only follows the Torah and the Prophets (Book 2 first paragraph) suggesting that his beliefs were more in line with Karaite doctrine as there is no belief in the Talmud he never bothers to expand on this statement.
Another point of interest is the division of the Khazari into five chapters or books. Each book focusing on a different aspect of the dialogue. These roughly correspond to the five books of Moses in the Torah, looking first at the reasons for Monotheism with similarities to Genesis, then a History of the Khazar Nation with similarities to Exodus, then religious outline as defined by a pious man similarities to Numbers, then the requirements of God and religious laws similar to Leviticus and finally the laws of Jewish practices and philosophies similar to Deuteronomy. This parallel to the adherence of the Torah as the main article of faith is quite enlightening and despite numerous comments that are considered anti-Karaite these would appear to have been added by ha-Levi to the original book in the twelfth century as in many cases their insertion seems out of context.
It is also very interesting that the Judah ha-Levi version concludes with the following Blessing:
Completed is the book with the help of God and His assistance. Praise without end be to the Giver of Help
This is very different from the Berlin version in my possession which concludes with the following:
Blessed is He who has a contract with Holy Israel
Who has gifted it with active salvation
Although complete with the welfare of the Lion of God,
There were speakers without wisdom desired by a foreign invitee.
There is obviously a considerable difference between the two conclusive blessings. Judah ha-Levi removed almost all the reference from those present in my version.
Why would he change it so dramatically? Because of what it inferred. Following the adoption of Judaism, there was a contractual obligation in one form or another. The king of the Khazars made this contract with the representative of Holy Israel. It was an actual contract between men, not with God as ha-Levi has tried to alter. And finally we have a reference to who the Jewish representative in the debate may have been. The reference is an old one. Much in the way my Hebraic name is Aryeh-Zuk meaning the Lion of Righteousness, this person was Aryeh-El, the Lion of God. Aryeh has been used often in the family of the Kahana. It was originally used as a name of honor by those in the Kahana that achieved a status of greatness an honor which this person richly deserved as the representative of Holy Israel. Even that title is quite unique, being all inclusive of Judaism across the globe and not rabbinic in nature. The Rosh Gelutha was the representative of Holy Israel. The Rosh Gelutha was the monarchical and spiritual head of Israel as a unified entity. He was both king and priest. He was the Exilarch, the descendant of King David ruling in exile. If we look at the time of the conversion, the initial similarities to Karaism and the fact that this person moved freely between the Islamic speaking world and Khazaria, these would point to Anan ibn David as the likely spokesperson. This would be in accordance to the mysterious reference world that he was a colleague or partner of the King of Khazaria. Who else but another King could be an equal?
So, in reference to the original premise that the Khazari implied that only Sephardic Jews existed at the time and that there was no Ashkenazi presence indirectly assumed from the exclusion of any mention of them in the book, a device which as absurd as it might sound is now being used in a very active propaganda campaign by Muslim clerics, the truth of the matter is that there wasn’t even an original reference to Sephardic Jews. The universal representative of Holy Israel is the only indicator of a Jewish presence and therefore the well established existence of this community world-wide was implied. A universal community that infers that there are many Jewish communities and sects and that they are all being represented here at the time of the discussion with the Khazar King. Whether some Khazar became Ashkenazi later on is not an issue. Some probably became Muslim too.
I think that I’ll follow this hub with several more on the Khazar history. The next article will be on the original adoption of Judaism by the Khazars. Several stories exist in that respect and two of them concern a woman, which is very contrary to the Judah ha-Levi version. I’ll call it A Khazar Love Story.