Jews of the Diaspora

Judaism is as much a culture as it is a set of religious practices and, regarded as such, the nation of Israel is one of the few to have retained a sense of identity beyond it's dissolution as a political entity. Jewish presence in their ancient homeland was disrupted in the 2nd century CE as a result of the Bar Kochba Revolt, which induced the Roman Empire to scatter the Jewish people to the four winds and repopulate the region with others. Although the region was never entirely devoid of Jewish residents, for the most part Jews migrated in every direction, ending up in all parts of the Roman and Parthian Empires, and eventually populating centers everywhere in Europe and Asia. This was the Diaspora, a very long period of time (135 CE to 1948) in which Jews were tiny minority communities in an at-best indifferent and all too often an actively hostile world. What kept them together as a people was their adherence to their ancient traditions, and the guidance of Exilarchs, leaders in far-flung locales who interpreted and administered the laws as set forth in scripture. This file is a record of some of those Exilarchic leaders, resident in various locales under varying legal and social circumstances.

Contains articles on: Adiabene, Anjuvannam, Beta Yisrael, Chabad Chassidics, Chief Rabbis of Great Britain, Chief Rabbis of Israel, Jewish colonies in Egypt, the Gaonim, the Hakham Basi, Himyar, Jarawa, the Juhuri, the Keraites, the Khazars, Matrega, the Resh Galuta, Septimania, and Tayma

ADIABENE A territory in western Parthia and northern Mesopotamia. It emerged at a time when both Persia to the east and Rome to the west were either weakening or distracted - circa 15 CE to 116. The Kingdom led a precarious existence at best, and was notable inasmuch as it's rulers converted to Judaism; several are buried in Jerusalem. Details of this district are to be found in the Kurdistan article within the Mesopotamia file.

ANJUVANNAM A locale on the Malabar Coast of southern India. Anjuvannam was created c. 1000 CE by a grant from Bhaskara Ravivarman II of Kerala, to Joseph Rabban, the leader of the exceedingly ancient Malabari Jewish community. The grant was engraved on a set of copper plates, extant to this day, which forms a charter of royal privileges for Kerala's Jews. Details, such as remain, of this community may be found in the Anjuvannam entry in the India file.

BETA YISRAEL The Jewish community of Ethiopia. In Ethiopia they were known as "Falasha," or "strangers", a term now considered perjorative. They believe they are descended from Menelik, King Solomon's son by the Queen of Sheba. Far more likely scenarios that have been proposed are that they are remnants of Jewish military colonists at Elephantine, in Egypt, who moved south and intermarried with Ethiopian tribes; or, alternatively, that they are descendents of exiled tribes who left Judea during the Babylonian or even Assyrian conquests. In medieval times the Beta Yisrael are reputed to have ruled a substantial kingdom in Ethiopia, but they eventually were subjugated by the Axumites and lost contact with world Jewry until 1870. Between 1975 and 1985 the airlift of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel began; it was cut off by the Marxist government but restarted on May 24, 1991, when 14,325 Beta Yisrael were airlifted in the 36-hour "Operation Solomon."

CHABAD (Lubavicher) CHASSIDIM The Chassidic movement began in Belarus and Lithuania in the early 18th century, as an effort to personalize and invigorate a religion which was seen as becoming too dry, legalistic, and joyless. The founder of Chassidism, Yisrael ben Eliezer (Ba'al Shem Tov), taught a blend of emotional and mystical approaches that appealed strongly to the communities in Greater Poland he worked in at the time. Perhaps unfortunately, this occured at a time of crisis within the Jewish world - only a generation or two before all Jewry had been rocked by the betrayal of the mystical prophet Sabbatai Tzvi, whose conversion to Islam had brought into disrepute the fundamental teachings of Qabala and the mystical side of Judaism. Chassidic efforts were greeted with strong efforts at suppression by the Gaons of Vilnius and other eastern European communities, with the entirely predictable result of defining and strengthening Chassidic life and thought. Since that time, Chassidic groups of varying levels of intensity have flourished both in America and in Israel, although they continue to be viewed with skepticism by the outside world - they regard themselves generally as a warm and friendly people, although their distinctive appearance and somewhat austere or even secretive habits when in public lend themselves to suspicious appraisals by outsiders. The Chabad Chassidics, often known as Lubavichers from the town that was their center from 1812 to 1915, are one of the best-known and most active of Chassidic groups, but there are many such localized groups in existence - see also, for example, Ger.

