Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate

Publication Year



“In a book with a bold new view of medieval Jewish history, written in a style accessible to nonspecialists and students as well as to scholars in the field, Marina Rustow changes our understanding of the origins and nature of heresy itself. Scholars have long believed that the Rabbanites and Qaraites, the two major Jewish groups under Islamic rule, split decisively in the tenth century and from that time forward the minority Qaraites were deemed a heretical sect. Qaraites affirmed a right to decide matters of Jewish law free from centuries of rabbinic interpretation; the Rabbanites, in turn, claimed an unbroken chain of scholarly tradition.

Rustow draws heavily on the Cairo Geniza, a repository of papers found in a Rabbanite synagogue, to show that despite the often fierce arguments between the groups, they depended on each other for political and financial support and cooperated in both public and private life. This evidence of remarkable interchange leads Rustow to the conclusion that the accusation of heresy appeared sporadically, in specific contexts, and that the history of permanent schism was the invention of polemicists on both sides. Power shifted back and forth fluidly across what later commentators, particularly those invested in the rabbinic claim to exclusive authority, deemed to have been sharply drawn boundaries.

Heresy and the Politics of Community paints a portrait of a more flexible medieval Eastern Mediterranean world than has previously been imagined and demonstrates a new understanding of the historical meanings of charges of heresy against communities of faith. Historians of premodern societies will find that, in her fresh approach to medieval Jewish and Islamic culture, Rustow illuminates a major issue in the history of religions.”


Winner of the 2008 Salo W. Baron Prize (American Academy for Jewish Research)

Winner of the Jordan Schnitzer Book Award for 2007-2011 in the category of Ancient and Medieval Jewish History (Association for Jewish Studies)




Part I: The Shape of the Jewish Community
1. The Tripartite Community
2. Jewish Book Culture in the Tenth Century
3. The Limits of Communal Autonomy

Part II: Rabbanites, Qaraites, and the Politics of Leadership
4. Qaraites and the Politics of Powerlessness
5. "Nothing but Kindness, Benefi t, and Loyalty": Qaraites and the Ge'onim of Baghdad
6. “Under the Authority of God and All Israel”: Qaraites and the Ge’onim of Jerusalem
7. “Glory of the Two Parties”: Petitions to Qaraite Courtiers
8. The Affair of the Ban of Excommunication in 1029

Part III: Scholastic Loyalty and Its Limits
9. Rabbanite-Qaraite Marriages
10. In the Courts: Legal Reciprocity

Part IV: The Origins of Territorial Governance
11. Avignon in Ramla: The Schism of 1038–42
12. The Tripartite Community and the First Crusade

Epilogue: Toward a History of Jewish Heresy

Guide to Places and People
Manuscript Sources



“Beautifully written and brilliantly conceived, this book is more a voyage of discovery than an academic monograph. It takes us to a time—the Middle Ages—and a place—the Middle East—in which there were many different visions of Judaism's future, and it teaches us that this future emerged out of an infinitely richer dialogue than most of us thought possible. Marina Rustow shows us how the jostling of many peoples has shaped our understanding of the history of rabbinic Judaism's emergence. Her crowd of characters ranges from the sages of Babylon and Palestine to the Sultans of Cairo, from desperate captives pleading for ransom to the proud princes of rival Jewish communities, from pillaging crusaders to modern manuscript hunters. The result of their polyphonic interactions is an extraordinarily learned yet lyrical book that transforms our knowledge of how the various different visions of Judaism dealt with their differences in the distant past, and thereby gives us a new sense of how they might do so in the present.” —David Nirenberg, Committee on Social Thought and Department of History, The University of Chicago

Heresy and the Politics of Community is a fine piece of historical scholarship, presenting the new and exciting idea that the sectarian divide between Rabbanites and Qaraites in the tenth and eleventh centuries in the Middle East not only was not as deep and antagonistic as usually assumed but also hardly existed at all in certain areas. Marina Rustow substantiates this claim through the judicious marshalling of evidence in a book that is highly professional, well conceived, and well executed. It will have a definite impact on the study of medieval Jewish history and is an important contribution to our understanding of Jewish religion and life.” —Daniel J. Lasker, Norbert Blechner Professor of Jewish Values at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

“Estrangement and rift between medieval Rabbanite and Qaraite Jews is a commonplace of modern scholarship. Through a detailed analysis of documentary sources from the Cairo Genizah, Marina Rustow brilliantly challenges this view. She proposes fresh insights into intellectually diversified Jewish life in Fatimid times.” —Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, Professor of Medieval Hebrew Palaeography, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris

Heresy and the Politics of Community is a superb book that indicates the remarkable value of the documentary materials in the Cairo Geniza. Using these materials, Rustow brilliantly revises the traditional picture of Rabbanite-Qaraite relations, which was based entirely on literary-polemical sources. In the process, she also amplifies considerably our understanding of Jewish communal functioning in the medieval Mediterranean world and contributes notably to the broader issue of mainstreams and so-called schisms on the medieval scene.” —Robert Chazan, Scheuer Professor of Jewish History, New York University

“Relying on meticulous research of Genizah documents, Marina Rustow rewrites the history of the Jewish communities of the eastern Mediterranean during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Her nuanced assessment of the tripartite communal structure of the Jews of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria places the Qaraites at the very center of Jewish life and redefines the frequently shifting relationship among Babylonian, Palestinian, and Qaraite congregations and communities of that time and place. Heresy and the Politics of Community is a rich and brilliant study of the complex power relations within a minority religious community.” —Ross Brann, Cornell University

Cornell University Press