Book Review: The Rabbi King: David of Khazaria

Author: Monroe S. Kutner
Publisher: Xibris/Random House

Review by Gabriel A Sivan

ALTHOUGH a work of fiction, this is one of several books that testify to renewed interest in the Khazars - a formerly nomadic people of Turkish stock whose ruling class embraced Judaism in or around 740 CE and established an empire stretching from the Crimea to the Aral Sea.

By tradition, it was after a debate between representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in which the Jewish arguments proved most convincing - that King Bulan made Khazaria Jewish.

The faith that he adopted contained an admixture of paganism, however, and normative rabbinic Judaism was introduced only by his successors.

Khazar merchants traded throughout the Near East; Khazar troops helped the Magyars conquer Hungary and joined the Byzantines in a war against Persia. Vague accounts of this remote but powerful empire heartened Jewish communities in Western Europe and inspired Judah Halevi's famous exposition of Judaism, Sefer ha-Kuzari.

Tragically, from 965, the Khazar state declined and eventually collapsed under savage Russian and other attacks.

"However, it is documented that Khazars, and a land called Khazaria, existed well into the early 13th century, probably in the area of Russian Dagestan and Chechnya," writes Monroe Kuttner, author of The Rabbi King, who did a great deal of research.

True enough, Khazars appear to have survived as an ethnic group until the Mongol invasion in 1237, and the last remnants were no doubt absorbed by Jewish, Karaite and Christian populations.

Kuttner evidently believes that there were Khazars among his ancestors in Hungary and Russia. On that basis, he invents a khagan or king named David, Khazaria's last ruler - during the years 1150-1170 - whose empire is limited to what is now Dagestan.

Ordained as a rabbi in Cordova, where young Moshe ben Maimon was a fellow student, David returns from Spain and has difficulty adjusting to life in a world remote from traditional Judaism and to his role as a warrior king. Furthermore, he must now face enemies without - the Polovtsi - and within, his ambitious uncle.

The ensuing adventures take David from Khazaria to Constantinople, Jerusalem, Syria, Persia, Azerbaijan, and then back to Khazaria. He displays wisdom and courage; becomes the trusted friend of Saladin; evades the assassins hired to kill him; and is fancifully identified with David Alroy, who led a Jewish messianic movement in 12th century Kurdistan.

The author of this historical romance combines a vivid imagination with an ability to portray character. He is well versed in Jewish practice, but indulges in anachronisms - describing a bar mitzvah ceremony 300 years before it was instituted and the wearing of embroidered skullcaps imported "from a Jewish community in Bukhara, east of the Caspian".

Kuttner may be unaware of an earlier novel on the same theme, Samuel Gordon's The Lost Kingdom; or the Passing of the Khazars (London, 1926). He would also have benefitted by viewing the Israel Television documentary Mamlekhet ha-Kuzarim (The Khazar Kingdom, 1997) with Ehud Ya'ari, which focused on relics of Khazaria that Russian officialdom still tries to conceal - objets d'art, Torah scrolls, ancient manuscripts, gravestones and archeological finds bearing witness to the flourishing Jewish civilisation in pre-Christian southern Russia.

Despite my initial scepticism, I was intrigued by The Rabbi King. If it helps to shed more light on the Khazars and rescue them from an undeserved oblivion, so much the better.

To understand how what historian Solomon Grayzel terms "a belligerent tribe of half Mongolian people" came to convert to Judaism - and the legends surrounding their conversion - readers can turn to any number of sources, including: The Encyclopaedia Judaica, always the best place to start research on virtually any Jewish-related topic. It includes a long entry on the Khazars, as well as a useful bibliography.

There is also a fascinating entry on the "Chazars" in the venerable pre-World War I Jewish Encyclopaedia (London).

Other volumes on the subject include The Kuzari: An Argument for the Faith of Israel, a philosophical treatise by Spanish Jewish philosopher and poet Judah Halevi (1075 1141), written in the form of a Platonic dialogue, purportedly between the king of the Khazars and representatives of Islam, Christianity and Judaism; and The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage by Arthur Koestler, a revisionist view of the Khazars used by opponents of Zionism to argue that contemporary Jews are non Semitic converts to the faith.