Hijacking Karaite Judaism

Disclaimer: I do not claim to represent the whole of traditional Karaite Judaism or act as its spokesperson. I have too much respect for it to make such a claim or hold such a title. 

Karaite: Not Only a Term Stolen, But Also a Culture

Ask people what they think of when they hear the term “Karaite” and the answers run from a misspelling of a form of martial arts to group of directionless tradition-bashers. For being a movement with over a millennia of rich history and tradition (yes, it has tradition), the last 20-or-so years have been tumultuous for Karaite Jewish identity. Many people have claimed the title having never studied Karaite Jewish history, writings, or having even met a single Karaite Jew. These individuals, out of their own ignorance and eagerness to belong or wear a title have almost single-handedly dragged Karaite Jewish identity through the mud in the eyes of the mainstream Jewish world. The oddest part about all of this is that most of these people can more closely theologically be defined as Christians. It is for the sake of rectifying this injustice that I share this concise breakdown of what traditional Karaite Judaism is and what it is not.

Recently, I had a conversation with an Orthodox Rabbi friend of mine about Karaite Judaism. He admitted that he had fallen victim to believing many of the misconceptions about what Karaism represents. According to what he had heard and read, Karaism was that directionless group of individuals that bashed Mishna, Gemara and other traditions of Rabbinic Judaism with the belief in a purely “p’shat” understanding of the Hebrew Bible. He subscribed to the notion that Karaites were an anti-halakhic, anti-minhag collection of self-proclaimed “Bible purists” who aimed most of their attention towards refuting Rabbinic tradition – even when these traditions were a permissible method of remaining obedient to the written Torah. None of this was my friend’s fault. This is a generalized understanding (albeit a false one) of modern Karaism. He no longer sees Karaite Judaism in this way. What changed his mind? A book called the Karaite Anthology: A Excerpts From Early Literature by Leon Nemoy. In this book is contained is a “sampler plate” of ideas about certain areas of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish traditional life from Karaite Jewish sages  – and yes, I use the term “sages” on purpose. What changed his mind even further was the revolutionary idea to actually speak to traditional Karaite Jews. Many of the modern self-proclaimed “Karaites” are unaware that this text or that even traditional Karaite Jews exist. Who are these people you ask? I’ll tell you – ignorant hijackers.

How the Heist Went Down

Within the last 30 years or so, many tens of thousands of Christians have become greatly disillusioned with the counter-Biblical traditions of modern Christianity. Many have “come out of the church” in regards to striving to understand the Torah and to keep it according to their own understanding as well as the understanding of other fellow disillusioned Christians. They have relinquished traditions such as Christian-inspired holidays (Christmas, Lent, Easter, Halloween, etc.), they have abstained from eating certain species of animals and have attempted to the best of their understanding to take hold of the commandments of Torah. While this can be applauded by the Jewish world, the primary reason it is not as much so is due to this single idea: you can take the Christian out of the church but you can’t always take the church out of the Christian. Donning many familiar Jewish elements, these individuals still cling to the idea that Jesus (or as they now call him by his Hebrew name: Yeshua) is not only the Jewish Messiah, but was the Passover lamb that was slain for the sins of the world and that “salvation” is only accessible through a belief in the claims of the New Testament. If they kept to themselves, the Jewish world wouldn’t have much problem with this 1st and 2nd century AD style of Christianity, but it is when they conduct missionary activities that target Jews for conversion to this belief is what Judaism has a problem accepting. Even if the individual is sincerely keeping Torah out of a love of Torah and not using Jewish symbols to deceptively target Jews for conversion (such as organizations like Jews For Jesus and Chosen People Ministries frequently do), this still concerns the Jewish world because these people still strive to convince Jews that they need Jesus to be saved from eternal hellfire. Furthermore from this, because these individuals have protested Christian tradition, they desire to cast off all tradition – including Jewish tradition. Still, because people naturally desire community, many of these theologically-Christian Torah lovers have gravitated towards of Jewish tradition that they have mistaken for an “anti-tradition” – Karaism. It is true that Karaite Jews do not believe that the “Torah Shebaal Peh” or Rabbinic Oral tradition on how to keep the written Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai by God. While this is true, this is about as much as the “Messianic” movement of theologically-Christian Torah lovers know about Karaite Judaism. Still, this is enough for them to get behind the movement and wear the “Karaite” name tag for themselves. There is a huge problem with this.

