Khazar Self-Perception

A Study of the Schechter Text










Tara Ludmer (Tara Bognar)

December 9, 1998

Professor Gampel

Medieval Jewish History





"The Schechter Text-An Anonymous Khazar’s Epistle to Hasdai Ibn Shaprut," was first published by Solomon Schechter in 1912. Although the manuscript contains the name of neither the writer nor the recipient, it is found in a codex of letters to Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, and scholars consider the Letter, as I will call it, to be addressed to him. The author of the Letter relates information about the history of the Khazar conversion to Judaism and the recent political-military history of Khazaria.

Although its authenticity was at first greatly controversial, Omeljan Pritsak concludes that the Letter is a primary historical source. Schechter dated the copied manuscript to the late eleventh century, about a hundred years after the events it describes. The authenticity of the other letters in the codex is accepted, which lends authenticity to the Letter. The writer calls Joseph, the same Khazar king to whom the so-called "Khazar Correspondence" is addressed, his master. Using his test of the use of the waw conversive, D.M. Dunlop affirms that the Letter and the Reply of Joseph are from a different source, and concludes, like Constantine Zuckerman, that it is an alternative reply to the request for information from Hasdai of Spain. Zuckerman identifies the writer as a Khazar living during the reign of Joseph, and dates the Letter to 949 CE, five or seven years before the Reply of Joseph. However, part of the Letter’s intrigue is that in addition to historical accuracy, it contains accounts of the government that we know to be false, and a version of the conversion that is significantly different from that related in the Reply of Joseph.

Based on these erudite affirmations of the text, for this essay I accept the Letter as an epistle written by a Khazar subject of Joseph in 949 CE. Many scholars have debated and discussed the accuracy of the information provided in the Letter in order to better understand Khazars. I would like to learn, specifically from the first part of the Letter that reports on the Khazars’ conversion to Judaism, how a Khazar understands the Khazars, while keeping in mind historians’ reconstruction of that era.

It is true that it is impossible to gain a full understanding of Khazar self-perception from only one source, however, I think that the study of the Letter is worth while because, by presenting this information to Hasdai, the writer chooses himself as a representative and historian of the Khazars. That is to say, he, and whoever asked him to write this letter, considers his story valid.

A brief summary of the Letter is in order. The manuscript begins where the author writes that Jews fled to Khazaria to escape the "yoke of idol-worshippers." They were accepted into the community and assimilated. The Letter tells that the men were circumcised, but only a few of them observed the Sabbath. Jews were part of the Khazar military, and the custom of the military was to appoint a victorious warrior as chief officer. One day it so happened that a Jew was appointed. The text goes on to say that the Lord "stirred the heart of the chief officer to return (to Judaism)" through his wife, Serah, and her father, who taught him the way of life. Upon hearing this, foreign monarchs became angry and questioned his return to the faith of the Jews. He then suggested a sort of disputation wherein scholars from the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith would present their testimony so that the Khazars could determine which religion to choose. Muslim and Christian scholars were sent from afar, and Jewish scholars volunteered to come. When the scholars could not agree on a point, the Khazar officers suggested that books from a certain cave be brought. These were the books of Moses, and they supported the Jews claims. Then Jews from all over the land came to Khazaria, and the people of Khazaria turned to Judaism "completely." The Khazars appointed one of the sages of Israel as a judge over them, and they changed the name of the Jewish officer to Sabriel, and made him king. The writer then suggests that the Khazars may be descendents of the tribe of Simeon, but does not insist. He goes on to describe the current and past political situation of Khazaria. I will address parts of that section later.

