Misconceptions About Karaite Judaism – Okie Hebrew Podcast

In this first episode of the Okie Hebrew Podcast, we discussion a few common misconceptions about Karaite Judaism. Here’s the transcript:

Shalom everyone and welcome to the Okie Hebrew Podcast. I’m Ken Lane, aka Yefet ben Ezra of OkieHebrew.com and in this episode, we’ll be discussing a subject that I believe gets bent around pretty frequently, especially online  – Karaite Judaism – more specifically, what people have said about Karaite Jewish belief and practice. In a series of podcasts, I’ll be discussing some common misconnections about Karaite Judaism. Hopefully in future episodes, I’ll have on some guests to provide additional perspectives on the subject. I was first inspired to talk about this from my frequently online searches about what non-Karaite Jews and non-Jews have to say about Karaite Jewish belief and practice – some misconceptions that are understandable and others…well…pretty much straight out of left-field. Just a disclaimer, I’m no Hakham – rather just a simple Jew. That means I make some mistakes and get some details incorrect, so bear with me. Still, the hope of this is to open the dialogue, get people asking questions, and hopefully get some really concrete answers – if not from me, from some Karaite Jewish scholars. To get things started, let’s tackle the biggest misconception I can think of: Karaites reject the Oral Tradition. Now, while this isn’t totally a misconception, there is a slight misconception in terminology. When I say “Oral Tradition”, the Oral Tradition to which I’m referring is the Rabbinic Oral Torah – the belief that our Kodesh Baruch Hu, in addition to the instructions in the Written Torah contained in the Chumash – in the same sefer Torah you can find at virtually any synagogue on the planet, spoke additional instructions on how to keep those mitzvot to Moshe. The belief is that this expansive body of knowledge was transmitted orally throughout the ages until it was finally codified in the Mishna in around the 2nd century. From there, the discussions and commentaries concerning the commandments given in the oral law were contained in such Rabbinic compendiums such as the Gemara and the Balvi and Yerushalmi editions of the Talmud. Around the time these Rabbinic works started making their way from being simply orally transmitted to studied not only as religious texts, but also as holy mitzvot, there were a group of Jews that objected to the divine origin of this oral tradition. So, the misconception lies with the Oral Tradition in the sense of a written work of rabbis and scholars being considered as somewhat of a Torah 2.0. Getting their names from Kara – or B’nai Mikra – meaning “People of Reading” or “Scripture”, the Karaite Jews were then referred to those denied the Oral Tradition. Oddly enough, Karaite Jews are not opposed to oral tradition in the sense of carrying down a tradition by means of how to keep Torah. The objection is raised when a specific tradition is elevated to the level of being divine. The Karaite Jews themselves have several oral traditions revolving around methods of keeping the the mitzvot of the Written Torah, but none consider their tradition to be inspired by God – rather, they acknowledge that it is developed by man as a way of keeping the Torah rather than the way. The way the original misconception would have many to believe that Karaite Jews are opposed to the contents of the Rabbinic writings on Torah. This is not true as many Karaite Jews have incorporated many Rabbinic customs into their practice or Torah where they see they line up with the Written Torah and add value to a Jew’s walk. Many Rabbinic Jews have claimed the divinity of the Oral Torah or Torah Shebal Peh on the basis that it is utterly impossible to understand and keep the Written Torah without it. Their examples range from how to slaughter animals for kosher down to how to make tzitzit. Karaite Jews counter their arguments with the idea that, upon extremely in-depth study of the Hebrew Bible, one can observe the mitzvot of Torah. Karaite Jews have historically done so with many different exegetical methods. Though many are familiar with the Rabbinic “PARDES” method (PARDES being an acronym being Peshat, Remez, Derash, and Sod levels), a lesser known method is that discussed by Karaite Jewish sages such an Yaakov al Kirkisani as well and Rav Eliyahu ben Moshe Bashyatzi involves a sinking deep into the Tanakh in order to obtain information on how to keep the Torah as close to its original context as possible. Similar yet different than PARDES, some of the levels are the Katuv (the most literal yet logical meaning reading of the text), the Hekeish level – that which can be logically derived from studying the text in an expanded context as well as in-depth linguistic analysis, and the Sevel HaYerusha – looking into how an aspect of Torah was traditionally understood. By these means and others, Karaite Jews have historically comes to understandings on how to best approach the mitzvot of the Torah based on the text of the Tanakh itself. We’ll touch on these levels of exegesis a little more later. Coming back to the common Rabbinic claim that Karaite Jews can’t possible understand the Torah without the Rabbinic Oral Torah, one example used frequently is shechita – kosher slaughter. The Rabbinic Oral Torah goes into great detail as to how to properly slaughter an animal even though it seems that the text of the Written Torah contains very few specific instructions on this is to the be done. However, when the Karaite Jewish exegesis is commenced on this topic, several new details come to light. If one was the study the katuv of the text, we see that Torah plainly instructs B’nai Yisrael that “…be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat. You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water. Do not eat it, so that it may go well with you…” in Deuteronomy 12. This would mean that all of the blood would need to be completely drained from the animal. Hold onto that thought and we’ll come back to it. Keeping the katuv in mind, one could move onto the hekeish – a larger picture that we can frame the katuv within. Throughout the Tanakh, we see very clear instances were B’nai Yisrael are instructed to treat their animals with kindness