Ask a “Messianic Karaite” About Chizzuk Emunah

 

If one were to approach a self-proclaimed “Karaite” Messianic believer (theologically-Christian Torah lover) and ask them what they thought of Issac ben Avraham of Troki’s work “Chizzuk Emunah” (“Faith Strengthened”), most of them wouldn’t know who you were talking about or what Chizzuk Emunah is about. Issac ben Avraham of Troki was a Lithuanian Karaite Jew who lived in the 16th century. His master work, Chizzuk Emunah, is one of the most influential works used to explain how Jesus/Yeshua does not meet the requirements to be the Jewish Messiah according to the Hebrew Bible, aka: “Old Testament.” This is a work that is not only studied by Karaite Jews, but by Rabbinic Jews as well. One of the reasons it stands out as such a universal tool for counter-missionaries is because it does not depend on Rabbinic tradition to make its case – using only a careful analysis of the Hebrew Bible. For this reason, it cannot be refuted on the grounds of “tradition” by those who believe the Hebrew Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God. For a “Karaite Messianic believer” to continue to cling to “Karaism” following a reading of this work would be completely nonsensical. Even following the idea that a Karaite cannot believe in Jesus/Yeshua as Jewish Messiah and/or “Passover lamb that was slain for the sins of the world” because of Isaac ben Avraham of Troki’s work, there is still the question of what Karaism really is.

chizzukemunah

The etymology of the word “Karaite” itself simply means “Scripturalist” – which is where most “Messianic believers” will stop in their understanding of the greater connotation of the word. Much like the term “Hasid” just means “pious one”, the connotation of the term “Hasidic” would still keep many pious individuals from referring to themselves as such so as not to be confused with the followers of the Baal Shem Tov – a famous Jewish mystical rabbi who founded the Hasidic Jewish movement. This is just the beginning of common misconceptions about Karaite Judaism.