The writer acknowledges at the beginning of the Letter that the Khazars were not originally Jewish; they are "without the Torah." He identifies the early Jews in Khazaria as runaways from Armenia, and perhaps other places as well that were cut off from the manuscript. He writes that the Jews and the people of Khazaria "became one people." How was this accomplished? The Jews intermarried and intermingled with the gentiles, learned their practices, and went to war with them. As a result of this cultural assimilation, "they were confirmed only in the covenant of circumcision." Since, according to the Letter, the Jews and the gentiles have already become one people, ‘they’ must refer to the people of Khazaria in general, and thus, the author identifies the Khazars as circumcised Jews. We can conclude that instead of what we might usually think of to be the result of assimilation – the Jews disappearing into the hosts – the hosts were assimilated to the Jews by their assumption of the covenant of circumcision. From this point on, according to the writer, to be Khazar means to be Jewish, at least phallically.

This is a Jewish Khazar’s answer to our question, "Who is a Khazar?" Within the boundaries of the Khazar Empire, there lived, at various times, a great many peoples who are clearly not Khazars, for example, the Bulgars or the Magyars. But what of the great diversity of people who lived within Khazar cities? The Muslim historian ibn-Fadlan writes about the city of the king of the Khazars on the banks of the river Atil. On one side, he writes, are the Muslims, on the other, the King and his companions. According to the Letter writer, despite the location of these Muslims at the seeming heart of Khazaria, they cannot be of the Khazar people because they are not Jews in any sense of the word. ibn-Fadlun concurs in his history, writing that "the Khazars and their king are all Jews." Dunlop, in his footnotes, writes that this is "evidently exaggerated," and refers to a ‘corrected’ version that omits the word "all." This is presumably warranted because it directly contradicts Istakhri’s statement "the Khazars are Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and among them are a small number of idolaters," which implies a diverse population and supports the idea that Judaism was only thinly spread among the Khazars. In fact, it is possible for both of these statements to have truth. If anybody who lives in a Khazar city is to be considered a Khazar, then certainly the Khazars are a religiously diverse group. If on the other hand, Judaism is essential to Khazar-ness, as is the understanding of the writer of the Letter, then of course all the Khazars are Jews; if one is not a Jew, one is not a Khazar, neither by name nor by blood.

At the same time that this line of reasoning makes the Khazars Jewish, it also reveals the Khazar-ization of Judaism. Rabbinically, only one born of a Jewish mother is a Jew. For the Khazars to become Jewish in the complete sense that the Letter implies would require that only Jewish women and not Jewish men intermarry, which is not indicated at all in the Letter. The writer’s understanding that the children born from these intermarriages formed a nation of Khazar-Jews cannot then come from Judaism. It must come from Khazar culture, thus illustrating what the writer narrated; the learning of Khazar practices and their inclusion in the Jewish Khazar way of life. In this way, the Letter, while contradicting Dunlop’s understanding that only a small number of Khazars were actually Jewish, confirms his contention that "the Judaism of the Khaqan did not lead him to uproot old customs to which the populace was attached." The Letter seems to describe an integration of the two cultures, rather than the superimposition of one over the other.

In the next part of the letter, the writer discusses the rise to power of a Jewish officer. The identification of the officer as Jewish is in itself troubling. If the assimilation was as thorough as the writer implied earlier, then there should be no need to identify a Khazar officer specifically as a Jew. From this I understand that the assimilation was not complete and there was not yet a necessary relationship between Khazar and Jew. This contradiction could stem from the fact that the writer, in calling the two cultures "one people," is imposing the current situation of complete integration that exists in his lifetime onto the situation of the Khazars in the past. The terminology that follows then, seems wrong because it is wrong – the historical myth that the writer is presenting is paradoxical. According to the writer, each step following the original ‘intermingling’ is a return to Judaism. This requires that the Khazars be originally Jewish, in order that they can return rather than convert, but it also requires that the Khazars not be completely Jewish, because then there would be no need to return en masse. Why does the writer insist on a ‘return’ rather than a conversion, thus necessitating this narrative hoola hooping? Zuckerman discusses this contradiction halachically. According to rabbinic Judaism, a convert is as a newborn, without ties to his birth family. Therefore a process of intermingling and conversion would "split the people and the clans. Declaring all the Khazars to be Jews from birth was, by contrastÖ a practical way to save the cohesion of the Khazar people." The solution of the writer is to have the Khazars return to a religion with which they had never previously identified themselves. His problematical narration here reveals that he has painted himself into a corner. Does this mean the letter is false? No, it can be understood as a foundational myth, and its truth lies in its acceptance by the Khazar culture.

