History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Chazars—The Proselyte Kingdom

In what is now Russia and the adjacent principalities, Jews had been settled since the beginning of the Christian Era; but the wave of persecution in the Byzantine Empire in the eighth century brought a larger influx of Jews into this territory. Here were settled half-civilized groups of many allied races, among them Scythians, Finns, Bulgarians and — Chazars.

The Chazars, a people of Turkish origin, had established themselves by the seventh century between the Black and Caspian Seas, on the borders of two continents. The steady advance of their conquering arms brought terror to the Persians in Asia and won an alliance with the Byzantine Empire in Europe.

The Jews settled among them displayed superior industry and intelligence. These qualities began to tell, and the Chazars came to look up to them with something of the same respect with which the Arabians had regarded the Jews, settled among them in the pre-Mohammedan days.

How the Chazars Became Jews.

The religion of the Chazars had so far been like that of their neighbors — a strange mixture of idolatrous notions and superstitions. But they now came to learn of Judaism from these Jewish settlers and visiting merchants, and of Mohammedanism and Christianity from Arabians and Greeks. Of these three religions, it was the Mosaic Faith that awakened in them a responsive chord. They seemed to find in this creed that which best appealed to their convictions and awakened the noblest in them. So the Chazars emhraced Judaism! This happened about the year 800.

A romantic story runs, that invited representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Mohammedanism presented their respective claims in a pubHc rehgious disputation. The presiding king, Bulan, noticed, however, that both the Cross and the Crescent placed Judaism as the foundation of their respective creeds — and always referred to it as their standard and starting point. This unconscious and unintended tribute to the authority of the Mosaic faith helped to decide the royal choice. In a later chapter (x) we shall show how one of our philosophers used this incident to present a comparison between Judaism and other creeds. His work popularized the story. Bulan's example was followed by the nobles and eventually to a very great extent by the people at large. The law decided that henceforth the monarch must be a Jew, though religious liberty was granted to all.

The next king, Obadiah, enthusiastic in the cause of Judaism, invited Jewish sages to his kingdom to establish synagogues and schools. In this way the people were instructed in the Bible, Talmud and in Jewish observances.

Influence of Judaism.

The new religion brought as great a moral change in character as Philo tells us took place among the Greek and Roman proselytes to Judaism of his day. The barbaric practice of selling children as slaves was at once abandoned. Though still a nomadic people, living in barbaric surroundings, they established a civilized government with courts of justice, and maintained extensive trade. In a fanatic era their sway was tolerant and broad and the land became even a haven for the persecuted.

When at the height of his power, the king, or chaghan as he was called, even took means to defend Jews persecuted in other lands.

For many years the community remained unknown to the rest of the House of Israel. But about the year 960 the news of the proselyte kingdom was brought to Chasdai Ibn Nagdela in Spain, of whom we shall hear later. He at once entered in correspondence with Joseph, its eleventh Jewish king. He made thorough enquiry as to its geographical location, its past history, its customs, its internal constitution and the occupations of its people. It is to the correspondence that followed that we are indebted for most of what we know of the Jewish Chazar community.

Decline of the Chazars.

In the tenth century its fortunes began to decline. Its outlying provinces were seized by the rising power of Russia. But the Byzantines still regarded them with respect and fear. The Russian incursions continued to absorb more of their territory and soon they held naught but the Crimea. This was at length absorbed, too, by the steadily advancing Russians in 1016. Some commingled with other Jews settled there and the royalty took refuge in Spain.

Like the Jewish proselyte kingdom established by Jussuf in Arabia in the sixth century, it was not destined to endure. Before the year 1100 the Jewish kingdom of the Chazars had vanished as a dream. But who shall say how far the Jewish influence may have been carried among the scattered people?

Theme for Discussion:—Why have proselyte Jewish kingdoms not been successful?