Common Misconceptions About Karaite Judaism

  1. “‘Karaite’ just means ‘Scripturalist.'” – Like what was just discussed, certain words carry certain connotations. Karaism is a movement within Judaism that believes that, rather than believing in a certain interpretation of the Hebrew Bible simply because a learned one claims it to be true, one should use their own intellect to weigh the evidence and come to their own conclusions.
  2. “Karaites are anti-tradition.” – Believe it or not, there are many very specifically Karaite ways of keeping the Torah. These ways are not derived by an opinion taken out of thin air or simply put into practice because “that’s the way grandma did it”, but were the result of exhaustive study and analysis of the Hebrew Bible’s original intent. These studies were not purely spiritual, but also philosophical and even scientific in nature. Karaites do not depend solely on the “p’shat” level of Scriptural study (understanding texts solely on how they appear where they appear) but study texts on multiple levels – including how a passage is understood in context and how certain passages are to be understood (example: though the Torah says a man must marry his “brother’s” widow, the text later shows that it can actually be another family member – as “brother” is shown to be another expression for “kinsman” as shown in the Book of Ruth. This is a popular Karaite understanding of this mitzvah, though it is definitely not “p’shat”). Yes, Karaite traditions may vary from community to community or depending on which Karaite sage you more closely subscribe to (much like Hasidic Judaism and its many Rebbes) on a matter, but there are many Karaite traditions that have lasted for centuries.
  3. “Karaites aren’t necessary Jews.” – Quite the contrary – Karaites see themselves as Jews first and then Karaites. If someone converts to Judaism through a Karaite organization, they are explicitly taught that they are not converting to “Karaism” but rather they are becoming a part of the Jewish people. There had been some debate in the past about whether some Karaites are Jewish because they would trace Jewish ancestry through the father’s side. They do this because this is how Tanakh determines one’s ancestry. In Rabbinic Jewish circles, it was later changed as Jewish women were abused and raped by foreign invaders – bearing their children and leaving a huge question as to the child’s status as a Jew. Though this is tragic, it does not justify changing the text and a child can become Jewish in other ways.
  4.  “Karaites don’t have a ‘statement of faith.'” – Though I’m not positive if this is accepted by all of Karaite Judaism, the Karaite sage Yehuda ben Eliyahu HaDassi did craft 10 Principles of Faith for the Jewish people that are recognized by most of Karaite Jewry today. They are valid as the result of exhaustive research into the Hebrew Scriptures on the part of Yehuda HaDassi. These principles pre-date Rabbinic Judaism’s 13 Principles of Jewish Faith as written by Maimonides. For a full breakdown of Yehuda HaDassi’s 10 Principles of Faith, Karaite Jewish personality Eli Shmuel of Karaites.org breaks them down in two videos – principles 1-5 and 6-10.
  5.  “Karaites are opposed to the Rabbinic Oral Torah.” – Karaite Jews would be pretty hypocritical if they rejected Jewish tradition being that they themselves have many traditions. There is absolutely nothing wrong in relishing in fulfilling the mitzvot (instructions) according to a particular tradition. The only Rabbinic traditions that Karaite Jews reject fall into two categories: a) when tradition contradicts written Torah and b) holding traditions up to the required level of written Torah.
    • a. One very easily identifiable example where we can see that Karaites oppose Rabbinic tradition was discussed above: matrilineal descent. The Hebrew Scriptures clearly express that one is Jewish either by conversion or by having a Jewish father. Rabbinic Jews will very plainly agree with this, but say that rabbis had the authority to change this for the sake of convenience. Karaite Jews believe that no one has the authority to add to, take from, or change Torah instruction.
      b. An example of the second would be declaring that certain traditions were commanded in Torah. One example of this is ritual hand-washing. While there’s nothing wrong with washing your hands before you eat bread, even washing them according to the very specific instructions of Rabbinic ritual hand-washing, the problem comes with reciting the assigned blessing – “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.” While there is a portion of the Torah that speaks about the Kohanim, the Priests, washing their hands and feet before coming before the Holy Altar in the Temple, there is no mention of this practice being required by all Jews before they eat bread. Today, many Rabbinic Jews feel that eating bread without doing this very specific ritual hand-washing and reciting this blessing actually makes the bread not kosher for consumption (I’m open to input about this as I’m not sure if that is the consensus view).
    • Many if not most Rabbinic traditions are permissible according to keeping Torah within the bounds of Karaite Jewish thought. The main divergent opinion is that Karaite Jews do not believe that the Rabbinic Oral tradition was given to Moses on Sinai – rather, that it was compiled by rabbis over thousands of years as a method of keeping the written Torah. With that being said, there’s not much of it that Karaite Jews adamantly oppose. Actually, most learned Karaite Jews even study Talmud for Jewish wisdom as well as insights into Rabbinic Judaism.
  6. “Traditional Karaite Jews never were taken seriously.” – One misconception is that Karaite Jews were also such a tiny minority in the Jewish world that they really had very little influence on Judaism. While it is true that Karaite Judaism has usually made up a small percentage of Jewry in the world, much of the motivation behind perpetuating this underestimation is as a means of perpetuating the idea that the Pharisaic/Rabbinic movement has always been the predominant authority on Judaism. Still, from around the year 900 till around 1100-1200, it is thought that Karaites made up as much as 40% of all Jewry. This is commonly referred to as the “Golden Age of Karaism” when a large number of Karaite texts were authored in the Middle East and Karaite Jews held prestigious positions throughout the Muslim world. Karaite and Rabbinic Jews alike as well as those involved in the study of Jewish antiquities have had some of their greatest archeological discoveries from Karaite genizas (vaults where documents that contain the 4-letter Name of God are kept after they are no longer used) and synagogues. Though Karaite Jews are still in the minority of Judaism, they still have many thriving communities world-wide – from places like Ashdod, Beer-Sheva, Ramlah and Jerusalem in Israel to communities in Poland, Turkey, Lithuania, the United States and more.

