Rabbi King: David of Khazaria
Monroe S. Kutner
Publisher: Xibris/Random House
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.