Let’s embark on a captivating journey deep into the heart of Khazaria and explore what we know about the conversion of the Khazars, an event that likely unfolded in the 8th century. The Khazar conversion story holds a unique place in Jewish history, not only for its historical significance but also for its evolving reception and interpretation over time.

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Rezeptionsgeschichte: The History of Reception

The Khazar conversion narrative is intricately woven into the tapestry of Jewish history, a phenomenon known as “Rezeptionsgeschichte.” This concept, borrowed from German historians, refers to the development and dissemination of ideas over time. One of the most pivotal elements in the Rezeptionsgeschichte of the Khazar conversion is the book “The Kuzari,” written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, a prominent Spanish Jewish thinker from the 12th century.

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s “The Kuzari” masterfully transforms the Khazar conversion story into an extensive work of poetry and philosophy. The narrative revolves around King Bulan, a spiritual leader in 740, who grapples with paganism among his people and the rise of monotheistic faiths, such as Christianity and Islam, on his kingdom’s borders. To resolve this dilemma, he initiates a debate involving a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian, an unconventional trilateral discussion about the merits of their respective faiths. Ultimately, King Bulan chooses to embrace Judaism, and his court and the Khazarian people follow suit in adopting Judaism as their faith.

However, it’s essential to recognize that the narrative presented in “The Kuzari” is set 500 years before Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s actual authorship. This time gap of half a millennium is significant. The choice of the Khazar conversion story as a subject for Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s work was influenced by the unique trilateral relationships among Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the Iberian Peninsula during his era, particularly in Spain and Portugal.


“The Kuzari” as a Literary and Philosophical Tool

Rabbi Yehuda Halevi employed the Khazar conversion story as a literary tool for a broader philosophical discussion about the merits of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, ultimately highlighting the superiority of Judaism. Therefore, “The Kuzari” should not be regarded as a historical source; its primary purpose is literary and philosophical. To comprehend the historical context, let’s shift our focus back a few centuries.


Hasdai ibn Shaprut’s Correspondence

Approximately 300 years before the Khazar conversion story, the correspondence of Hasdai ibn Shaprut becomes a significant point of interest. Hasdai, a noteworthy figure we’ll explore in subsequent discussions, was intrigued by the Khazar conversion story and dispatched emissaries to learn about the Khazars’ Jewish identity. Unfortunately, these emissaries did not reach Khazaria but received correspondence from someone claiming to carry letters from King Joseph of Khazaria. These letters recount the conversion of King Bulan and other aspects of Khazarian life, though their authenticity remains dubious.


Medieval Jewish Travelers and the Cairo Geniza

As we approach the era of the original events, we find medieval Jewish travelers reporting on the Jewish status of Khazarians. While some skeptics may argue that anecdotes don’t constitute data, these fragments of information are challenging to disregard.

Within the Cairo Geniza, a repository of preserved medieval documents, a “Kievan letter” was discovered. It’s akin to the modern concept of a “Patek,” a document carried by charity collectors that attests to the bearer’s legitimacy in supporting a charitable cause. This specific document hails from Kiev, indicating that it was within the Khazar’s sphere of influence. The bottom of the letter features a signature in Turkic runes, signifying that there were individuals in the Khazar community who were not proficient in Hebrew and likely needed to use Turkic runes, indicating a distinct Khazaric presence in Kiev during that time.


Archaeological Finds and Arab Historians’ References

Multiple pieces of evidence suggest that something significant happened in Khazaria in the 8th century related to Judaism. However, the exact nature of these events remains a subject of debate. Professor Shaul Stamfer, a prominent scholar in the field, remains skeptical about the story, describing it as “a splendid story” but with limited substance.


Motivation for the Khazar Conversion

One of the major questions surrounding the Khazar conversion to Judaism is the motivation behind it. While the letter of King Joseph to Hasdai ibn Shaprut emphasizes a spiritual aspect, it is widely regarded as a forgery. Other historians suggest geopolitical factors might have played a role, but concrete answers remain elusive.


The Extent and Depth of the Conversion

Another intriguing aspect is the depth of this conversion, both in terms of its religious character and the number of people involved. The extent of this conversion remains uncertain. Was it a royal gesture with limited impact on the general population, which might have remained pagan? The true scale of the Khazar Jewish community’s emergence remains a mystery.


The Fate of the Khazars

Adding to the enigma of the Khazars is their eventual fate. While their empire lost its independence in the 10th century after defeat by Sviatoslav of Kiev and the Rus, occasional references to Khazars as Jews appear in later chronicles. However, these references don’t seem to have had a substantial impact on the region’s demographics, leaving us with questions about what truly became of the Khazars.


The Khazar Conversion in the 21st Century

The Khazar conversion story’s significance extends to the 21st century due to its political implications. For some, it serves as a tool to delegitimize the claim of Ashkenazi Jews to their ancient heritage. The argument that Ashkenazi Jews are not descended from biblical Jews can be used to challenge their right to the land of Israel. This argument, embraced by both anti-Semites and some left-wing critics, raises complex questions about identity, history, and politics.

While the Khazar conversion remains a fascinating chapter in Jewish history, its full scope and impact remain shrouded in mystery. This enigmatic historical episode continues to provoke discussion and debate, as it touches on issues of identity and legitimacy that resonate even in the modern era. However, as we move forward in our exploration of Jewish history, we will soon turn our attention to the growth of Middle Eastern Jewry during the Gionic period, a topic of great significance and historical depth.


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