CHIEF RABBINATE: GREAT BRITAIN The Chief Rabbinate has existed in Britain in one form or another for nearly three centuries, dating back almost to the time of the re-admission of the Jews in the 17th century.
No-one knows when Jews first began to arrive in Britain. The likelihood is they were here in Roman times. By contrast, the date of their expulsion, 1290, by order of King Edward I is well chronicled. Thereafter, with rare and temporary exceptions, the only Jews living in England were either converts to Christianity or those who practised their religion in secret. Following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 a secret Marrano community was set up in London. Jews began to be readmitted into England in the mid 17th century, during the time of the Puritan ascendency under Oliver Cromwell. By 1690 the Jewish congregation in London set up the Great Synagogue in Duke's Place in the City of London, and by 1700 the Ashkenazi Jews had spread far beyond the environs of the City of London - when they needed advice or guidance on religious matters they turned to the Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, who came to be regarded as the spiritual leader of all the Ashkenazim in Britain. As the British Empire expanded, so too did the reach of the Chief Rabbi, insofar as they came to be consulted and accorded  a primary position among Jews living anywhere under British or Commonwealth authority.

CHIEF RABBINATE: ISRAELIf the Hakhamei Basi of the Ottoman Sultanate were the de-facto heirs to the spiritual authority of the Exilarchs, the Chief Rabbinates of the State of Israel can be said to descend from the Great Sanhedrin, the lawmaking body of ancient Israel, through the Nasi'im and the Gaonim of Eretz Yisrael. As early as the 1500's there has been an office of Rishon L'Tzion (First in Zion), the title now held by the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. The office became officially recognized by the Ottoman government in the mid 1800's and has been held by such famous Jewish scholars as Moses ben Jonathan (1650's-1689), Abraham Gagin (1840's) and Elijah Panigel (1907-1911). The office was formalized in its modern shape under the British Mandate in the early 1920's. The decision to elect two Chief Rabbis, one Sephardi (Spanish/Oriental) and one Ashkenazi (North European) was made to reflect the diversity of Israel's  Jews, but in recent years numerous people, including the two current chief Rabbis themselves, have advocated the merging of the two offices and the election of a single Chief Rabbi. The Chief Rabbis alternate in the presidency of the Religious Council, which has jurisdiction over marriage and other issues relating to the Jewish community in Israel. They are elected by a committee of electors composed of various religious and civil authorities.

Jewish Colonies in) EGYPT Interconnections between early Egyptian and early Hebrew populations are of old date. One of the most enduring themes of Old Testament scripture is the presence of Hebrews within Pharaonic Egypt, first as "guest-workers" and later as forced-labour battalions or slaves, and their subsequent flight out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan (popular imagination sometimes seeing them as the labourers who built the pyramids, though the main era of pyramid construction ended long before the Habiru were in Egypt). In later eras, other communities of Jews settled in Egypt at various localities, for various reason, and with varying degrees of autonomy. The balance of this article is commentary on some of these Classic-era settlements and temples.

The GAONIM (Levantine) The Gaonim were the heads of the Talmudic acadamies of Babylonia during the Middle Ages. They were universally recognized as the highest authority of Halakhic (Jewish Legal) instruction and interpretation  from the seventh century to at least the 11th. The title of Gaon comes from the Aramaic phrase Resh Yeshiva Geon Ya'akov, or Head of the Acadamy, Pride of Jacob. The Gaonate was not hereditary but appointive, with the Resh Galuta appointing and deposing both Gaonim, alhtough it did tend to remain in a group of several prominent rabbinical families. The two highest acadamies were those of Sura and Pumbedita, both in Babylonia, though the title of Gaon was later adopted by the heads of Rabbinical acadamies in Egypt, Israel, and elsewhere. In many ways, the Gaonim were far more powerful than the Resh Galuta himself; while his direct influence extended only to those Jews within the Caliphate, the Gaonic rulings on legal issues were sought after and followed by Jews from the Atlantic Ocean to the Himalayas.

GER CHASSIDIM Ger, Gerrer, or Gur is the Yiddish name of Góra Kalwaria, a small town in Poland (on the Vistula, 23 miles (37 km.) south-southeast of Warsaw), and the name of a large Orthodox Chassidic dynasty which originated from this town. They are now based in Jerusalem where their Rebbe lives. The Rabbis who lead them have come from a family by the name of "Alter". Almost all of their devotees (about 200,000) in Europe perished during the Holocaust, but their leader at the time managed to escape and quickly set about rebuilding the movement in Israel. There are large communities of Gerrer chassidim in New York, London, and Belgium. In Israel they dominate the Agudath Israel or Israel religious political movement and party in the Israeli Knesset. They have set up several satellite communities in parts of Israel, including Ashdod in the south, Arad in the Negev desert, and Hazor in the Galilee. They are distinguished by their dark hasidic garb, and on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays the married men wear a high circular fur hat called a spodik (not to be confused with the much flatter shtreimel - a fur hat worn by some of the other chassidic groups.). See also, Chabad.

