Q&A: Get many converts to Karaite Judaism?

Question & Answer:

Troy from Pennsylvania writes:
Do you get many converts to Karaite Judaism? Shabbat shalom.
Ken:

Karaite Judaism certainly doesn’t have a shortage of people requesting to convert. Oddly enough, Karaite Judaism for the past few hundred years hadn’t really facilitated many conversions up until the early 2000’s here in the United States. That’s when the Karaite Jewish University was formed and they started giving online courses on Judaism. From there, they made a conversion program with coursework that could be taken online. All those converting would, of course, need to be physically present to go before a beit din (house of judges) before the KJU could sign off on their conversion. The issue with this institution is that is not a full-time one — meaning the members do so in their free time as a labor of love. While this is nice, it leads to many inconsistencies over the years and some teachers or leaders may be unavailable. This can lead to such instances as our current state, being that this institution is not currently in session.

Funny story: when I wanted to convert, I contacted some friends who had gone through the KJU’s conversion program to gather information. They said that the KJU wasn’t in session at the time. I ended up later converting through another Jewish community of which I am still an active member and leader. They are not solely Karaite. I had been a part of this community before beginning the process of conversion.

My advice to someone seeking a conversion to Karaite Judaism:

1. Don’t think about it as converting to Karaism, Karaite Judaism, Conservative Judaism, or Orthodox Judaism. It is a conversion to Judaism — to being a part of the Jewish nation. It’s like if someone were to move from Russia to Oklahoma and receive United States citizenship. They would say, “I am an Oklahoma citizen.” They are United States citizens first who just so happen to live in Oklahoma. The flavor of Judaism is dependant on the community where you actively participate on a regular basis.

2. Find a community you like. It doesn’t have a Karaite synagogue and it probably won’t be. Having a Jewish community to call home is more important than the denomination on the sign. Meet the rabbi, other members, attend services regularly, volunteer, etc.

3. When you find a community you like, after a few months, bring up conversion to the rabbi or other leadership. It should always be community first, conversion later. Just emailing a Jewish community to ask about their conversion program before spending time there is always a red flag to them that you mostly want the conversion certificate and that you may split soon after. Jewish communities are much more eager to help those with conversion whom they consider part of the community and who will contribute to it with their efforts and participation in the future.

I hope that somewhat answered your question! Anyone reading this is free to correct any errors I have written.

 

Sincerely & Shabbat Shalom,
Ken
If you have a question you would like me to take a swing at, let me know!

Everyone Has A Unique Perspective

Some of my favorite Jewish personalities are those who bring about fresh perspectives despite the well-worn paths in Torah. While many do little more than quote the scholars of the past, my personal favorite thinkers are those who will be quoted in generations to come from now for their unique insight. While you would assume that these individuals are incredibly intimidating, they also happen to be some of the most approachable figures in existence. They have their own doubts and fears just like the rest of us. In fact, many of these thinkers are so similar to the average person that one may not realize their own genius. I would go even further to argue that even every common person has their own contribution to Judaic thought. My main source for this theory would be Exhibit A: Myself.

While I have a blog online that discusses Jewish ideas, I’ve always said I’d rather be the talk show host than the interviewed guest. My knowledge of Hebrew is mediocre at best and I’m not particularly well-studied in comparison to many of my fellow online Jewish writers. I’ve sat across from scholars fluent in several languages, those who had entire works committed to memory — those with all sorts of titles before and after their names on very expensive pieces of paper. I am not one of these people. I am the one who dreams of simply reading the books published under their names. Despite this, I believe that every person has a unique perspective on the well-worn path of Torah scholarship and Jewish life. I didn’t realize this as much until someone brought one of my ideas up in conversation — me, a quasi-educated Midwesterner trying to catch up with my own Judaism.

In October of 2014, I published an article in which I argued that the 10th commandment of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) was the most underrated commandment of the ten. The piece was called “The Most Underrated Yet Most Destructive Sin.” In it, I basically argued that the act of coveting was the basis for all other averiot (sins). One must desire something in a way that is unhealthy before they act upon such a desire. One steals because they covet an object. They commit acts of violence or infidelity because something appears to be in the way of what they covet. Even desecrating the Shabbat is done so when one covets not being “burdened” by the Shabbat’s stipulations.