It has been a great affront to the Karaite Jewish community that the term “Karaite” has been so grossly misused. The Karaite Jewish community shouldn’t have to actively work to reclaim their own identity, but this is the world in which we currently reside. It is my hope that this article helps shine a little bit of light on the true essence of Karaite Judaism – a Jewish movement with rich traditions revolving around textual scholarship and thorough dedication to Torah observance. If you have any additional questions, do not hesistate to ask. If I cannot answer them, I’ll do my very best to find someone who can. If you’re interested in learning more about Karaite Judaism, see my post about building up your own Karaite Jewish library. There you will find many great resources about Karaite Jewish observance and Karaite Jewish thought.

The next time you hear of someone claiming to be a Karaite, remind them of what that title encompasses and ask them to reevaluate that statement before they risk hijacking Karaism even more.

karaite-prostration-jewish-prayer

The Most Underrated Yet Most Destructive Sin

It’s usually the time leading up Yom Kippur that most of us focus on the concept of sin, but really the best time to focus on sin is the moment immediately following that time. With this in mind as we start a new Torah cycle, I’ve noticed that there’s one het, or sin, that gets the least amount of attention – yet deserves the most:

לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ךָ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדֹּ֤ו וַאֲמָתֹו֙ וְשֹׁורֹ֣ו וַחֲמֹרֹ֔ו וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey or whatever belongs to your neighbor.” 
– Exodus 20:14

When Scripture Legislates Thought

Seems pretty straight forward, right? Think again – literally! Though classically thought of as the 10th Commandment of the Decalogue, this prohibition is one that surpasses one’s physical conduct and requires the practitioner to actually adjust the way they think. In most teachings on the Decalogue, this mitzvah gets swept under the rug because it’s almost impossible to enforce. How does anyone else know when you’re admiring the form of the lady bent over the copy machine in the office or shaking your mental fist at your buddy’s new car when you compare it to your clunker? This is a tough one. 

Why The 10th Commandment Should Actually Be The First

What’s even more startling is when you realize that, though this het is dead-last on the list of commandments, it’s almost always responsible for committing the other nine. Whether you envy your friends who go out to the movies on Shabbat or you’re a teenager and begrudge your friends who get to go out when you’re grounded, what leads up to transgressing the mitzvah of breaking Shabbat or sneaking out when your parents tell you to stay home is the “act” of coveting something. Though the tablets of stone end with this one, they also start with this one. 

When a “Dream-Come-True” Becomes a Nighmare

One of the most detrimental aspects of violating this commandment is the effect it has on relationships. No other sin pins brother against brother, friend against friend and destroys community faster. All power-grabs are attributed to this het. In the same way, many marriages have been destroyed by the wandering eyes and therefore wandering hearts of spouses. Every day, they see what they could have had. This turns from seemingly innocent “window shopping” to entire fantasies built up in people’s minds until they feel they must act for the sake of fulfilling their own desires. Just as soon as the fantasy has a chance to become a dream-come-true for the coveter, it comes a nightmare for their spouse and family. 

