Monday, August 3, 2009

The Khazar Polemic

In my last blog on the Khazar I discussed the later editing which occurred to the original Khazari document starting in the eleventh century. Whether the original document will ever be uncovered will have to wait to be seen. Until that time we have to contend with the fact that there are four different versions of the Khazar Polemic. The most widely circulated and well known version is the one that I discussed in the earlier blog that has been attributed over the last few hundred years to the Sephardic poet and scholar, Judah ha-Levi. The other three version never made it to the top of the best sellers list. There are some obvious reasons for this which I'll mention.
Because the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism is a well known historical fact, two of the other versions did not particularly make a lot of sense and therefore they never were universally read. One of these is the Muslim version, the other a Christian version. In both of these there is acknowledgement that the Khazars did accept Judaism but only for a time until they found the one true religion which was their own respectively. You can see why these two versions weren’t widely accepted since both Islam and Christianity suffered terribly in their wars against the Khazars and to suddenly claim that they eventually converted to each one after having killed so many Christians and Muslims in tens of thousands just doesn’t mesh with the actual facts.
The remaining two versions were both Jewish but they were as different as night and day. One had an obvious Rabbinic Judaism influence and became the polemic that Judah ha-Levi widely circulated. But the other had definite Karaite overtones and if I may say so was unabashedly a love story. Coincidentally, both the Christian and Muslim versions do touch to a degree on the love story and therefore provide it with support from unexpected sources. I tend to believe what is likely a Karaite version, not only because that is my faith but because women have always had the greatest influence on history whether they were directly responsible or the one standing behind the man that supposedly made it.

The Rabbinical Jewish Version of the Polemic
Since Judah ha-Levi’s version of the Polemic is the one that history has accepted, I might as well discuss it first and then dismiss it first as well. You see, in any version that would have been touted by the Rabbinical colleges, there could be no mention of a woman as the central figure. That would have to be expunged from the story even if it meant reinventing the story from scratch. According to all the Polemics there was a political motivation behind the conversion of the Khazars. They ruled a great empire stretching from west of the Black Sea to east of the Caspian Sea; from the steppes of central Russian to the northern regions of Mesopotamia. They controlled the flow of goods and traffic across the known routes and grew rich in the taxes they charged the caravans for safe passage. Empires need allies and yet, to choose the Byzantine over the Arab empire or vice versa would have meant a possible interruption to the flow of goods and a cessation of trade. A wise king would choose a religion that presented a threat to neither of the two empires. And although Judah ha-Levi would like to convince the reader that decision was based on a careful assessment of religious law and devotion to God by the Khazar king, the reasons were more likely to have to do with political astuteness.
The Khazari as I mentioned previously is divided into five books. It goes on for hundreds of pages and although the debater, attributed as being Rabbi Isaac Sangari in ha-Levi’s version does an excellent job of capturing the essence of Judaism and the spirituality of Jewish beliefs the fact is that the shorter version problem hit closer to home. The short version goes like this; the Khazar king invited scholars from all three of the religions to tell him why he and his people should convert to their respective religion. And after each went on for days explaining the advantages and beauty of their own religion he would ask them a single hypothetical question.
To the Muslim scholar he asked, “If you could no longer follow Islam, which would you choose, Christianity or Judaism?” The Muslim scholar never hesitated stating immediately that he would become a Jew. When asked why by the King he responded as follows:
“Christianity fails to accept that there is one God. Though they try to make themselves believe that the Trinity can be a single manifestation of God the fact is that they pray to all three separately. They think of all three as being separate versions and even have all three communicate with one another as distinct entities. Therefore no matter how much they try to deny it they are pagans and only Muslims and Jews are true followers of the one and only God. The Prophet never denied that the Jews had a place in God’s heart only that they had turned from him and he waits patiently for them to return. Therefore I could be a Jew.”
After the Christian scholar had spoken for days, the King of the Khazars asked him the same question. “If you could no longer follow Christianity, which would you choose, Islam or Judaism?” The Christian scholar never hesitated stating immediately that he would become a Jew. When asked why by the King he responded as follows:
“Islam spread its word by the sword. It is a religion that sees God as wrath and vengeance. They have no tolerance and know not to turn the other cheek. Jesus, our Lord, said that there would come those after him that spread false words and proclaim themselves to be prophets of God. But they are liars for Jesus was the last and stated there were none to follow. But all that proceeded him he declared to be the words of God and even proclaimed that he had not come to change the Laws of Moses but to affirm them. All our apostles were Jewish and Jesus too was born as a Jew. Therefore I could be a Jew.”
After the Jewish scholar of the Rabbinical version of the Polemic had spoken for days, the King asked him the question. “If you could no longer follow Judaism, which would you choose, Islam or Christianity?” The scholar replied simply, “I would be dead.” When asked by the King to explain, he said the following:
“When a Jew is told that he can no longer be a Jew, he is given only two options. Either convert to the religion of the person posing the threat, whether he be Christian or Muslim, or die. If I was to say to the Christian with a sword to my throat, that I agree to be a Christian, then he would follow me all the days afterwards to see if I betray the new faith. And the moment he suspects that I still practice Judaism he will kill me. And if I was to say to the Muslim with a scimitar to my throat, that I agree to be a Muslim, then he too would follow me all the remaining days of my life to see if I betray my new faith. And the moment he too suspects that I still practice Judaism he will kill me. And since both Christianity and Islam have branched off from Judaism there will be at some point in time something I do that I perform in the Jewish way rather than in the manner they have changed it. And when that happens they will kill me. So you see, rather than live all my remaining days in fear of death, I would be better off to choose it immediately and thereby never betray myself or God.”
As the Rabbinical version of the Polemic would have us believe, the King saw the Jewish scholar’s logic as impeccable and made his choice immediately following the explanation. Perhaps it was but what isn’t logical is for a King to choose that he and his people follow a religion that was obviously despised by the two other religions. As the Jewish scholar had made it clear, to choose Judaism would have been the equivalent to putting a noose around your neck. So at first, it would appear to be a foolish and reckless decision made by the king. But the more you examine the choice, even from this simple version you can eventually appreciate the King’s wisdom. It was obvious from all three scholars’ answers that Judaism could survive and be accepted throughout the other Empires. Although it was not looked upon kindly, it was still permitted to exist though highly restricted. Both other religions were willing to trade with Jews and often used Jews as their intermediaries even if they considered them a despised race. But more importantly both the Byzantine and Muslim Empires usually had highly placed Jews in their governments that were responsible for keeping the machinery of government operational. Often these ‘Royal Jews’ would attain the second highest position in both of the Empires. That being the case, being an intermediary Jewish empire made both good political and business sense, making it possible to have both of the other Empires as trading partners and allies.