This didn’t necessarily seem like an earth-shattering piece to me, but fell more under the criteria of “Judaism According to Ken.” Some years later, I was visiting Congregation B’nai Israel, the headquarters of the Karaite Jews of America in Daly City, California — just a little ways outside of San Francisco. After Erev Shabbat dinner, I was sitting with my friends, Shawn Lichaa (creator of A Blue Thread) and Tomer Mangoubi — an MIT graduate and accomplished Karaite Jewish scholar. They both wanted to talk more about my idea about the 10th Commandment being linked to all other transgressions. They seemed to be making a bigger deal about it than I thought they would and seemed to hold the opinion in very high regard.

 

Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 11.14.18 PM
Shawn, his son Reuven, Tomer, and James Walker (in kippah)

 

“Do you realize that this was an opinion held by the Karaite sage Hakham Nisi Ben Noach in his work ‘Bitan Maskilim’?” Tomer uttered.
I shrugged, as I had never heard of Hakham Nisi Ben Noach. They continued to shower me with compliments about coming to such an insightful conclusion.

“Yeah, well…how do you know that I didn’t just rip that idea off from ‘Bitan Maskilim’?” I murmured as a means of reminding them that it was me they were talking about — not some published authority.

“Because ‘Bitan Maskilim’ has never been translated into English and I know that your Hebrew isn’t that great,” Shawn said with a truthful laugh. He was right — my Hebrew, especially then, was trash. Though he had said this for the entire room to hear, the previous compliments on my ideas about “לא תחמד” more than outweighed any potential embarrassment I could have felt.

While I continue to study Torah, I would be tremendously surprised if I ever were to come up with many more ideas that would seemingly warrant such accolades — after all, coming up with “ooh-ahh” concepts is not the reason I study. Still, I would encourage any person to share their own perspectives with their peers. If someone like me — who couldn’t pass for a talmid hakham on TV — can come to an insightful conclusion worth repeating, surely you have an entire book to write.

“Whoever is able to write a book and does not, is as if he has lost a child.”

– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

The Supernal Dialogue: Enhancing Alignment With One Simple Shift

Introduction:

Lately, I’ve been on this “get your life together” kick. Too often, I had been catching myself coming home from work, sitting in my chair, and not getting very much accomplished before bedtime. I hate it.  In an effort to combat this, I had put together some goals I have for myself and how to accomplish them. In the Spiritual Goals section of my day-to-day breakdown was to enhance my kavanah with the Creator of the Universe.

What the heck is “kavanah“(כַּוָּנָה)? Some would say it is your spiritual intent or your focus in doing a holy act. While that’s true, I like to say that it is your alignment with the Creator of the Universe. I had heard from some Israeli friends that this is the same word you would use in Modern Hebrew when you take your car into the shop to get the tires aligned. It’s not getting your car to its destination, but it is the act of ensuring that both of your front wheels are headed in the correct direction. From a spiritual perspective, I would say it’s simply the action and feeling of knowing that the Holy One is among you — to feel that presence the way you can sometimes “feel” that someone is watching you. Not only does this sensation allow one to feel that their tefillah/prayers are being heard, but that the Creator is with them in daily life as well. Feeling this presence takes the action of adjusting your alignment constantly. I’ve been trying to share what has helped me and the following tip is one of those — trying to replace your internal dialogue with a supernal dialogue.

Making the Swap from Internal Dialogue to Supernal Dialogue

It sounds super New Age-y, but what I would call your “supernal dialogue” is really quite simple when you look at the definition of these terms.

su·per·nal
səˈpərnl/

adjective

literary
  1. relating to the sky or the heavens; celestial.
    • of exceptional quality or extent.
di·a·logue
ˈdīəˌläɡ,ˈdīəˌlôɡ/
noun
  1. take part in a conversation or discussion to resolve a problem.

What is typically our “internal dialogue” is the sensation of our own voice in our mind as we work out problems. Psychology breaks it down a little further:

“In Dialogical Self Theory (DST) the self is considered as ‘extended,’ that is, individuals and groups in the society at large are incorporated as positions in the mini-society of the self.”

If the internal dialogue is speaking to yourself internally (or sometimes externally, if you’re like me), the supernal dialogue is including the Holy Other in on that conversation and speaking directly to the Holy One in the same manner that we speak to ourselves. While we strive to do this in daily prayer, making the Creator the Ear to our internal dialogue helps perpetually increase our alignment and emunah/faith/knowing that HaShem is there to help us work out any problem we may have. Simply keeping the Holy One in the loop of your internal dialogue by making the Creator the recipient of that dialogue can be exercise enough to help keep the connection strong.