The HAKHAM BASI The Hakhamei Basi were the Chief Rabbis of the Ottoman Empire, and as such were the closest thing to an overall Exilarchal authority among Jewry everywhere in the Middle East in early modern times. They held broad powers to legislate, judge and enforce the laws among the Jews of Ottoman Turkey and often sat on the Caliph's divan. They also maintained considerable influence outside the Ottoman Empire, especially after the forced migration of numerous Jewish communities and individuals out of Spain and Italy.

HIMYAR A Kingdom of central Yemen, 1st century BCE to 599 CE. The rulers of Himyar from c. 400 to 525 are said to have been Jewish - certainly the last of these was, and there has been a large Jewish population in Yemen almost up to the present day. Details of these Kings may be noted in the Himyar section of the Yemen article in the Arabia file.

The JARAWA Note should be made of this Berber tribal confederacy in North Africa. They absorbed significant numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing the Visigoths in Spain in the 5th century CE, and later converted to Judaism en masse - one of a number of local Berber clans and tribes to do so. When the Arabs conquered North Africa, between 650 and 710, the Jarawa resisted fiercely, and under a female leader called Kahina ("the Priestess", cf. "Cohen") won several important victories. Ultimately the Muslims were successful however, but their punitively harsh attitudes toward the Berbers in general resulted in North Africa being a hotbed of religious heterodoxy and outright schism for centuries - the Fatamid Caliphs are probably the best-known example. The Jarawa disappeared, but there has been a Jewish presence in North Africa, often in what has been described as a symbiotic relationship with neighbouring Berbers, almost up until the present day. Details on the Jarawa may be found in that article within the North Africa file.

JUHURI The so-called Mountain Jews of the Caucasus. The Juhuri speak a Persian dialect related to the Tat language. Theories of their origins vary; however, the most likely theory is that they were military settlers placed in the Caucasus by Sassanid monarchs to defend from Scythian and other nomadic raids. Other theories are that they are Tats who converted to Judaism or are remnants of the Khazars. This last is unlikely, since they appear to have been settled in the area before the rise or conversion of Khazaria, but they most likely were allied with or subject to the Khazars and probably accepted refugees during that empire's collapse. They are unusual among Diaspora Jewish communities for their historically martial, feuding society. In the 1700s the Juhuri were largely pushed out of the highlands by Avars and other Muslim tribes, and settled in coastal towns like Derbent. In the late 1800s and early 1900s thousands of Juhuri emigrated to Israel, where many became prominent leaders of the self-defense forces that presaged the modern Israeli Army. Those who remained were decimated by the Nazis, and many emigrated following the independence of Israel in 1948, but a community remains in Daghestan and Azerbaijan to the present day. Several tens of thousands of Juhuri and their descendents live in Israel.

KARAITE (Ananite) EXILARCHS The Karaites were originally a collection of schismatic Jewish sects that had little in common except a rejection of the Rabbinic Oral Tradition that formed the basis for the Talmud. They had little cohesion or widespread adherence until the rise of Anan ben David, who declared himself Exilarch in 760. Anan taught that each individual could use simple rules of reason to derive the Law directly from the text of the Torah. Anan's movement (called Ananism) brought various subsects together and eventually was supplanted by Karaism, which differed from Anan's teachings in many respects but still held him in high regard. Anan and his descendents are regarded as the legitimate Exilarchs in Karaite tradition.