The Christian Version of the Polemic
It might appear strange that there even would be a Christian version of the story considering that the Khazars became Jews. Even the burial sites at Chelarevo Yugoslavia demonstrate that the Khazars had adopted Judaism. The graves in this cemetery which dates from the 7th to the 11th century have menorahs and other Jewish symbols engraved as well as Hebrew lettering but there is a definite Tartar influence that suggests Khazars. So it should have been obvious to most Christians of the time that the Polemic of the Khazars did not have a Christian ending but nevertheless the story exists. Sources say that the Christian scholar of the polemic was Constantine of Thesalonica (826-869 A.D.) who was the seventh child of Leo the Drungar. According to the story he refuted both the arguments of the Rabbi and of the Dervish representing Islam and won the King over to Christianity.
We are fortunate that the Christian version of the Polemic has some secondary information that does record something about a woman being influential in the matter of the conversion. Unlike the Jewish Rabbinic version, the Christian writers were not afraid to speak of this woman and her breathtaking beauty. They referred to her as Ateh, saying that she lived in the 9th century and was a Khazar Princess. There is a claim that she was a pious woman and that she took on the Jewish scholar in the debate and defeated him when Constantine of Thessalonica was failing. This report was written in Daubmannus and in some respects it is reminiscent of the political advantage I mentioned in regards to the Rabbinic version. Apparently the Rabbi says to the King, “Of the three of us the only one you have no need to fear is me. For neither a Caliph with the green sails over his fleet, or the Byzantine Emperor with the red cross over his armies stands behind the Jews. Behind Constantine of Thessalonica comes spears and cavalry but the only thing that trails behind me is a prayer shawl.” So once again the argument that as Jews they could deal with both Empires freely would appear to have been very convincing. Fearing that the Rabbi had won the debate it is then that Princess Ateh interferes by alluding to the fact that the Jews are abandoned by God and live in misery. That God has punished them and scattered them across the world. The argument is the traditional Christian condemnation of the Jews and nothing new or startling that would have swayed the king. But the story goes that she then adopted Christianity and had the King do so as well with all the remainder of the court. Well, history proved that was false but we do at least learn that in some way there was a princess involved and she was important to the conversion of the Khazars.
There is another story amongst the Christian version that gives us a further insight. It continues on from the previous paragraph in that it says Constantine wins the argument and the King accepts that Christianity was superior but to everyone’s surprise he goes to war against the Byzantines instead of adopting their faith. They say the King explained his controversial actions by saying, “you do not beg for faith, you obtain it by the sword.” After winning the battle the Khazar King then asks for the daughter of the Greek Emperor to take as his wife. The Byzantine Emperor apparently says yes but only on the condition that the Khazar king accepts Christianity. He does so and everyone lives happily ever after. This is our first hint that the Princess of the Polemic actually was from the faith that eventually the Khazars converted to. It would suggest that Ateh was actually a Jewish Princess.