If we’re attempting to enhance our alignment with the Creator of the Universe and open the door to allow Him into our day-to-day, minute-by-minute lives, a simple technique is to shift the internal dialogue to a supernal dialogue and speak with Him instead.

“If you’re feeling distant from G-d, it wasn’t G-d who moved.” – Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser

Okie Hebrew Is Back

Disclaimer: This is mostly an update post about the site itself. 

Howdy, friends! I apologize that it’s been nearly a year since my last blog post. Oddly enough, the site was hacked by Algerian PLO sympathizers, even though I hadn’t even really posted any content regarding the Israeli/Palestinian struggle (I’ll leave that more to people who know what they’re talking about). Anyways, the hack made it increasingly difficult to edit and update the site, so I did lose some steam in maintaining it. Since then, I’ve had quite a few readers email me, asking me where I went.  Well, I’ve switched hosts and I plan on providing a whole more content in the future!

“Okie Hebrew — oh, that Karaite Jewish site, right?”

Looking around the internet, I have found that this site is linked to on many different Karaite Jewish websites. While this is extremely flattering, it would be misleading to say that the site is exclusively a Karaite Jewish website. Many people call me a Karaite Jew, which isn’t completely accurate. While I am an observant Jew with an interpretation that leans into many Karaite halachic spheres, I also lean into many different Rabbinic halachic areas of thought as well. I am simply a Torah-loving Jew and I draw inspiration from multiple Jewish movements. The reason why this site seems very Karaite is that it is much more Karaite than the majority of Jewish websites on the internet. That makes this website much more Karaite by default.

So, why do I explore so many Karaite Jewish ideas on this site? Well, to be frank, it’s because most Jewish not only do not but will not.

The Future of Okie Hebrew

There has been a huge resurgence of interest in Karaite Jewish ideas. As this wave rolls over the Jewish world, it has crashed against Rabbinic Judaism. Though it’s been an aim of the site in the past, the renewed goal of Okie Hebrew will be to provide resources that both observant Rabbinic Jews and Karaite Jews can use to better understand one another and coexist.

If you have any particular subjects you like to see discussed, do not hesitate to let me know using the following form:

Depending on how much I can expound on whatever subject you suggest, I may also call upon other individuals I know to guest post on certain subjects. I look forward to hearing all of your suggestions and interacting with you once again! It’s good to be back!

— Ken

God Has Left The Building

Without Googling, where would you say the world’s largest Passover seder is frequently held?

Jerusalem? Florida? Brooklyn?

Try Kathmandu, Nepal — because of all of the Jewish tourists to the East seeking new spiritual experiences.

There is a reason why Jeffery Miller became Lama Surya Das, why Dr. Richard Alpert became Ram Dass, and why both the late Adam MCA Yauch of Beastie Boys and Leonard Cohen both sought out spiritual paths in Buddhism. These are spiritually hungry Jews who had been failed by modern stagnant Judaism.

Far too often, more and more Jews report less reverence in synagogues and more of a spark of spirituality out on a hike through the woods. While ashrams, gurdwaras, and Buddhist temples are filled with Jews thirsting for a taste of the Divine, synagogues in their neighborhoods are having trouble making a minyan if theres not a chag or a bar or bat mitzvah.

Jewish congregations are becoming less of a place of a place where Holy One’s glory abides and more an extremely interactive museum to Judaism that mostly old men attend weekly out of habit. One of the main issues is that we, as a society, are becoming afraid of the elephant in the room — aka: God.

The modern synagogue has come to feel more like a country club than a center for spiritual nourishment. They have become fraught with committee politics when they should be centers of actively working out ones personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe. Less drama more kavanah.

A younger enthusiastic rabbi I know summed up the dilemma during a parent-teacher conference with the Rosh Yeshiva of his friends school.
“So, how is my sons study of Chumash going?”
“Very well.”
“And Talmud? Mishnah and Gemara?”
“He’s an exceptional student.”
“And his tefillah?”
“Yes, he prays regularly.”
“Well, of course, but I meant his kavanah. Do you think he has a good relationship with HaShem? Are they close?”
Sir, this isnt a hasidish yeshiva. We dont discuss each others personal spiritual relationships like that.”
“At this point, he turned to those whom he was telling this story.

“What? This is a yeshiva, right? Why am I even sending him here if not help him strengthen his kavanah and relationship with the Almighty? Why are they not giving him the tools he needs to better love HaShem every single day?”

