Heresy and the Politics of Community by Marina Rustow
Reviewed by Yedidya Schwartz
It is the mid-tenth century, just before dawn, and the sky begins to pale over the eastern sea. A group of pirates have landed on the beach and are engaged in heated bargaining with a group of Jews from the nearby town of Qayrawan, in what is now Tunisia. Money changes hands. A bound prisoner is brought to shore and released. The pirates go their way, and the Jewish delegation returns home with the ransomed captive.
The fellow they have just ransomed is named Hushiel. A respected sage, he had been on his way to a Babylonian rabbinical convention with three distinguished colleagues before his journey was rudely interrupted by a gang of Umayyad-sponsored privateers. Unbeknownst to the Qayrawani Jews, this would prove to be the most fortuitous bit of personnel acquisition in North African-Jewish history: Hushiel would go on to found a rabbinic dynasty in Qayrawan that included the titanic Talmudic commentators Rabbenu Hananel (Hushiel’s son) and Rabbenu Nisim, whose magna opera adorn the interiors of all standard printed editions of the Talmud to this day.
This story is especially significant because it also embodies one of the great sea changes of Jewish history: the shift from the centralized religious authority of the Geonim to the age of the localized hegemony of the Rishonim. The Geonim (shorthand for Rashei Yeshivat Geon Ya’akov – “Heads of the Academy of the Splendor of Jacob”), were the leaders, from roughly the sixth to eleventh centuries, of the three central prestigious rabbinic academies: two in the cities of Sura and Pumbedita in modern-day Iraq, and one in Jerusalem. These über-rabbis delivered legal responsa to vast bureaucracies of subordinate communal rabbis and scholars, all of whom derived their legislative and judicial authority from the Palestinian or Babylonian Geonate. The Rishonim (literally, “first-ones”), were instead local authorities whose importance increased as the geonic power structure collapsed, and are known today primarily for being the first scholarly figures to compose comprehensive commentaries on the Talmud. Hushiel’s disciples were some of the first Rishonim, though the conference he had meant to attend was planned by the Babylonian-Geonic organizational network. Thus, his abduction from one scholastic world and founding of another is symbolic (at least in Avraham ibn Dawud’s twelfth-century historical compendium Sefer Hakabbalah) of the transplanting of halakhic power from the hegemonic centers of Babylonia to the individual communities of the west.
More significantly, however, this story and the transition it describes are both almost certainly false. They are just two of the many myths that Marina Rustow, professor of history at Cornell University, sets about debunking in her recent monograph Heresy and the Politics of Community (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008; 435p). Heresy is the product of exhaustive research using manuscripts unearthed over the past hundred years from the Cairo Geniza, a trove so immense that its contents continue to be catalogued to this day. The book tells the story of the last Jewish communities of the Geonic age in the empire of the Fatimid Caliphs, which extended across North Africa through Egypt and, at its greatest extent, into Palestine. The book comes as the latest in a series published by Cornell University Press on “Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past,” and it does exactly that, scrupulously dissecting and analyzing the power structure that existed within the Fatimid Jewish communities in Egypt and Palestine, with particular attention to the issues of centralization of power and faction.
By “faction,” I mean the tension between rabbinic Jews and the Karaites, a sect that broke off from rabbinic authority under the aegis of Anan ben David in the eighth century. The Karaites were alienated from their Rabbanite brethren following a series of polemical condemnations at the hands of the early-tenth-century Se’adya Geon. But, as Rustow makes clear, these “facts” are false as well: the Karaites did not break off under Anan in the eighth century; they were not, strictly speaking, a “sect;” and they certainly were not completely cut off from contact with tenth and eleventh-century Rabbanite Jews (those who submitted to traditional rabbinic authority).