The Muslim Version of the Polemic
Not to be outdone, Islam also has its own version of events at the Khazar Polemic. According to this version the Khazar king or Kaghan had a female relative at the palace who was renowned for her beauty. Her name was Ateh and she had silver colored eyes. She was highly intelligent but could never converse on a single subject for very long always flitting from one thing to another. They wrote that she could not differentiate between important and marginal subjects but when it came to the polemic they say she wrote love poems in reference to it. Similar to the Christian version she came to the rescue of the Islamic representative, Farabi Ibn Kora, out-arguing the Jewish and Christian scholars in his behalf. The King then decided that everyone would convert to Islam, which made the Christian and Jew so irate that they used their magical powers and condemned the princess to the two hells, that of Belial and Satan.
Besides this fantastic version of the Polemic there are other Muslim writings which have a more historical and researched perspective. One of the is by Masudi the Elder and in it he writes that during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (786-809 A.D.) the Jews were being expelled from the Byzantine Empire and from the Caliphate as well. The Jews migrated north to Khazaria where they were welcomed. They came in such numbers that all of Khazaria became Jewish.
Another Arab historian, Ibn Rustah mentions that Khazaria was a two-fold kingdom with those who followed the Kaghan becoming Muslim and those that followed the Khazar King becoming Jewish. It is the first time that there is mention that there were two rulers in Khazaria and that the King and the Kaghan were not the same person. Historically this may have been true with the Kaghan being a governor appointed by the King.
Al-Bakri gives us another very important clue. He writes that the conversion to Judaism occurred in 763 under the Kaghan known as Sabriel-Obadiah which just happen to be Hebrew names. Perhaps these were the names by which the Kaghan called himself after the conversion. He claims that they chose Judaism only because the Islamic representative failed to attend the polemic because he was poisoned on route. He doesn’t even consider Christianity as having been a possibility. Al-Bakri did claim that in the final days of the Khazar kingdom they all converted to Islam. The date mentioned around 760 is the earliest for the polemic but is significant to the final version of the Polemic that I will soon discuss.
Another Islamic story of the Polemic suggested that the Jewish scholar was a Jew that had been associated with the Caliph but expelled from Baghdad. This would indicate that the individual was highly placed politically and had to be an aristocrat to be associated with the Caliph. In this same version it remarks that Princess Ateh had instructed some of her people to carry boundary stones as she intended to set up a new region or province would be marked by these frontier stones once the new faith had been chosen. Though this even would appear completely irrelevant you will see how this correlates with the final version of the Polemic that I will discuss.