This is one of the discrepancies between the Letter and the Reply. In Joseph’s Reply, the Khazars convert. Neither one of these needs to correct the other. Pritsak suggests that these letters present two different traditions, one the official version of the King, and one an alternative version known to the writer. He considers that multiple versions of a foundational myth can become accepted by a population, comparing them to the "four different versions of the baptism of the Novgorodian-Kievan ruler Volodimer," known by the editor of the Russian Chronicles.

This section also reveals another troubling part of the text. It is written that "there was no king in the land of Khazaria; but rather whoever would achieve victories in war would they appoint over themselves as chief officer of the army." Historically, we know that this was not the practice of the Khazars. This is the first of many inaccurate statements about the government of Khazaria. In fact, the Khazars had a tradition of a dual kingship that harkened back to the Kok Turks from whom they originally descended. There was a king, called the khaqan, who was supreme, and a sort of second king, called the beg, who actually ran the empire. These were hereditary institutions. The beg was in charge of the military, the economy, the justice system and foreign affairs. He answered, however, to the khaqan. In later times, that is, the time of Joseph, the Khaqanate became more and more ceremonial. In his report of 943 CE, Istakhri records that the khaqan’s essential function is to live in the palace and be killed when bad things happen. Why, then, is the Letter historically so garbled? Is it really possible that somebody who had taken it upon himself to give a history of the Khazar Jews would be ignorant of it? Dunlop attributes this discrepancy to corruption of the text between 942 CE and Schechter’s dating of it to the 12th century. Zuckerman interprets it, rather, as a political re-writing of the past, and I agree.

The next part of the story tells of the return to Judaism of the chief officer. This is accomplished, according to the text, through a cooperative effort by God, the officer’s wife Serah, and his father-in-law. The officer agrees to be taught, says the writer, "since he was circumcised." The theme of assimilation and return appears again. The fact that his wife "influenced him and taught him successfully," is an interesting moment in the text. What are we supposed to understand that Serah taught him, if it was her father that "showed him the way of life?" Perhaps this is another example of the fusion of rabbinical Judaism, Tanach, and Khazar culture. The theme of a wife guiding her husband religiously is much more strongly seen in the Tanach than in rabbinic literature – which in fact generally forbids Jewish learning to women. This seems to reflect the Khazars’ strong bond to the Tanach, which is also seen in the abundance of Biblical versus rabbinical names found among Khazar Jews.

The Letter goes on to say that the Kings of Macedon and Arabia "became very angry, and sent messengers to the officers of Khazaria (with) words of scorn against Israel: How is it that you return to the faith of the Jews, who are subjugated under the power of all (other) nations?" From this excerpt we can understand that the Khazars considered their internal politics to be of great concern to other nations, to the extent that the religious revival of one powerful individual would bring messengers running. Although the Letter may exaggerate the situation somewhat, at the height of her power, Khazaria’s position between Christian Byzantium, the Muslim Empire, and the eastern pagan hordes, as well as her strong army, made her an important force in the medieval world. This is a position that the writer is not eager to forget, although the military prowess of Khazaria is now on the wane. These foreign empires very likely perceived some of the political consequences of the conversion that Peter Golden identifies; Khazaria would acquire the greater status of an ancient monotheistic religion without subjugating herself to the religious control of either Empire.

