Monday, July 26, 2021

This week marked 147 years since the passing of one of the most well-known Karaites of the last generations, the scholar and manuscript collector Abraham Firkovich (1786-1874). Much has been written on this multifaceted, most unusual native of Lutsk (part of the Polish-Lithuan Commonwealth), especially by the excellent scholars Dan Y. Shapira and Golda Akhiezer among others. I want to mention just a couple of factoids and tidbits that I personally found to be of interest.

Firkovich was one of the more eccentric and colorful personalities of the 19th century. In his early years he was known as a passionate individual, which could translate to either episodes of explosive rage or displays of genuine affection and fondness. He was also an (underrated) poet and wrote some interesting poetry that to my knowledge has never been properly studied. He maintained close ties with his maskilim contemporaries. Some of his books contain approbations from several of the best-known maskilim (some of them well-known rabbis!) of his age. He is commonly accused of having forged tombstones and other antiquities in order to bolster his theory that the Eastern European Karaites lived in Crimea before the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, in a bid to spare the Karaites from the antisemitic charge of deicide (it worked).

His own maskilim friends (even some Karaite ones!) concurred with the commonly held assessment that he engaged in the forgery of manuscripts and tombstones, but as the scholar Marina Rustow wrote, “since 1989, when the Russian government opened the Firkovich Collection in St. Petersburg to non-Soviet scholars, it has become clear that the extent of his forgeries were overstated; they were probably limited only to some tombstone inscriptions and colophons that he published. The works he retrieved during his voyages remain of tremendous value to scholars, who are beginning once again to use his collection in the historical reconstruction of Karaite thought and literature.”

The story of his relationship with his maskilim colleagues in particular deserves some elaboration. Ephraim Deinard once worked closely with Firkovich before apparently having a severe falling out with him. Deinard is considered one of the greatest “Hebrew bookmen” of all time and traveled extensively while amassing a large library of books and manuscripts that he put to use in his Hebrew work “Masa Qrim.” The latter purports to be a diary of his travels among the Karaites of Crimea. The work does not even pretend to be an objective account or anything close to an ethnographic study but is rather an undisguised attack against Karaites, Karaism and is particularly aimed against his nemesis Firkovich (about whom he devoted a separate “biography” called “Toldot Even Reshef”). To be sure Deinard himself was hardly a stellar individual of high integrity, but his “Masa Qrim” received approbations from maskilim who apparently felt torn between a sense of admiration for Firkovich (and an abiding interest in Karaism in general) on the one hand, and their personal friendship with Deinard on the other. Illustrative of this ambivalent attitude is exhibited in several of the approbations to “Masa Qrim.” Equally interesting is the enthusiastic approbation of the Sephardic sage, Rabbi Hayyim Hizkiyahu Medini (author of the Sdei Chemed), who served as a rabbi in Karasubazar, Crimea, for a period.

Dan Shapira in his biography of the man, “Avraham Firkowicz in Istanbul (1830–1832): Paving the Way for Turkic Nationalism” summed up Firkovich thusly:

“In order to understand Firkowicz, we must first relinquish our Rabbanite-centric view of Qaraism seeing in the Qaraites merely a sect, and try to imagine what would happen if the situation was the opposite, i.e., not roughly 10,000 Karaites against 10,000,000 of Rabanites, but vice versa. Such modern phenomena like the Natorei Qarta, an ultra-orthodox and super anti-Israeli Jewish religious sect siding with the worst enemies of Israel, especially in the West in recent years, could serve a good parallel: here the need for inner cohesiveness, combined with a high degree of paradigm tension with the majority inert to the minority kerygma, push the minority group to pathetic, and sometimes almost suicidal, acts of protest. It is important to put things in perspective. A minority finding itself under suspicion at best and hostility at worst from two quarters: their rabbanite brethren and their gentile neighbors (a minority within a minority within a minority) will ultimately produce figures who may act quite strangely depending on circumstance.” (p. 88-9)

Firkovich was probably a disagreeable and quarrelsome individual by nature; he did not get along with Rabbanites and Karaites alike. His physical altercation with the hasidic Rebbe of Berditchev, Rabbi Moshe Zvi (later the Admor of Savran), is indicative of his temperament. It is important to remember, as Shapira points out, that Firkovitch was not a Karaite leader in the modern sense of the term but rather a very well-known individual and an inseparable part of the maskilic circle of Eastern Europe. His last days in Chufut Kale in Crimea were marked by some bizarre behavior on his part. His last known portrait portrays him exactly as he wanted it to. It shows a venerable sage surrounded by his family. He fancied himself an Old Testament-like figure and he received visits from Jewish and non-Jewish notables at his residence up until his death there.

