Thursday, October 30, 2008

Karaites in Byzantium: A Fifty Year Retrospective

Zvi Ankori’s Karaites in Byzantium: the Formitive years, 970-1100 was published fifty years ago and remains an important text in the field. To this day Karaites are still at the margins of Jewish studies, a Jewish sect that arose sometime in the eight century which shows up from time to time but of no great consequence. Ankori (who used to teach here at Ohio State) serves to take Karaites out of their origins with Anan and even beyond the ninth century Mourners of Zion. Ankori is concerned with the next step, to go beyond narrative of great Karaite intellectuals to dealing with the creation of a dynamic Karaite community. In this, Ankori focuses specifically on the Karaite community in Byzantium during the tenth and eleventh centuries. This community serves the interests of Ankori in that it takes Karaites out of their origins, thus presenting a community in flux. This Karaite community lived outside of the Islamic world from which it sprung and now lived under Christian rule. In terms of internal communal dynamics this presented a shift away from the orbit of the Karaite community in Palestine, the center of Karaite authority up until the Crusades. This led to certain practical changes such as a shift away from Arabic toward Hebrew and the accommodation to and eventual acceptance of the rabbinic calendar. This also involved a more fundamental shift in how Karaites understood themselves and how they related to their various opponents, whether Jewish rabbinites or gentiles.

Ankori was a student of Salo W. Baron and Baron’s influence is clearly manifested. Baron opposed what he termed as the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history in which Jewish history is a catalogue of Jewish suffering at the hands of an oppressive gentile world. Such a view sees Jews as distinctively separate from this gentile world and as passive figures in this drama. Baron saw the Jewish communities in medieval Islam and Christendom as dynamic participants of the world that they lived in and not mere passive victims. Jews were affected by the same currents that affected everyone else and not simply shut away on their own. For Baron this is not a matter of were Jews “rationalists” or did they contribute their fair share to the advancement of mankind. Baron was more interested in the Jewish community being part of the medieval world and Jews being products of the general social and economic superstructure.

Because of this Baron’s style of writing has an overlay of intellectual history, but this intellectual history is rooted in a social history, focused on communal and economic structures. Eschewing essentialist views, Baron emphasized variety and change. He brought to his Social and Religious History of the Jews (This work comes out to eighteen volumes and he never even got up to the modern period.) a sense of absolute thoroughness and an emphasis on records but this came at the expense of narrative. Considering the vast scope of his work, this lack of narrative turns his history into a vast parade of material with little in the way of an overarching structure to serve as a guide. This makes his books difficult to read, even for historians, let alone for anyone else.

Ankori's approach to Karaites follows this lead. His Karaites are a part of the Jewish community and of the world at large, interact with them, and are affected by the shifts in both. While the figures of the Karaite Tobias b. Moshe and the rabbinite Tobias b. Eliezer of Castoria cast a prominent shadow through most of the book they are not the subjects of the book. Rather they serve to illustrate the dynamics of Karaite and rabbinite polemics. Ankori is not interested in the back and forth of Karaite and rabbinite debates as an end in of itself, though the book can serve that end. Rather the writings of these two Tobiases serve to illustrate the wider world of Karaite and rabbinite interactions and how fluid and interrelated these two Jewish communities were. Karaites in Byzantium is a social history, emphasizing communal and economic structures. His mastery of his source material is nothing if not awe inspiring. If there is one drawback to the book is that, as a follower of Baron, Ankori has no use for narrative, which makes him difficult to read. His analysis is often brilliant though often shows a tendency to try to overwork his sources beyond what they could possibly supply. The fact that he had to work with such meager amounts of information (He wrote this book decades before the vast Judaic collections held by the Soviet Union in Leningrad was opened to scholars.) leads one to treat this with some level of charity. Ultimately Karaites in Byzantium is a grand monument to scholarship but lacks any sustained narrative to support its wide ended scope, thus making for a book that is inaccessible to all but the few specialists in the field.

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