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

14 thoughts on “Hijacking Karaite Judaism

    1. Thank you! And yes, I’ve had a little more time to proof-read the article since you’ve made this comment. The original article was written fairly hastily. Thank you for your constructive criticism. It is always appreciated.

    1. This is true, though this is not always what is taught to those who perform this bracha. But then we should ask the question of where does the Torah instruct us to lift our hands before we eat bread?

      Shabbat shalom, buddy!

  1. There is a real problem in that there is no label for those who only follow the Hebrew Bible. Let’s use the label “X” for now. So then Karaite Judaism would be a sect of X. Former Christians who think Jesus was the Messiah can also be X, but those who consider Jesus devine in any way can’t be X. I am Jewish and only follow the Hebrew Bible, but I am not part of the Karaite tradition, so I am also X.

    Because Karaite Judaism is closer to X than any other group, I think it is their responsibility to define X and promote it. This would preserve the original meaning of Karaite Judaism. If the Karaites fail to do this, then it is only natural for Karaite Judaism to be hijacked as a stand-in for X.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Franklin! And very insightful!
    The only qualm I have with your argument that “…Karaite Judaism is closer to X than any other group, I think it is their responsibility to define X and promote it…” is that that’s not necessarily Karaite Judaism’s responsibility. Karaite Judaism at this point has trouble marketing what it is these days, let alone what another sect is. It sounds harsh, but until more misconceptions about Karaism are squashed in the Jewish as well as Christian/”Messianic” worlds, Karaite Judaism’s primarily focus as far as identifying anything will be identifying itself. I would be more than welcome to put up a guest post from an “X” who wants to define what “X”ism would be. One reason I see it this way is because I rarely ever see any other religious movements defining any other movements in order to preserve their movement’s “flavor”…aside from the exception of maybe Jews for Judaism. Would that be more of the response you’d want to see from Karaite Judaism? (Not a rhetorical question, by the way – I’m not a fan of those.)

    There have been some who have tried to market their particular brand of “X” that is outside of the realm of Karaism (so to speak), but being that there are many, many “X”s out there and few are larger than 1-5 people (not that there’s only 1-5 “X”s, but I mean 1-5 in any one particular movement), they do run into some challenges in doing so. I welcome them, though! I’m all about Jewish unity – whether it be Karaite, Rabbinic, X, etc.

    1. There is a basic conflict between the Karaite idea that each person should interpret the Tanakh for himself and the idea Karaite Judaism is tied to Karaite traditions. What if a person’s interpretation of the Tanakh conflicts with Karaite traditions? What is he then?

      Karaites are refusing to answer this question, and this is why they are being hijacked. Note that Xism is not another sect, Xism is just a broader category than Karaites Judaism which would make all Karaites Xists, but not all Xists Karaites. As you correctly pointed out, other groups of Xists are tiny, and so they don’t have the weight to define Xism. So the practical result is that only Karaites can do this, and if they don’t, they will continue to be hijacked.

      I visited the Karaite synagogue in Daly City twice and it doesn’t strike me as a vibrant religion. Karaite Judaism is effectively an ethnic religion. It has none of the dynamism that you see in groups like Chabad. This means that, at least in America, Karaite Judaism is headed for extinction. In this case, hijacking Karaite Judaism may actually be a good thing since at least this would produce something positive.

      Not all the hijackers would be former Christians. I wouldn’t mind being a hijacker. I am Jewish but was raised atheist and I come from a strongly scientific perspective. I am also very reactionary in that I totally reject modern culture. I love the Tanakh more than anything else, but my interpretation of it is strongly influenced by science and history.

      Xism should be easy to define. It means the Hebrew Bible is one’s only sacred text and that one sincerely tries to follow it based on one’s own understanding. I honestly don’t see how anyone who believes in something like “salvation through faith” (in whatever) could possibly qualify since the Hebrew Bible is so opposed to such ideas, and only by considering another text sacred, like the New Testament, could one arrive at such conclusions.

      I know very little about the Messianic movement, but it sounds like splitting them on this fault line (Xist versus non-Xist) would be a positive thing. Xist Messianics could study the Hebrew Bible and develop their own tradition based on these values. And one of these values is not being obsessed with minor differences in belief, and instead understanding that members of a community can have differing beliefs but should still stick together based on shared values found in the Hebrew Bible.

      1. Many good points! I think the difference may lie in that Karaism doesn’t claim to be the way to be X – simply one way to be X. It’s a style of observance – put into place based on one’s own agreement with a permissible interpretation as well as for the reasons of maintaining a community. It is very true that the community in Daly City is largely of Egyptian descent, but they share many of the same traditions of Karaite Jews of Israel, the former Iraqi Karaites, Turkey and Eastern Europe.

        While the first generation of American Karaites are fading out just a bit, there has been a resurgence of interest in Karaism from those not brought up in Karaism – like myself and many other Jews I know. These individuals are fairly scattered throughout the US and elsewhere, but have the potential to organize Karaite Jewish communities in locations other than Daly City. This isn’t a hijacking of Karaism because we strive to maintain traditional Karaite halakha in our communities. Where the hijacking comes are by the groups I specified in this post who believe Karaism is no more than a synonym for X. Even more so, these groups aren’t even X because they largely subscribe to New Testament theology. I have no problem with these groups or with X, but rather them attempting to stand under the umbrella of Karaism. If anything, Karaism stands under the umbrella of X. In the future, I feel that many other movements could stand under the X umbrella and I welcome them to do so. There has been a monopoly on Judaism for far too long and new communities along with bridges between those communities are long overdue for construction.