The criticism of the foreign kings "influenced the hearts of the officers adversely." The Jew then suggests that sages be gathered from each of the three religions to meet in front of the officers and to tell the story of their scriptures from beginning to end. The Christians and the Muslims tell the story of their holy books, and each contradicted the other. When the Jews tell the story from Genesis to Exodus, both the Muslims and the Christians concede its truth. But then they have a disagreement. In order to the settle the disagreement, the officers of Khazaria command that the books in the cave of TYZWL be brought. These books were the five books of Moses, and they, of course, gave credence to the testimony of the Jews. What is striking here is that it is the Khazar officers who request the books. One might ask how they know of the cave, and why they respect the books so much, if they are not Jews? This story indicate a great awareness of Judaism and Jewish tradition in Khazaria. Despite the fact that the officers are not Jews, Judaism is sufficiently strong among the Khazar people that they keep the memory of the books in the cave. The writer continues, "Then returned Israel, with the people of Khazaria, (to Judaism) completely." This a return to the idea of "one people," and it seems that from this point, no difference is to be made between a Khazar and a Khazar Jew, because they all returned to Judaism together.

It is not difficult to imagine that Jews could, in a religiously free society, assimilate to a very high degree while still identifying themselves as Jews. This is the case among a vast number of Jews in the United States today; most all of the males are circumcised, and almost nobody keeps the Sabbath, yet Judaism plays a strong role both in personal identity of Jews. Judaism is also very visible in American society; Non Jewish Americans are very aware of Judaism and most know something of its beliefs and some of its adherents. Thus a person can be a Jew and an American. According to the Letter, this seems to have been the case among the Khazar Jews, who mixed freely with the gentiles and served in the army. Yet the idea of a state turning suddenly en masse to a new religion, as the Khazars are said to have done after the disputation, is more jarring. It is helpful to look at what is truly described in the letter.

When the Jew suggests that sages from the various religions come, he is quoted as saying "let them tell, each one of them, before us and before you." The 'us' and 'you' seem to refer to a group of highly ranked military officers. This is then a smaller group, but a quite powerful one. According to the letter, the books of Moses convince them that Judaism is the right faith. At this point it makes sense to reconsider the question of political expediency and its role in their decision. As military officers, these men were in a position to know the geo-political circumstances around them and to recognize the significance of adopting an official religion. The officers presumably remembered the coerced conversion of the Khazars to Islam by the Muslim warrior Marwan. He gave the Khazars the choice of Islam or the sword when he defeated their army in 737 CE. The officers must have recognized that to adopt Islam would be to give their former enemy authority in Khazaria, and like-wise with Byzantium and Christianity. Of the three religions, only Judaism did not come with a foreign empire. In that respect it makes sense that the officers would opt for Judaism in order to preserve Khazar autonomy. But why convert at all? To the leadership at least, paganism was no longer satisfactory. It might have been a consequence of development of the civilization, similar to what led the Greeks and the Arabs to leave paganism and become monotheists in great quantities. It might also reflect the officers' cognizance that adopting a monotheistic religion would gain the Khazars a higher status among the world’s empires, and choosing Judaism would leave them free to fight against those empires when they found it necessary. This is especially relevant considering that shortly afterwards, the Khazars would, in fact, attack Greek cities, and also in light of the reported refusal of the Muslim soldiers in the Khazar army to fight against their co-religionists.

Thus the officers decided, perhaps for all these reasons, that conversion to Judaism was a wise step. However, that the Letter considers the conversion the direct result of a disputation among the religions seems to reveal that the writer considered theological reason alone to be of great enough importance to the Khazars to warrant a change in religion. In the Khazar tradition then, Khazars are a people who value learning and reasoning. This is in line with the previous description of the military leadership as a meritocracy. While we know that it is not the case that the chief officer was chosen for his prowess and virtue in war, the Khazar tradition, according the Letter, remembers it that way. From this we can understand that the Khazars see themselves as a fairly open society where power is based on military and intellectual merit, and where anybody of any subjugated religion can rise to the top if he is meritorious. This sort of self-myth is familiar to us as residents of the United States – whether or not it is true that anybody who has what it takes can make it in America, that idea, "the American Dream," is certainly an essential and true part of our culture. The Khazars’ somewhat parallel myth about themselves is here revealed in the Letter.

