Of late I have become surprised only when I find myself surprised. Case in point is the history of the Khazar Kingdom whose history includes the legend of Jewish conversion. Arthur Koestler’s well known book “The Thirteenth Tribe” argues for this story which goes like this:
Bulan, The first Khazar Kagan [King] and his conversion story. The story first appears in the Kazari published in 1700s*? Yehudah ha-Levi (c. 1080-1141).
1. An angel appears to Bulan and tells him “Your way of thinking is pleasing to God, but not your way of acting.” Bulan consults a philosopher, and informs him of his idea; that either the Christian or Muslim religion is the right way of ‘acting’.
2. Bulan consults a Christian sage and says “I do not see any logical conclusion here; indeed, logic rejects most of what you have said…. I cannot accept these things… My duty is to investigate further.”
3. He then invited an Islamic mullah [to his court], questioning him regarding his doctrine and observance. After talking to the Mullah he said “Indeed, I see myself compelled to ask the Jews, because they are the relic of the Children of Israel. For I see that they constitute in themselves the evidence for the divine law on earth.”
4. (After inviting the rabbi) The rabbi replied: “I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles; after this [conversation] the Khazar king traveled to the caucuses (mountains) and came upon a cave where Jews had observed the Sabbath. The King was circumcised. The King only revealed this to his special friends and when his community of Jews had increased (several more upper-class Khazars then converted) he made the affair public
5. Another story involves the Khazar king inviting three sages to his court. A Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sage were summoned. The Jew was said to already be at his disposal [Koestler] and only the other 2 were summoned. The three of them argued and the story goes…….**
6. The other theory is based on a Jewish manuscript that said the Khazars converted when an Army general became king. Click Here
Now for that which surprises me; Koestler, an Ashkenazi Jew was fiercely proud of these connections. Others (mostly anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic writers like David Duke) use this legend to cast aspersions on the right of these faux Jews to have any legitimate claim to the land of Israel. I will be exploring both sides of this issue in the next brown bag lunch, June 14th at 12:00 pm.
There is of course in this ancestry.com age an over-emphasis on origins. To be sure, it is moving and appealing to discover one’s background. But there can and should be some limits to its application. Admitting my personal bias, I de-emphasize genetics and look to religious devotion as the determination of Jewishness. After all, Hitler used genetics as the ultimate and notorious way of saying who is and who is not a Jew. Maimonides, in his classic responsa Obadia the proselyte argued for a religious definition over the bloodline path to authenticity. How do you define you Identity? Are you Jewish or a Jew? Is bagels and lox your ultimate connection to this religious heritage? Are you willing to go deeper?
Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz D.D.