It is this last point that makes up the bulk of Rostow’s thesis. Far from eschewing the Karaites as estranged heretics, she claims, Rabbanites saw them as just another exegetical school. Contemporaneous documents draw an analogy to the Muslim madhhabun (literally “paths”), which emphasized different methods of exegesis in jurisprudence, but nevertheless fully recognized the legitimacy of the others. Think of the good-natured conflict between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, or the Schools of Hillel and Shammai, rather than the belligerent non-recognition that contemporary Orthodoxy accords the Reform. As Rustow illustrates from numerous primary sources, Karaites and Rabbanites referred to themselves and each other in Arabic as alternative madhhabun. They did not hesitate to marry one another, often using hybrid marriage contracts or clauses containing mandated compromises between the parties. Such compromises included issues like dietary restrictions and holiday observance, yet were nevertheless fully endorsed and accepted by mainstream Karaite and Rabbanite authorities. Karaite government officials interceded with the Caliph for Rabbanite causes and donated to Rabbanite yeshivot. For a short period of time, Karaites served as Palestinian Geonim.
Rather than a simplistic dichotomy of the orthodox versus the heretical, Rustow posits the existence of a “tripartite community,” one balanced between Babylonian-Rabbanite, Palestinian-Rabbanite, and Karaite camps. All were constantly aligning, realigning, and stabbing each other in the back in a perpetual quest for the political upper hand. The book at times reads like a soap opera, with numerous subplots and intrigues and a cast of unforgettable characters with a distinct flair for melodrama. In a medieval Muslim culture that set great store in etiquette and authority, where having ten lines of honorifics opening an epistle was not uncommon, everyone, including the Jews, took their politics very seriously. As a friend of mine eloquently put it, “the Geonim were a shrewd bunch of operators.”
By all accounts, the Jewish leaders of the Geonic Age were indeed shrewd. At times their schemes reached fever pitch, such as when the Palestinian Rabbinite leaders attempted to placate an angry mob in 1029 by pretending to excommunicate the Karaites. (The ruse was so convincing that it fooled the governor’s agents, who promptly threw its orchestrators in jail for breach of the peace.) Or when, to challenge a certain well-connected Rabbanite pretender to the Palestinian Geonate, his competitor attempted to petition the upper echelons of Fatimid government by asking his followers in Fustat to send a missive to the leader of the Jews in Qayrawan urging him to contact the emir there and plead with him to write a letter to the Fatimid vizier back in Cairo to request an endorsement from the Caliph. (It took some time, but the plan was successful.)
These incidents aside, Rustow contends that the madhhabun usually handled their differences peacefully and reasonably. Declarations of heresy, she argues, were few and far between in the Fatimid era, though later, in the time of the Rishonim, such appellations became more common. Rather, she maintains, the accusation of heresy tended to come as a result of other, more political considerations. When the Rabbinites feared that the Karaites, due to wealth, governmental influence, or other reasons, were gaining too much power, they would trot out the “heresy” charge in an attempt to reaffirm their authority via the threat of excommunication. In Rustow’s words, differences in religious praxis, normally overlooked or accepted complacently, “were pressed into service as reasons for strife when there was strife to be fomented.” Differences of creed were only viewed as heresy when power dynamics dictated the convenience of such a claim.
Rustow’s documentation is convincing. She uses the rich corpus of primary sources to paint her landscape: the book is sprinkled throughout with long block quotes from letters, petitions, and memoirs. Rustow reads them all closely; she grounds her interpretations in the texts, and the reader thus follows her reasoning from one end to the other. Line after line of poetry and prose and legal formulas written by the Jews of the turn of the second millennium bears us toward her conclusion: relations between Karaites and Rabbanites were flexible and nuanced, and the chief reasons for greater or lesser accommodation at a given time were most often political rather than religious.
Which leads us to the inevitable question: Is such a theory of heresiography universalizable? Judaism today has its own sectarian splits and denominational squabbles, and we modern Jews are just as perplexed as to what to do about them as the Jews of the tenth century must have been. Can we use Rustow’s thesis of heresy-accusation-as-a-cover-for-power-politics to better understand our own situation? Can we view modern Jewish schisms along the same lines that she views medieval ones?