Like Getting Ready For Sabbath, Get Ready For a Covet-Free Day

Just like other sins we strive to avoid, the 10th commandment is no different – it requires preparation. In the same way you prepare for the Sabbath by making sure you have the day off work, grocery shopping beforehand and working out all of the details the week prior, abstaining from coveting works in a similar way. 
  • Guard Your Eyes: Modesty goes beyond what you wear – it’s also where you choose to indulge. If your eyes are hurdle, practice looking away from potentially tempting sights. It’s difficult at first so you may need to “feed your animal” a bit by rewarding yourself on your successes until it becomes habit. If you can successfully keep your eyes off the cute guy in marketing (sorry, ladies – I’m taken) or other things that may tempt you, reward yourself with something you like – just make sure it’s kosher. 😉
  • Train Your Brain: Sometimes, whether you like it or not, temptation will always find it’s way to your line of vision. You may have to work with that lady who insists on wearing low-cut blouses everyday and you really do value her friendship. In these situations, conjure up the most unsavory thought you can think of. Imagine that same blouse on your buddy Carl who is about 40 pounds overweight and maybe doesn’t shower everyday. Better yet, imagine she’s Carl – warts, odors and all! 
  • Remember What You Have: One of the biggest reasons people start to covet what other people have is that they take what they themselves have for granted. While your husband may not have the broad shoulders of that handsome UPS guy that delivers to your neighborhood, remember why you married your husband in the first place. He loves you and cares for you. He would be do anything for you. Keep this at the forefront of your mind. One practice that many observant Jews use to keep their mind in the right place is by reciting blessings over the little things in life. Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen once said in a shiur, “A bracha (blessing) is a protest against taking things for granted.” When you make a bracha over your food, you’re actively telling God, “This may just be a hum-drum sandwich out of a plastic bag, but it’s from You and I haven’t forgotten that.” In the same way, you should periodically make a bracha over your husband, your wife, your children, your parents, heck – even your clunker. “Blessed are you God, King of the Universe, Who has blessed me with this 1987 Plymouth Horizon. I could be walking 7 miles to work, but I have this!” (Side note: I really do miss my ’87 Plymouth Horizon…not that I’m coveting those who have them…just saying…) 
In the end, abstaining from coveting requires a perception shift. It requires not reducing objects to their lowest form of your emotional desires, but instead seeing people as they are – fellow earthlings with their own doubts and fears just like you. By coveting, you’re taking your attention away from a feeling of gratitude and shifting it towards greed – which will never satisfy. Today, choose an attitude of gratitude. 

Build Your Own Karaite Jewish Library


Recently, I’ve had a lot of encounters with people who had heard of Karaite Judaism yet were fairly unfamiliar with the history of Karaite Jewish thought. I thought I’d assemble my “must haves” for anyone who wants to “get their read on” about Karaism. I’m leaving a lot of works out for now. If there are some you’d recommend, leave them in the comments. This list is designed to just be a starting point for those interested in Karaite Jewish thought and history. 

Disclaimer: I am not being paid to endorse any of these books. If you’d like me to check out a book to recommend, let me know! 

As It Is Written: A Brief Case For Karaism
by Shawn Lichaa (of A Blue Thread), Nehemia Gordon and Meir Rehkavi 



This is a primer for Karaite Jewish thought. It covers what is and what isn’t Karaite Judaism. Following the old motto of MTV’s Real World, the same can be true for Karaism: “You think you know, but you have no idea.” This book is designed to be short, but sweet – you could probably read it on your lunch break or a Shabbat afternoon. It doesn’t go into a lot of detail, but it’s designed to be an appetizer into what hopefully be much more advanced Karaite Jewish studies. 










Karaite Anthology: Excerpts from the Early Literature
by Leon Nemoy (no relation to Spock, to my knowledge)

I had one Orthodox Rabbi friend of mine tell me that this work completely blew his mindset about Karaite Judaism – whom he had only thought was some anti-Talmud movement perpetrated by anti-Rabbinic wingnuts. This is a master work of Nemoy as he gives you the taste-test platter from most of Karaism’s greatest sages. With biographies on all of the commentators as well as samplings of their works, this is a must-have for anyone trying to build a semblance of a Jewish library – Karaite or otherwise. In the back are also English translated breakdowns of Karaite liturgy that have never-before been read by those whose Hebrew is not the strongest. Want to know what Yefet ben Eli thinks about the Sefer Rut (Book of Ruth)? It’s in there. Want to read up on Karaite wedding ceremonies? It’s in there. Shop around used book dealers as well and you can get quite the deal. 