The Karaite Jewish Version of the Polemic
Of course I’ve saved the best for last. Even though the Rabbinical Jewish version promulgated by Judah he-Levi has become the standard version there are still hints and traces of an earlier version having more similarities to the Christian and Muslim versions than to that later one. At no time does it specifically mention Karaites but there are enough indicators that there was Karaite involvement and for this reason these earlier traces were expunged by the Rabbinical version.
This older tale does talk of Princess Ateh. The name is meaningless in that it merely translates as “You” in the feminine from the Hebrew, similar to other cultural stories that refer to “She with no name,” or “Her”. Whatever the reason that her name has been obliterated even that has been lost to us. These older tales also say that the Princess was punished for supporting the Jewish scholar. Firstly she was punished by an Islamic demon that made her forget how to speak the Khazar language. A clear indication that the real story was that this princess was not Khazar at all and spoke an entirely different language. These old tales also say that she was a protectoress of the powerful sect of Khazar priests and that her lover was a celebrated member of this sect. He was young and his eyes were still new according to the description of him. The Christian scholar was jealous of this love affair and sought to have the priest and the Princess punished, pleading to the Kaghan that the competition was unfair since the Princess had other motives for her choice. At that point the Jewish representatives (it is now plural indicating a delegation) interceded and the pair was banished but the Kaghan remained firm in his selection of Judaism.
According to this older tale as well, the Kaghan was only given that title after the polemic and it was derived from the Hebrew word “Kohen” or priest. This we know to be inaccurate since reference to Kaghanate exist long before this but it is interesting that there would be reference t the old priesthood which would be contrary to Rabbinical efforts of conversion where they had created their teaching of Judaism without dependency on the priesthood. This tale also claims the name of the Kaghan was Sabriel, his wife was Sara and their daughter was Ateh.
In the year 800 Druthmar of Aquitane refers to the Khazars as a people that are circumcised, living by the laws of Moses and strong warriors. This is confirmed by Cinnamus in the 12th century who claims they live only by the laws of Moses but not the Orthodoxy of the rabbinical Jews.
So what do we have that supports that the conversion that took place was to Karaite Judaism? From the Rabbinic Jewish version we have the complete exclusion of the female component. If ever there was an attempt to obliterate the existence of the Princess from the record of history, this was it. The attempt only confirms that she played a far more vital role than could ever be imagined and the male dominated rabbinate resented this fact. The Christian version tells us that the Princess was not Khazar at all but the daughter of the Emperor of the faith he eventually selected. Since we know the Khazars adopted Judaism, the Christian version may be masking the fact that she was a Jewish princess. The Christian version also gives indication that the conversion may have been both politically and strategically motivated, which also would support that the alliance through marriage was a major component of the polemic.
From the Muslim version we have a date. It’s around the 760’s. We know also from this version that she played a major role which was worthy of condemnation by the other religions. She was punished though the punishment in the Islamic version is in the realm of the fantastical and not the historical. Fortunately the Islamic historians do provide us with enough information to know that the Jews came in numbers or a delegation and that they came from the Caliphate. We also hear that the leader may have been an associate of the Caliph and appears to have been banished. The princess goes with the delegation carrying boundary stones to carve out a new nation or province. And that the King and Kaghan were two entirely different people, the last being a governor reliant on the approval of the King but having almost equal authority.
And lastly we have from older Jewish legends, predating the polemic of the Rabbinate that there was a love affair that resulted in the Princess and her lover being forced to leave the land of the Khazars. That she was in charge of the priests of the religion which possibly indicates that it was she that brought this new religion to the Khazar which just happens to be described as being dependant on the Laws of Moses only; very Karaite. The punishment by the Islamic demon suggests she knew not the Khazar language at all, again a major hint suggesting she was a foreign princess. And finally there is one more mysterious comment that the term Kaghan only arose after the polemic and was directly tied to the new Jewish faith being a reference to the priesthood.
If we put all these together we have the following: A Jewish Princess came with a delegation to the Khazars in the 760’s and not only brought the new religion with her but set up her own kingdom with the Kaghan with whom she fell in love with. That she had to set up this kingdom outside of the King’s region, setting her own boundary stones and the religion she established followed the traditional priestly Judaism and not the more modern rabbinical Judaism of that time. Do we have any indication of such a person? As I have always mentioned in my blogs, I am descended from a very old Karaite family with numerous stories and traditions that have been passed on. One such story concerns the Princess Thaliah, daughter of the Exliarch. But in the later 760’s the Rabbis had created quite a problem. There were suddenly three Exilarchs all trying to rule at the same time. The one with the legitimate claims to the Jewish throne was sitting in the Caliph’s prison. The next in line was even more despised by the Rabbis because he refused to obey their commands, especially those of his father-in-law who was the Chief Rabbi in Baghdad. And finally their cousin, whom was less entitled to the throne but was smart enough to also recognize when he was being used as a tool of the rabbinate.
Thalia, whose actual name was most likely Nataliah meaning a gift from God, has her own story which I will take directly from Blood Royale and print in my next hub. . It is a tale of love and courage and you won’t want to miss it.

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