The Letter says, however, that Israel and the "people of Khazaria" returned to Judaism. Here the writer is presumably not talking simply about the group of military officers. This implies some sort of national decree or announcement on the part of the officers to the effect of, "Now the Khazars are Jews." Perhaps the pagan people of Khazaria had no difficulty calling themselves Jews, as long as this didn’t mean they had to significantly change their way of life. If the pronouncement was not followed by enforcement of religious observance, there is no reason to think it would be so objectionable to the people to identify themselves with Judaism. It was a religion they had long been familiar with, with whose believers they had eaten, drunk, and married, and which would confer upon them greater status. This explains how the Khazar conversion to Judaism could at once be broad-based, that is, spread beyond simply the group of officers, and superficial – Khazar customs and traditions, as Dunlop noted, remained intact. Presumably, those in the Khazar Empire with strong religious feelings would not be willing to give up their religion, and in this way, the definition of Khazar came to exclude them. Thus the Khazar Empire could be said to consist of people of all different faiths, even while a Khazar can only be a Jew. A parallel example might be Africa; Blacks and whites live in Africa, sometimes for many generations. Yet the common understanding is that an African is black.

Although conversion to Judaism may not have been forced on the peoples of Khazaria, it seems to have had an impact on her government. The writer says "the men of the land appointed over them one of the sages as judge. They call him in the language of the Khazars KGN; for this reason the name given to the judges who arose after him as been KGN until this day." Historically, we know that there already existed a khaqan in Khazaria prior to the conversion. What then, can this mean? Dunlop believes that this may be a confusion of the word KGN with the Hebrew word for "wise," hakham, and it an inaccuracy in the text. Zuckerman gives another explanation of the problems in the description of the government. He writes that "the author of the Letter, while acknowledging the existence of a Khaqan, conceals the fact that the ancestors of Joseph, his king, were upstarts who had pushed aside the ancient Khazar dynasty." According to Zuckerman, then, the writer is describing not the beginning of a new institution of leadership, the Khaqanate, but rather the beginning of a new dynasty of khaqans. This implies that when the military officers converted to Judaism, they took advantage of their powerful position to set up a Jewish dynasty. The author attempts to disguise this so as to emphasize the continuity between the old and the new, as well as to confirm the legitimacy of the current Jewish Khaqanate. This hypothesis is supported by the deterioration of power held by the khaqan, discussed earlier. If the military leadership can choose the khaqan, the institution is subjugated, in fact if not in theory, to the military, and its gradual impairment is to be expected. Are we to understand that the writer did not in fact know of the long history of the Khaqanate? There are two possibilities, in my mind. One could be that he really didn’t. Perhaps the leadership successfully publicized their version of the events and the true history was not available to the writer. Or perhaps it is a savvy attempt on the part of the writer to keep the true version hidden since he wishes to impress the recipient of the Letter, Hasdai, with the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to power. Pritsak suggests another possibility. According to him, the prior Khaqanate dynasty traced itself back to the time when Khazaria was a branch of the Turkut A-shih-na. Pritsak offers that the Letter writer "mirrors the perspective of his time and explains the former imperial office as that of ‘judge.’" In any case it is a telling of history that seems to reflect the current political situation in Khazaria and emphasize the legitimacy of the current dynasty.

The Letter continues to report that "the name of the great officer of Khazaria did they change to Sabriel, and made him king over them." This statement confirms the power of the officers to tamper with the Khazar institutions of leadership. The kingship this refers to is the office of the beg, or the second ruler in the dual kingship. Calling him a king would not be inaccurate to the extent that the beg’s actual power is much more like that of a ruling monarch than the khaqan’s power, especially after the coup. This is reflected in Muslim records about the Khazar Empire. Writing in 922 CE, ibn Fadlun calls the king of the Khazars the khaqan, and his lieutenant the khaqan beg. Istakhri’s history, written only a couple of decades later, states that "the king in [the Khazar’s] language is called the beg," and that "their chief man is called khaqan." Istakhri’s version seems to agree with that of the Letter, associating the ‘de facto’ king with the beg, and the mainly ceremonial position with the Khaqanate.

