chapter  9
15 Pages

Political Conflict and the Use of Power in the World of the Geniza

WithShlomo Dov Goitein

While searching Jewish tradition for a “usable past” relevant to our own time we could not make a better choice than the 300 years between Saadya Gaon (d. Baghdad, 942) and the Nagid Abraham, the son and successor of Moses Maimonides (d. Old Cairo, 1237). That period was:

Authoritative: Every aspect of what we regard today as Judaism—the synagogue service and the Siddur, law and ritual, theology and ethics, the text of the Bible, the grammar and vocabulary of the Hebrew language,—was consolidated, formulated, and canonized during that age;

Exemplary: Classical Islam, especially during the Fatimid period (969–1170), with which we are mainly concerned here, left a large measure of legal and communal autonomy to the religious minorities, and Jewish life was professedly based on the Torah and the Talmud. Many of the ancient institutions, such as the Sanhedrin (then mostly referred to by its Hebrew term Ye-shiva), represented by the yeshivas of Baghdad and Jerusalem, still were operative, so that Jewish communal life was genuinely Jewish;

278Well attested: The treasure trove of the Cairo Geniza with its thousands of letters and documents enables us to know Jewish life not only as it should have been (and was expressed in our literary sources), but as it actually was;

Both similar and dissimilar to present-day Judaism in the diaspora (and partly also in Israel) in significant ways: Revenue of the community was based on free contributions. Office was basically honorary. The difference was that Jews (and Christians) formed “nations” by themselves and were not ordinary citizens. This made it easier to lead a Jewish life, but more difficult to live as an ordinary human being.

This Geniza period, however, was an age of transition. It started out with ecumenical organizations, the yeshivas of Baghdad and Jerusalem, and local corporations like the religious democracies of late antiquity, but ended in complete diaspora, independent territorial and local units and Islam-like autocratic rule within the community as of the late Middle Ages. By then the Jews of the East had become assimilated in their organizational life to Islam, with the Dayyan becoming more or less like the qadi.