People Of The Book:
Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition
By Dr. Henry Abramson
A bold, even defiant statement of Jewish philosophy, Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi’s Ha-Kuzari is unparalleled in Jewish literature. Written in the middle of the 12th century, Ha-Kuzari (The Khazar) defends Judaism against the ideological challenges posed by Christianity and Islam, both major faiths in medieval Spain, using arguments that have endured the test of centuries and reinforcing the intellectual foundations of Jewish readers to the present day.
Rabbi Ha-Levi, a gifted poet in both Hebrew and Arabic, placed his polemic in historical context by retelling the rather amazing story of the conversion of King Bulan of the Khazars, a Turkic people that formed a massive Central Asian empire reaching well into Eastern Europe. According to legend, King Bulan was a spiritually sensitive individual who began to doubt the shamanistic practices of his native people. His search for meaning led him to convene a debate between a Jewish rabbi, a Christian priest, and a Muslim mullah. After hearing their respective claims to authenticity, the story goes, Bulan chose to convert to Judaism, ultimately taking his entire country with him.
The legend suited Rabbi Ha-Levi’s purposes very well. His principal goal in composing Ha-Kuzari was to provide an answer, even a refutation, to the intellectual attractions of the dominant cultures of Spain. (In this regard, Ha-Kuzari is one of the earliest examples of a Jewish literary genre that stretches through Maimonides, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and many contemporary writers.) Rather than openly critiquing Christianity and Islam in his defense of Judaism, he used the story of the Khazar conversion as a literary device, presenting philosophical arguments as part of a historic trialogue rather than a direct rhetorical attack. This thinly veiled disguise allowed much more latitude in making his case, especially in Arabic, where it met with enthusiastic readership among philosophically inclined Jewish youth.
Rabbi Ha-Levi based his book on one of the more detailed historical sources available on the Khazar Empire, the so-called Reply of King Joseph. In the 10th century, the Spanish-Jewish diplomat Chasdai ibn Shaprut sent out emissaries to the east, hoping to gain confirmation of the existence of a Jewish kingdom on the shores of the Caspian Sea; his envoys were blocked at Constantinople, but through a third party they managed to exchange some communication with Bulan’s descendant, King Joseph, who validated the stories of this mysterious land.
Historians have since discovered dozens of references to Jewish Khazaria, written by both Jewish and non-Jewish travelers and historians of the medieval period. Khazarian documents written in Hebrew have been found in the Cairo Geniza, and Khazarian coins with the inscription “Moses is the Messenger of Gâ€‘d” have been unearthed in Sweden. Strangely, with the notable exception of Ha-Kuzari, there is a remarkable silence regarding Khazaria from rabbinic sources, indicating the possibility that the conversion was limited to the ruling elite, or that perhaps the Khazars adopted Karaite interpretations of Judaism.
There is some evidence to suggest that the Khazar conversion, notwithstanding the pious account preserved in King Joseph’s reply, was actually motivated by geopolitical considerations: faced with the rapid advance of Islam to the south and Christianity to the west, the Khazars may well have decided that adopting Judaism, a religion tolerated by both Christians and Muslims, might be a better way to ensure their political independence than retaining their polytheistic shamanism or choosing one dominant faith and warring with the other.
The Khazar Empire eventually fell to the princes of medieval Kievan Rus’ in the 13th century, after nearly five centuries of existence as a Jewish state. Some writers have argued that the Khazars are actually the ancestors of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewry, a theory that bears little connection to historical reality, including the results of multiple DNA studies conducted in the last decade. Some of these writers do not bother to conceal their true agenda, which is to undermine the connection between contemporary Jews and their biblical ancestors, hoping to delegitimize the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi’s Ha-Kuzari, written 800 years ago as a defense of Jews, their biblical origins, and their connection to their ancient homeland, retains its value even today.
Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish History and Thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.