This is the first time in the letter that the Jewish officer is named, and the name is given is evidently not his original name. This is puzzling because while it is the general practice of converts to Judaism to take a new Jewish name, according to the letter, Sabriel was not a convert, but a Jew by birth. Why does the author record the tradition of a change in name, even though it seems to contradict his version of events? In my opinion, the author would only include this information because the cultural memory of the name change was so strong that it was impossible for him to leave it out. This supports the idea that, whatever previous mixing there may have been between the Jews and the Khazars, the "return" to Judaism was still remembered in terms of a conversion, manifested in the changing of the officer’s name to Sabriel.

Finally, the part of the Letter that discusses the Khazars’ conversion to Judaism concludes with the words, "Now they say in our land that our fathers were of the tribe of Simeon, but we cannot insist on the truth of the matter." The author here records one more cultural myth, one that he cannot fully believe in. It brings up a fascinating question. Simeon is one of the ten lost tribes of Judaism; by associating themselves with Simeon, the Khazars can connect themselves to the ancient Jewish people without converting. On the other hand, the Letter reports that the roots of Judaism in Khazaria are Jews fleeing from Armenia. If this is the case, then the Khazars could legitimately trace their Jewish ancestry through these Jews, presumably members of the not lost tribes. That the alternative solution of Simeon is part of the cultural myth indicates that members of the community, probably cognizant that rabbinically the Khazars weren’t by-the-book Jews, found a way to legitimize Khazar Judaism in the eyes of Rabbinic Jewry by tracing the Khazars directly back to the ancient Jews. Presumably, the writer believes his version of the events, and feels no need to insist on a connection with Simeon. This confusion shows that at least some Khazars recognized the ambiguity in the founding tradition that the writer of the Letter presents, and that it was not universally accepted.

The rest of the Letter goes on to recount the military exploits of the kings from Sambriel until Joseph, and there are two passages I wish to briefly address as specifically relevant to this essay. The first recounts that after the king of Alan was defeated by the Khazars, the king of the Khazars "honored him greatly, and took his daughter as a wife for his son Joseph." This shows that well after the disputation, when the Khazars supposedly became fully Jewish, the practice of intermarriage with gentiles continued. This shows the continuing ambiguity in the Khazar attachment to rabbinic Judaism, which would certainly look with disfavor upon this marriage, since it would result in a gentile child becoming the successor of King Joseph. On the other hand, this marriage continues both the Khazar tradition of political matches and the great Biblical tradition of male Jewish leaders marrying women from outside the Jewish faith.

The letter continues to tell of the persecution of the Jews during the days of Romanus the evil one, saying that "when the thing became known to my master, he did away with many Christians." The author presents the persecution of the Christians in Khazaria as an expression of solidarity with the Jews under Romanus, a sort of quid-pro-quo arrangement; if Romanus hurts his Jews, Joseph will hurt his Christians. According to the Letter then, whatever the other, rabbinic Jews may have thought of the Khazar Jews, the Khazar Jews felt a close bond with them.

From the study of the Cambridge Letter, we can begin to understand how the Khazars understood themselves, their shift to Judaism, and their status as Jews. According to the Letter, the Khazars saw themselves as a rational people who value military and intellectual merit and considered their civilization to be on par with any other of the time. They saw Judaism as a necessary part of Khazar-ness, and someone who was not a Jew was not considered a Khazar, at least in the time that the Letter is written. Furthermore, the Khazar Jews saw themselves, one way or another, as part of the ancient Jewish people, stretching back to the time of the Tribes. They considered themselves to be strongly linked to the other Jews in other nations. While Khazar history was sometimes distorted to support their claims of Judaism, Khazar culture and traditions were never considered incompatible with Judaism, and the ties of the Khazars to Judaism were in ways more Biblical than rabbinic. The Letter indicates that this was sometimes a source of tension, as with the need to insist on a return to a faith that wasn’t originally theirs, but that in general the Khazars felt quite confidently Jewish in their faith, practices, and connection to other Jews.


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