It is intriguing to imagine that accusations of heresy in our day and age might be the unconscious result of cynical power-squabbling. Why are the differences in practice between, say, Ashkenazi and Yemenite communities considered ideologically immaterial, while in places they far outstrip those between observance as advocated by the Orthodox and Conservative movements? Perhaps our differences are artificial; perhaps American inter-movement animosity is merely a manifestation of conflict over political authority, rather than serious issues of dogma, just like the relationship between Rabbanites and Karaites was only ideological when the leaders decided it needed to be.
According to such an argument, the ideologies behind Orthodoxy, the Conservative Movement, and Reform Judaism do not play the primary role in their conflicts. Rather, each camp merely uses the ideas as tools in service of political goals – attracting more members, perhaps, or garnering legitimacy for the receipt of services and funds from the government or general public, or even simply heightening the stature of religious and communal leaders to feed their egos. Ideology in such a case would be flexible or rigid not based on its importance, but on political convenience for those goals, and we would see rabbis and lay leaders acting inconsistently with their stated principles in exchange for political advantage or accommodation.
No doubt some cynical commentators on modern religion would latch onto such a paradigm even before thinking about it very hard. But although this picture might have some resonance, it is nevertheless difficult to draw many parallels between our religious-political situation and that of the Fatimid Jews. For starters, it is tough to find covert political motive for today’s Jews because they, qua Jews, do not have political power. Even the State of Israel generally maintains separation of church and state, ceding to the purview of religious authority only matters of personal status.
In the Diaspora, the difference is even more profound. Until emancipation, Diaspora Jewish communities had governmental autonomy, running their own court systems and social services independent of their host countries. Jewish law governed Jewish lives, and the accusation of heresy had very real political consequences within communities. The ill-conceived declaration of heresy and excommunication against the Karaites in 1038, Rustow recounts, did real and irreparable damage to the authority of the Palestinian Geonate, and paved the way for half a century of dissention that eventually brought down the entire edifice. By the twelfth century, the Geonate had been supplanted by the Fatimid administrative office of the Ra’is al-Yahud (“Head of the Jews”). There is no analogous case in modern non-autonomous communities of American Jews, where Jewish citizens are so integrated into the society around them that the edicts of their rabbis have little political weight. Even in Ultra-Orthodox communities that afford their rabbis supreme authority, that authority ends at the borders of the community, and no force induces those rabbis to take responsibility for the effects of their decisions among others, Jews or non-Jews.
What’s more, such a contemporary situation poses a serious challenge to Rustow’s thesis of politically-induced heresy-charges. In today’s religiously fragmented Jewish world, charges of heresy abound, far more than they ever did in the age and place that Rustow addresses. One cannot walk down a street in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem without seeing at least a hundred posters excommunicating someone or other, usually fellow members of the Orthodox community. Strictly observant circles are moving increasingly toward a radically positivist mode of halakhic discourse, to the point where some Ashkenazim will not eat meat slaughtered according to Sefardi standards, and the Orthodox community of Yale University will refuse to participate in communal havdalah services for reasons that are at best arcane. Many liberal Jews will not walk into a synagogue with a mechitza. Try to imagine a modern Orthodox rabbi officiating at a marriage where the contract (ketubah) is a compromise between Orthodox and Conservative formulas; it is simply, as a matter of policy, out of the question in even the most liberal of Orthodox circles (and in some very feminist Conservative ones as well).
But such compromises were precisely the norm among the Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate, where politics were rampant, and political power a serious and real consideration for rabbinic and Karaite legislators alike. In the centralized, hierarchical political/religious structure of the Geonic period, someone as high up the chain as a son of the Palestinian Gaon Daniel b. Azarya (1051-62) married a Karaite, and such a marriage, replete with a ketuba that contained a full clause from the Karaite marriage formulary, occurred with the full approval of the Palestinian rabbinic establishment. In the world where this marriage occurred, it was considered a politically savvy and strong alliance.