      2. I spent some of this shabbat reading about Messianic “Judaism”, something I didn’t know much about, and I am horrified. In truth, there is nothing Jewish about them. But reading their stuff really clarified for me the difference between Judaism and Christianity. Christianity values belief over action and Judaism values action over belief. The Christian concept of “salvation through grace” is another way of saying that people aren’t responsible for their own actions which is diametrically opposed to the Jewish view. The Christians who were closest to Judaism were probably the Puritans since at least they valued action. Messianic “Judaism” is a modern Protestant sect.

        So I concede, and I agree with this blog post. Forget Xism. And I should probably just label myself a Karaite heretic since I agree with Karaite principles but not with Karaite details.

      3. I don’t wish to speak negatively about Messianic Judaism or Christianity. I can’t quickly dismiss the root that lead me to what I believe to be truth. I only wish to speak of them in a transparent fashion.

        Karaite Jewish halakha mainly exists for the purpose of community. Karaites Jews are free to disagree with one Karaite sage’s interpretation of Tanakh (many of them disagree with each other), but the certain “details” mainly exist so that Karaite Jews may have community with each other. I think many who are coming into Karaite Judaism do so forgetting that it is first and foremost Judaism and that without community, the longevity of Judaism is put at risk. Customs surrounding the observance of the mitzvot are simply a homebase for those of Karaite Jewish persuasion.

  3. Good article. Coming from a Rabbinic background I have been trying to research Karaism but few have been able to answer questions adequately and the internet is scarcely populated by Karaites. As for as the broad diversity of opinion amongst Karaites I find it interesting that one of the great Karaite scholars, Simcha Isaac Lutzki, was a Karaite Kabbalist and composed a treatise on Lurianic Kabbalah. Modern Karaites would do well to develope a spiritual consciousness in their movement otherwise it will never be considered relevant IMO.

  4. All that but not a word about how Eastern European Karaitism turned on Judaism from the mid-19th Century onward. In fact, in the 20th Century they totally disavowed all connection to Judaism. That is why Kenassas lack Stars of David in Lithuania, Ukraine and Poland. Let’s not forget how Karaites got them exempted from persecution by the Nazis and then assisted in the extermination of Rabbanites. Let us certainly not forget how Karaites served in the SS and personally murdered Rabbanites. Rabbanites died for being Jews. Karaites denied that they themselves are Jewish and helped persecute and murder Jews so to write an article about how we are all Jews? Nah, not by a longshot and that is without even getting into Halacha and Rabbanite guidelines.

    I need to add, Karaite Apologists try and claim that only Karaylars served the Nazis but the truth is very different.

    1. The sources on Karaites turning on Judaism are fairly hit-and-miss, but that sounds like a great subject for future blog or podcast! If you can provide any sources for this, they’d be greatly appreciated. I do know of European Karaite Jews that are immensely proud Jews and have yet to hear of any that have shed Jewish ties.

      The very outspoken Karaite Jewish personality Nehemia Gordon does have a blog that covers the claims that Karaites were involved in the Third Reich.

  5. Hi Ken, sorry for the very long delay in writing. In the future should you need to contact me my Fb Page is “Zionism Unplugged” and I have a Typepad Blog of the same name. On Nehemiah Gordon, sadly he is a Rabbinate who adopted Karaism as an adult and with the zeal characteristic of so many Ba’alei T’shuvah (if the phrase can even be applied) he now acts as the group’s number one Apologist. He does NOT say that some Karaites were Nazis. In fact, on his Page’s Faq he lies outright and says that none served the Nazis and amazingly qualifies this by saying that it would be impossible aince there were no Karaites in Eastern Europe when the Nazis advanced into thd Ukraine, etc. He absolutely must be aware that there was a stable populations and that in most areas 40% of Karaite males aged 18 to 45 served the Nazis, including as soldiers in the SS. Imdeed they took part in ghetto liquidations and were especially zealous in committing atrocitues.

    Since at least the 19th Century they had been trying to forge a separate identify and deny their Jewishness while fostering Anti Semitism. Avraham Ben Shmuel, known to Goyim as Avraham Ferkovich became the leader of Crimean Kariates. He petitioned all manner of Russian officials up to the Czar to be listed as non Jews. He falsified archaeological records to “prove” that Karaites had been in Eastern Europe far longer than the Jews and could not be judged guilty for killing Christ, ergo they were blameless.

    In the first half of the 20th Century Seraja Shepaszal, a Pan Turkist became their leader and did away with all trapppings of Judaism, replacing the Star of David with a new contrived symbol. He claimed that Karaites in Eastern Europe were descended from Khazars and therefore they could not be held culpable in the supposed death of Jesus.

    If you want a long list of academic references I can provide it. For starters, Philip Friedman “The Karaites under Nazi Rule,” Shmu’el Spektor “The Karaites in Europe” and Kiril Feferman in “Nazi Germany and the Karaites…” Forgive me for not fully attributing them but a bit short of time at the moment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s