The Karaite Jews of Egypt: 1882-1986
by Mourad El-Kodsi


Less about Karaite Jewish halakha and more about the history of a people, this is an amazing work highlighting the history of Karaism’s huge influence in Egypt for over 100 years. This covers the rise and oppression of the Karaite Jews in Egypt. Though Karaite Jews are in the extreme minority of organized Judaism in this day-and-age, this book gives a very unique look at when Karaite communities were booming in Egypt. This also documents the relationship that Karaite Jewish communities had with their Rabbinic counterparts in the region. This work contains stories as well as photographs of Karaite Jewish communities in this hundred-year period. Yes, it’s a little pricey, but you’re also contributing to future Karaite Jewish works (either new works or translations of older never-before-translated works) by picking this book up – and I highly recommend that you do. 




Mikdash Me’at: English Summary of Adderet Eliyahu by Rav Eliyahu ben Moshe Bashyatzi
Prepared by Tomer Mangoubi with help from Shawn Lichaa and Baroukh Ovadia 

This work has not yet been published in book form and is only available in draft form, but it’s a hearty meal to chew on when it comes to Karaite Jewish exegesis of Rav Eliyahu ben Moshe Bashyatzi. Combining Karaite Jewish thought with extremely sound analysis of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), this is not only recommended for those interested in Karaite Jewish thought, but Biblical study in general. I will update this link once the work is completed and published. You know I’ll have to get my hands on some of the first copies! For now, download them, print off the sections (if you open them in Adobe Acrobat, you can print them off in book-form) and enjoy! 

Yom Kippur: Why Fast If the Torah Doesn't Explicitly Say To Fast?


It’s that time of year again, folks! Much like you get your taxes together for the IRS in the spring, you gather your sins together in order to lay them out before the Creator of the Universe every almost-fall. Yom Kippur is a concept that transcends religious ritual and cuts at the core of human existence – it’s your soul’s chance to clear its cache and reboot.

For those not familiar with the idea of the Day of Atonement or as the Torah names it: Yom HaKippurimwhich literally means “day of coverings”, this is a day when the Children of Israel were commanded to make atonement for their sins and to “afflict your souls.”

There have been arguments amongst those who are a little more “sola scriptura” in their more “p’shat” manner of Biblical interpretations as to what this phrase means. Some say “humble yourselves” and the like. The problem with isolating the words of this text mean that the unlearned Torah observant person has no idea how to afflict their souls. Should you whip yourself? Should you listen to Justin Bieber and Kenny G albums all day? What does this mean?
The answer lies in the crazy idea of attempting to understand the Torah as closely as the original recipients did. I know most people would rather it be served up in a Study Bible footnote, but sometimes you really do need to go back in your time machine and listen. How do we do this? The same way you would by trying to learn a new language by watching television from another country – listen to how the locals explain certain concepts.

So, where else is “afflict your souls” used in the Hebrew Bible?

  • “…I afflicted my soul with fasting…” – Psalm 35:15
  • “Wherefore have we fasted and thou seest not? Have we afflicted our soul and thou takest no knowledge?…” – Isaiah 53:11

Also – what the heck is a “soul” in this context?

While many of us think of the life force of the soul being purely spiritual, the Hebrew Bible also uses the term“nefesh” to describe one’s physical life force – your appetite.
  • “…and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite.” – Proverb 23:2 – a warning against gluttony.
This command in the Torah to “afflict your souls” was given to a nation – not an individual. We all share a common means of afflicting our souls for a day in a way that won’t kill us – by abstaining from food (because the Jewish people wouldn’t be around if we abstained from air). This fast is meant as a tool for denying ourselves physical pleasures and spiritually purging the residue that sin has left within us. It’s not supposed to be easy or pleasant. It’s supposed to kinda suck – but it’s supposed to be meaningful.
I wish you all a productive fast this Yom Kippur.