Here we see politics actually contributing to greater unity and compromise between the different groups, a trend borne out in several instances through Heresy’s winding heresiographical tale. In an effort to usurp the Palestinian Geonate, for example, the upstart Natan ben Avraham organized a huge joint-Karaite-Rabbanite Purim festival to cement his legitimacy. Karaite notables in the Fatimid court recognized their responsibility to aid in the freeing of captives of both schools, and the Rabbanites, in return, were cognizant of the Karaites’ indispensability to a functioning greater community. Of those two instances where a rabbinic ban of excommunication was declared against the Karaites, both were the Geon’s grudging response to threats by uncontrollable mobs, rather than any desire of the rabbis themselves to antagonize or alienate their Karaite brethren. Without exception, the Palestinian Geonim seemed to think that alienating the Karaites was the least wise and most politically suicidal thing that they could do.
Not until much later, in the period of the Rishonim, does the antagonistic sectarian literature that most have come to associate with the Karaite/Rabbanite divide appear. The ruling of Maimonides disqualifying the validity of Karaite ketubot and the polemical commentaries of Avraham ibn Ezra did not appear until the twelfth century, when the institution of the Geonate had become largely defunct and decentralized, with individual communities largely governing themselves without recourse to an elaborate hierarchical power structure. To the contrary of what we might have assumed from Rustow’s thesis of power-induced notions of heresy, it seems that the actual disowning of different groups occurred more and more as power became less centralized; the less any community was responsible for any of the others, the more it could afford to bicker without serious consequences. But when multiple communities were subsumed under a single power structure, as they were in the tenth and eleventh centuries, it became necessary to forge compromises and institute flexible modes of praxis in order to avoid disaster.
It goes without saying that this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Some hierarchical religious Jewish power structures, such as the Rabbanites in Christian Iberia (or the modern-day Israeli Rabbinate) use whatever power they have to crush minority religious madhhabun. But as we see from Rustow’s account, this is not a necessary result of centralized power, but rather of a single-party monopoly. In Spain, the Rabbanites took advantage of their exclusive access to government ears to brutally suppress the Karaites, while the latter had no political representation. The Israeli institution of the chief rabbinate, as well, has found its way fully into the hands of the Ultra-Orthodox, with no vehicle for the representation of the religious-Zionist madhhab, not to mention those of other, smaller denominations.
But it seems to historically hold for most centralized power structures (provided that they are legitimately representative of the populations they govern) that building up the leviathan increases stability and decreases infighting. Perhaps the best example is that of the United States, where the constitutional project, which sought to set up a centralized federal democracy, was met with serious misgivings, especially regarding the risk of faction. As we have discovered in this country, however, given a reasonable framework of representation, the existence of multiple parties in a centralized government makes a better community. It gives different camps a framework in which to communicate, allowing the state to listen to multiple voices and make informed decisions. More importantly it delineates the limits of any one madhhab’s ability to stomp on the others the way they would in the state of nature, where each community fends for itself.
The implications of such thinking are confusing. Should religious denominations in the United States attempt to bridge their differences by creating centralized authority structures? It seems hard to believe that anything could induce the parties to reach such an accommodation, especially here, where the political stakes are so low. Even in Israel, where religion has somewhat more power, the incentives are still insufficient to force factions’ ideological hands. To accomplish such reconciliation would require a society in which religion plays a much more dominant political role than it does today.
Indeed, if there is anything we can learn from the cases explored above, it is the difference between a strong central power structure and an autocracy. The former, such as the government of the United States or the medieval Geonate, is a forum and vehicle for the moderate reconciliation of multiple interests in a politically responsible way. The latter, what the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has become, is merely a large mallet that one madhhab can use to smash the others. Rustow’s work of historical scholarship before us paints an inspiring picture of the former, and I pray that the welcome increase in academic study of religion, power, and community will teach us enough as a people to escape the latter.