His Vitriolic Outbursts

In 1834 Firkovich gained particular notoriety when he published his explosive apologetic book Hotam Tokhnit. In it, he accused the Rabbanites of having crucified Jesus and the alleged murder of Anan ben David! (This seems to have been the first time such a charge was leveled.) The implication was clear: the Rabbanites were killers of prophets and it seemed an endorsement of traditional anti-Semitism. While at first glance these charges should give one pause and pass sentence on Firkovich as someone beyond the pale, a virtual Jew-hater (perhaps even a self-hating Jew). One must keep in mind that Firkovich was writing his book as a polemical work. Not one known to control himself, Firkovich was merely reacting to the perhaps equally vicious things written about Karaites among Rabbanite circles. Two examples should suffice:

A Rabbi Pesach of Slutzk (Russia) was queried on whether the halachic categories of tumah and tahara, purity/impurity, apply to the Karaite dead. He replied that even though it is a great mitzvah to kill them (and adding for good measure that it’s permitted to practice usury on them), they are still metam’e b’ohel (their corpses render one impure inside an enclosure):

Lest one think that this sort of attitude was limited to Ashkenazi rabbinic authorities only, this from Dan Shapira’s biography of Firkovich:

“Towards the end of the 19th c., a rabbi in Istanbul by the name of Shelomo Kimhi wrote a book called ‘Melechet Shlomo’ where he called the Karaites ‘worse than animals and it is permitted to kill them.’ The Hakham Bashi Yaqir Geron came out against him and ordered all copies to be burned.”

It should be pointed out that as with Melechet Shlomo, senior religious figures (such as his on and off patron, the wealthy Hakham Simcha Babovich) got involved in the ensuing firestorm and convinced Firkovich to recall all copies of the book, which he promptly did (the influence of his maskilim friends also likely played a role in his decision). Firkovich was no fool or ignoramus. His writings exhibit a strong knowledge of both Karaite and Rabbanite literature. His flowery biblical Hebrew earned him the admiration of many maskilim and lovers of the Hebrew language and proponents of the revival of the Hebrew language (when Yiddish stood as its strongest competitor among maskilic circles).

He was a prodigious writer as well as an indefatigable traveler and collector. His literary estate now forms the Firkovich collection at the St. Petersburg Russia’s National Library, a veritable goldmine for scholars.

I also found it interesting that he and his master/rival, Mordechai Sultanski, sometimes sold leather for tefillin to Rabbanite merchants.

His Softer Side

His poetry, reproduced in Yosef Elgamil’s second volume on Karaite history (Heb.) תולדות היהדות הקראית, חלק ב עמוד 45 shows a tenderness otherwise not shown in his other writings. In a series of paragraphs of rhymed prose, Firkovich recounts the history of the Karaite Jews and while he repeats the time-honored traditions of his forebears, his paean to the enlightened maskilim is a fascinating window into a little-known feature of the man. His characterization of Mendelssohn (affectionately referred to by the maskilim as Ramabaman—which was both the acronym of his Hebrew name, Rabbi Moshe Ben Menachem, as well as a hint as to his standing in their eyes, i.e., on the same plane as Rambam-Maimonides) as “the sage of our generations” and his usage of the rabbinic aphorism (taken from the epithet on the alleged tomb of Maimonides) that “from Moses to Moses, there arose none like Moses” abundantly illustrates that sentiment. He had similar tender things to say about Leib ben Ze’ev; Naphatali Hirz Wessely; Solomon Dubno; and Marcus Jost. Firk Mendelson.

His attitude, however, was decidedly violent when it came to hasidim, whom he considered vulgar, unenlightened and reprehensible (1). On the hasidic Admor Rabbi Moshe Zvi of Savran, he wished a fate nothing less than death! (He appeared to have had a run-in with Firkovich when the latter moved to Berditchev in 1828, and an altercation ensued—in which the Savraner Rebbe called him an ignoramus.)

It is interesting to note also that Firkovich was a native of Poland and was proficient in Yiddish among other languages. In some of his correspondence with his teacher/rival Mordechai Sultansky he was not averse to utilizing this language—especially when he had reason to believe that prying eyes were prying. [I thank Prof. Golda Akhizer for making me aware of this interesting tidbit.]

When he worked as a Hebrew school teacher in Istanbul he came across as a doting teacher, keeping exact notes about the condition and advancement of each pupil (though it should be pointed out that he also knew how to act the role of disciplinarian when he felt the need). As mentioned, Firkovich was a transient scholar in his early days and did not possess the capacity to stay put in one place for too long. His stint in Istanbul did not last long. In 1834 we find him accompanying Simcha Babovich in his travels across the east, checking and sometimes emptying the archives of various Jewish communities in the Crimean Peninsula (their protests notwithstanding. It should be pointed out that Jewish scholarship owes him a great deal of gratitude for doing this, as there is no doubt that by doing so he ended up saving many of these archives from certain destruction by the Nazis a century later).


How Firkovich Is Viewed by Contemporary Karaites

Firkovich continues to be a divisive figure even among certain Karaite circles. It should be remembered that certain sectors of the Middle Eastern Karaite community have often viewed their “brethren” in the west (once referred to me as “Ashkenazi karaites” by a member of the Egyptian community) with suspicion due in part to what they perceived as their dissociation from world Jewry (the much-made-about “dejudaization” (2) process attributed by many to Firkovich and especially to his successor Seraya Szapshal deserves a closer look). Shapira rightly points out that not only did Firkovich consider himself and his kin as Jews, he considered them the “only true” Jews.

He corresponded, however, throughout his life with a wide variety of people, including prominent hasidim, such as the third Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch (mentioned in Shapira, p. 77).

To be continued...

The author can be reached at [email protected]

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