Before another Jews feels the need to venture outside of their own Judaism to find the Divine, we need to invite God back into the building.

If you feel far from God, it wasn’t God that moved. Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser

God Won't Forgive You

Today is Erev Yom HaKippurim  the day before the Day of Atonement on the Jewish calendar. Its essentially Gods last call for Jews looking to touch base with whom theyve wronged in the past year and make it right before they officially begin to atone to God for their misdeeds against Him.

Theres one notion in Judaism that sets it apart from many other faiths and thats the idea that God only actually forgives certain kinds of sins  the ones we commit against Him.

Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between a person and God, but for a transgression against ones neighbor, Yom Kippur cannot atone, until he appeases his neighbor.  Mishna Yoma 8:9, as based on Leviticus 16:30.

Were on the hook for the ones we commit against other people.
You break it, you buy it.

It seems very strange, but its easily explainable  which Ill attempt to do with a story from my own childhood.

 

My Brother & Me @ the Royal Gorge in Caon City, Colorado  probably circa 1998?

Though my older brother and I are best friends, not having had a single argument (or maybe even disagreement?) in over a decade, we had our fair share of spats growing up. In fact, my parents commented that selling our childhood house was difficult  not only emotionally, but also materially as they had to patch up all of the holes wed knocked into walls and cracks in doors wed put there from physical altercations. (The bathroom was the only room of refuge with a lock, so of course the door was split down the middle.)

In one such scenario, my brother had so angered me that revenge was imperative to my probably 13 or 14 year old psyche. Our house had two levels with a balcony inside over the living room  the railing of which was about 12 feet from the floor below. One day, as my brother sat on the couch below watching television, I perched stealthily on the edge of the balcony armed with a full can of Scrubbing Bubbles Disinfectant Bathroom Cleaner.

Holding the can out beyond the railing, I aimed carefully over his hand that was resting on the arm of the couch. When in position, I released the can and BOMBS AWAY! THWACK!  it was a direct hit on the cuticle of one of his fingers. The edge of the 1.5 pound metal can split his fingernail and sent blood gushing forth. I had never heard such a cry out of my then-15-or-16-year old brother  a combination of screaming and crying as he sprinted to the kitchen sink to run water over the fresh wound. The sound of his cries surprised mebut also made the corners of my early teenage mouth curl into a devious smile for only me to enjoy.

I still have no idea what he had done to trigger such a nefarious response in me. I also dont remember what my punishment I received for such a misdeed. Perhaps I had some dirt on him and we agreed to call a truce so we both werent in deep crap with our parents when they came home.


In order to explain the Jewish peoples relationship with God and our own sins, I think back to this episode in my youth. Had my dad been watching the entire event, it would have played out in similar way that God responds to the evils we commit against one another. Had I done such a thing and immediately knew I was in big trouble, a typical child-like response would have been to run to my dad and proclaim, Im sorry! Im sorry! Im sorry. And his response would have been very God-like.

Dont tell me youre sorry. Im not the one with the cracked, bleeding fingernail. Go help your brother!

There is a concept in Judaism known as Tikkun Olam which translates to world remedy or to fix this world. This theme pervades Judaism and fills Jewish observance with the mission of helping to fix the world in which we live in order bring sparks of the Divine into the ordinary aspects of life. While many fingers (no pun intended) of this are Jewish ritual observance and charity, part of this is essentially being accountable to pick up the own mess you cause.

In case that last paragraph had too much spiritual mumbo-jumbo, it can be summarized as a cosmic you break it, you buy it.

I didnt let God down by smashing in my brothers finger nail, I let my brother down. I let myself down. Theres no reason for me to apologize to God for what I did to my brother. Even though my brother knows today that Im sorry for what I did to him pushing 17 years ago when we were stupid teenagers, I still felt the need to officially bury the long-disintegrated hatchet.

To those of you observing Yom Kippur, I wish you a meaningful fast.
For everyone else, all it takes is a text message (baby steps, you know what Im sayin?).

Jewish Prayer In Your Native Tongue

“What The Heck Am I Praying?”

Many people have emailed me with tons of questions about becoming more Jewishly observant, but when I ask them about their Jewish communal life, they tense up —

“I haven’t visited one.”

What do you mean you haven’t visited a Jewish community? You’re wanting to convert without a community?”

“I’m scared.”

“Scared of what? Don’t worry — the old men praying don’t bite. Some don’t even have teeth! Haha.”

“It’s not that. It’s the prayer. I feel like I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. It’s all gibberish to me. I feel like I’m going to something wrong and make a fool out of myself.”

