In the early tenth century, a small coterie of Jewish financiers rose to prominence at the Abbasid court in Baghdad and came to play a central role in the administration of the traditional rabbinic institutions of leadership (the Babylonian yeshivot) in Iraq. In this talk, I reconsider the evidence for these figures, long described as presiding over a central state bank, in light of new insights about court cultures and institutions in the medieval Islamicate world. Then, using documents preserved in the Cairo Geniza, I discuss the ways in which the proximity of these figures to the government transformed the exercise of Babylonian rabbinic authority, both in Iraq and throughout the Mediterranean. Finally, I investigate the fate of these figures in the wake of the collapse of the caliphate in the middle of the tenth century. In doing so, I offer a new paradigm for understanding the relationship between state power and Jewish communal leadership in the medieval Islamicate world.
Jennifer Grayson, Ph.D., serves as Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Assistant Professor of History at HUC-JIR and at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Dr. Grayson's current book project traces changes in the relationship between Jewish government officials, the Babylonian geonim, and the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad between the tenth and twelfth centuries. More broadly, she is interested in the social and political history of the pre-modern Mediterranean; pre-modern and modern Jewish history; and, especially in her capacity as a joint-hire with Xavier University, inter-religious dialogue.