The KHAZARS The Khazars were a Turkic nomad group dwelling on the steppes of Central Asia east of what is now the Ukraine. Subservient to a number of steppe Overlord tribes in their earliest beginnings, they broke free following the chaos which resulted from the fragmentation of the Hunnic Empire in the late 5th century CE. They established a permanent center at Itil, on the lower Volga, although they still remained nomadic to a large degree. Located in a strategically important region (the portage between the Dnieper and Volga watersheds) and possessing a large population of vigourous and aggressive temperment, they expanded rapidly and assumed overlordship themselves over neighbouring tribes. At this point (the 7th century), they came into contact with the nearest fully civilized regional Empires - the Christian Byzantine Empire across the Black Sea to the southwest, and the Muslim Caliphate to the south, across the Caucasus Mountains. In a series of conflicts with these two, the Khazars retained their position as a Third Force in the region, although they were, in fact, conquered briefly by the Muslims, only to throw off that hegemony shortly thereafter. Approached repeatedly in this era by Christian and Muslim missionaries, the Khazar leadership was quick to see the advantages of accepting one or the other faith, but also noted that in doing so they would inevitably become in some sense minions of whichever Empire they received their religion from. Their response to this dilemma can be regarded as a case-study in how to side-step potential crises - they inquired as to the source of Christian and Muslim thought and, on the admission that both were rooted in ancient Judaism, converted forthwith to that faith. It is not clear that, initially at least, the mass of Khazar people also converted - it is far more likely that this step was assumed only by the nobles, clan elders, and warrior chiefs. Still, the influence of Judaism gradually filtered throughout the entire society, and while Khazaria remained strong, the Black Sea region hosted a tripartite balance of power. The Khazars retained their strength as a nation for the better part of 200 years, but by the latter 10th century, they were weakening under repeated assaults by other, newer peoples in the region - Pechinegs, Cumans, Russians, and the like. Khazar hegemony crumbled after 969, when Itil was sacked by a Kievan army, although fragments of the Khazars survived for another two centuries or so. By the time the Mongols under Batu Khan swept the region in the 1240's, they had vanished. Khazar leadership is detailed in it's own entry among the Eurasian Nomads. The reason I place this commentary here is that there has been considerable discussion in recent decades over the role of Khazari Judaism in the Diaspora, and the persistence of the Khazar people, and religious influence, in Eastern Europe generally after the 12th century. There are those who see in the Khazars the ancestors of later Russian, Litvak, Galitzianer, and Polish Jewry. Others aver that the Khazars are essentially extinct and have had no lasting influence on the development of the Ashkenazim (northern and central European Jewry). These are complex issues, and beyond the scope of this article, but at minimum, it should be recognized that during the late Dark Ages and early Mediaeval period, there did exist a large and vigourous Jewish state that was known of by Diasporic Jews.

MATREGA A town in southern Russia located on the Taman Peninsula at the site of the ancient Greek colony of Phanagoria. It became a commercial concession of Genoa for trade with the Mongols and, in 1419, was granted to a Genoese merchant-prince who, as it happens, was also Jewish. He married a local noblewoman, and established a dynasty of sorts which endured until the place was seized by the Ottomans and granted to their vassals, the Tatar Khans of Krym, in 1482. Thus, for more than sixty years, there was a Jewish-held community, loosely overseen by the Banco di Sant' Giorgio in Genoa but as a matter of practicality quite autonomous. This region was near the heartland of old Khazaria (in fact, the Italian name for the Crimean and Taman coastlines was "Gazaria"), and such details as remain of Matregan governors can be found within the Tmutarakan article in the Crimea file.

The RESH GALUTA The Resh Galuta (Aramaic: "Prince of the Dispersion") was the senior Jewish leader in the Middle East, responsible for the welfare and security of Jews everywhere under their foreign lords following the Diaspora. Located at first in Old Babylon, under the Parthian and Sassanid Empires, the seat of the Reshim was transferred to Baghdad with the coming of the Arabs. Of the House of David, and regarded as Royal Princes by both Jews and dominant Imperial power (Persian, then Caliphate, then Mongol) alike. Their power was not absolute; other Jews, particularly the Nasi in Judea and the heads of the Talmudic Academies had much authority; nevertheless these Princes held enormous prestige and perhaps primary influence.

SEPTIMANIA Note should be made of this district, a coastal region in the far south of France, between the Pyrennes Mountains to the southwest and Provence to the northeast - essentially, the Golfe du Lion littoral, centered on Narbonne. In the middle to later 700's, the district came under the authority of a Theodoric, who is often also referred to as "Makhir" This Makhir has been identified as Makhir Natronai, Resh Galuta in Baghdad, exiled from that place in a succession dispute. Theodoric-Makhir established a dynasty in Septimania wich endured for better than 70 years, until the 840's. Muted and equivocal evidence suggests that Theodoric and his descendents established a Jewish-led state, and this is not entirely improbable - the south of France has always been a region influenced by many and diverse cultural elements and strains of thought, and heterodox opinions have deeply penetrated the region (it was, for example, a major center for Cathari and Albigensian heretics in the 13th century). Details of Septimanian leadership may be found within it's own article in Langued'oc.

TAYMA A town and oasis in northwestern Saudi Arabia, northwest of Medina and southeast of the Jordanian frontier. It lies on the edge of the Great Northern Wastes, the Nafud. The place, a stop on the Spice Route from Ubar, is ancient and many ruins and inscriptions are to be found here. The place is mentioned in the Old Testament a number of times - the Hebrews regarded it as the settlement of a descendent of Abraham, Tema, the son of Ishmael. Persistent (but nowadays muted) Arabic tradition holds that Tayma was the site of a very old Jewish colony. It is known that when the armies of Muhammad took the place, the inhabitants chose to pay the head-tax of non-Muslims rather than convert, at least initially. Such details as still remain of these Exilarchs are to be found in the Tayma entry within the Arabia file.