While one response would be, “Well, there’s only one way to remedy that and that’s to learn Hebrew and jump in…” — that won’t answer the root cause of the fear. Even deeper, few people are drawn to a prayer that they themselves do not understand. Yes, learning Hebrew certainly helps, but it doesn’t help in the meantime. What does help is praying in your own language.

Don’t think that for a moment this article is anti-Hebrew tefilah (prayer). It’s certainly not. I personally believe the Jews have a responsibility to get an education in Hebrew, as it is the language of the Jewish soul. There are so many concepts in Hebrew that have no counterpart in so many other languages. What I am talking about is the occasional mixing ofhitbodedut (secluded prayer/conversation with the Creator in your own words) and liturgical Jewish prayer. Attaching this framework of feeling to your own soul via the pathway of the current condition of your mind. What am I getting at? Simply this: pray in your native tongue from time to time.

Speaking From Your Neshamah: Native Tefilah

Though opinions vary, certain kinds of tefilah in your first-learned language exist in every movement of Judaism. In Hasidic Judaism, the followers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teach extensively about a practice called “hitbodedut.” Meaning simply “seclusion”, this style of tefilah is the act of secluding one’s self in a room or in a nature and praying in your own words as well as the language you’re most comfortable speaking. On a different end of the Jewish spectrum, even though Traditional Karaite Judaism puts an extreme emphasis on every Jew learning and using Hebrew in their tefilah, there are sections of silent meditation built into most Karaite Jewish liturgies — sections where the participant communes with the Creator silently in their own words and language. It’s not that these two movements are deviating from traditional tefilah minhagim (customs) in their execution in order to facilitate personal prayer, but are actually looking backwards to how prayer began: as a personal link to the Creator of the Universe. One should never forget that though much of Jewish liturgy are written Tehillim (Psalms) of King David, these are no more than David writing out his own tefilot to the Creator.

It canbeextremely exciting to learn Hebrew and be able to implement it into one’s prayer life. Being able to read Hebrew writing, to get a gist of the understanding and the shapes of the words, and to be able to follow along in a group setting are all wonderful. Before I continue, it should be noted that this is an extremely admirable thing as Hebrew is the language of the Jewish soul. However, there are even Jew who have been praying in Hebrew every day of their lives who will admit that sections of the prayers can go from elevated to spiritual planes of communication to rushed mumbling. It’s for this reason that I must make the following recommendation:when you pray alone, pray in your native tongue regularly.

If you’ve been making effort to pray in Hebrew for an extended period of time, there’s one thing you’ll notice about occasionally praying in native language: it’s weird. It will feel like “cheating” because of it’s fluidity. The prayers will more easily flow from your kishkes (guts) in a heart-felt way. For any secondary language for which you are not completely fluent, there is a slight delay as your mind translates words of the second language to the first and then finally into what your heart knows that word to mean.

rabbi zalman schachter-shalomiThe late Rabbi Zalman Schatcher-Shalomi, z”l, one of the founders of the neo-hasidic Jewish Renewal movement, recommended praying in one’s native tongue every day outside of the Shabbat. He believed in the power of this so much that he published an English-only siddur for this purpose entitled “Sh’ma: A Concise Weekday Siddur For Praying In English.” The idea of the siddur is to remove the perceived enormity of typical traditional Jewish daily tefilah and make Jewish prayer feel more accessible.

While I’m no student of Rabbi Zalman, many of his teachings on prayer speak to those attempting to acclimate themselves towardsa life filled withtefilot. Many who were not raised in the concept of Jewish prayer as a daily part of life have trouble jumping into the idea of talking to the Creator of the Universe every day. Still more have trouble using the words of others in order to have this conversation. Still more than that have trouble using the words of others in a language that is foreign to them for the most intimate act of speaking to their Creator like a swooning lovestruck romantic or a pleading child.

 

 

Yes, I do believe that communal tefilah should remaininHebrew. There are too many concepts that can be lost in translation as well as the important to maintain Hebrew as the universal language of Jews. But when it’s just you and the magnitude of what is the Loving Creator of the Universe, feel free to speak to that Force in the way most natural to you. Doing this regularly and establishing your daily tefilot as a time you cherish will work wonders towards not only establishing a more intimate relationship with the Creator, but to help remove the fear of praying communally.

Bonus material:

In this video, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the current Senior Rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community of the United Kingdom, breaks down the essence of Jewish prayer.