and respect. Levitcus 22 makes it very clear that one can’t take an animal from it’s mother for 7 days after its born. For this reason, Karaite Jews also do not slaughter pregnant animals even though, in many instances, Rabbinic standards see no problem with this. We also see in Deuteronomy 22 that a donkey and an ox can’t be yoked together for work. The kind treatment of animals is leading to an understanding that animals, whether for work or for food, must be treated with compassion. Now, combining the katuv with the hakeish, we can now come to an understanding of proper shechita. It’s then much more evident that the animal must be slaughtered in the manner that 1) drains the blood completely onto the ground and 2) causes the very, very least amount of suffering. To meet the criteria where both of these commands of Torah are fulfilled, Karaite Jewish sages establish a means of shechita that some argue is more rigorous than Rabbinic shechita in many ways – all the while using the Written Text as the primary guide for establishing these traditions. This is just one example of Karaite Jewish exegesis in order to understand an aspect of Written Torah that seems somewhat mysterious to readers. Another Misconception – Karaites aren’t Jews. As silly as it might sound, especially after going through that seemingly exhausting process of trying to determine how to keep an aspect of Torah, I have come across people online that question whether or not Karaite Jews are Jews at all. Even the Israeli government, because of massive influence from the Rabbinate, is confused on whether or not Karaite Jews are Jews. Part of this confusion has to do with Rabbinic Jews being the majority of the population of Jews. Though Karaite Jews were, at one point, as much as 40% of the Jewish population of the world, their numbers have fluctuated cons
iderably over the years. Because of this, what it means to be a Jew has been all but completely defined by the majority Jewish population – Rabbinic Jews. This means Rabbinic tradition, in some instances, has become synonymous with Jewish tradition in general. Because Rabbinic and Karaite Jewish traditions diverge periodically, this has also lead to Karaite Jews not being easily identifiable as Jews in comparison to the majority Rabbinic Jews by antisemitic oppressors. Many Karaite Jews were at times left untouched by antisemitic oppressors because those oppressors were ignorant of the Written Torah and thereby couldn’t recognize some of the traditions of the Karaite Jews as being Jewish. Though a large segment of the Karaite Jewish population were wiped out during the crusades, they almost completely flew under the radar through World War II. Another one of the reasons for this confusion stems from a major divergence between Rabbinic and Karaite Jews – Rabbinic Jews believe that one’s Jewishness is passed through the mother while Karaite Jews hold to the Written Torah’s idea that descent is through the father. Because of this detail, many Rabbinic Jews question the true Jewishness of the Karaite Jewish community. The Written Torah very frequently defines Jewishness in genealogies with the mothers rarely ever being mentioned. One plain instance of a Jewish children being born to a non-Jewish mother and Jewish father were Ephraim and Manashe. Though Yosef was very clearly an Israelite – the son of Ya’akov – Yosef’s wife, Asenath, was a non-Jewish Egyptian woman – the daughter of the Egyptian priest Potipherah. Though Rabbinic tradition holds that Asenath converted to Judaism prior to marrying Yosef, the Written Torah never mentions this. Rabbinic tradition openly admits to changing the Written Torah’s patrilineal stance to a matrilineal on a technicality. During the Hellenistic period, children of mixed marriages where the mother was not Jewish were, in many time, accepted as being Jewish. It wasn’t till later was the tradition of Jewishness of the mother determined the Jewishness of the child in Rabbinic circles. Though Karaite Jews hold to the belief that a child born to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father is not automatically Jewish, they have avenues for the children to be raised as full fledged Jews. Ok, we’ve made our way to our last misconception for this podcast episode: Karaite Jews don’t get along with Rabbinic Jews. One could think that with the difference between them that Karaite Jews don’t get along with Rabbinic Jews, this isn’t so much the case. Not only are any Rabbinic Jews fully welcomed to join a Karaite Jewish service in their synagogues, but history has unique tales of their relationship. For Karaite Jews and Rabbinic Jews alike, the written four-letter Name of God is immensely precious – so precious, in fact, that anything containing this name cannot be thrown out or destroyed. Rather, from Sefer Torahs to prayer books, anything containing the name of God is either buried in a Jewish cemetery or is kept in a special storage area called a geniza. For the Egyptian Jewish population for a time, not only were documents containing the Name of God stored in a geniza, but anything bearing Hebrew writing as Hebrew was seen as a holy language. For nearly a thousand years, a geniza in a synagogue just outside of Cairo was filled with Hebrew documents ranging from Sefer Torahs to grocery lists. Upon exploration of this Cairo Geniza, archeologists discovered something very surprising, ketubot, Jewish marriage contracts, between Rabbinic and Karaite Jewish couples. These and other documents unearthed the truth that, for generations, Rabbinic and Karaite Jews were intermarrying each other, conducting business and were overall friendly neighbors. It’s thought that only within the past few hundred years that any kind of beef between the two Jewish groups has formed. It’s my prayer that Rabbinic and Karaite Jews can once again be unified – may it happen swiftly and soon, Amen! Ok – that will do it for this episode and this edition of Misconception About Karaite Judaism. I’m Ken Lane, aka: Yefet ben Ezra of OkieHebrew.com and this is the Okie Hebrew Podcast. Shalom.  

2 thoughts on “Misconceptions About Karaite Judaism – Okie Hebrew Podcast

  1. Howdy Ken,

    Great pod cast, I’m looking forward to looking around here to see what else you have! I just thought I’d make a point about your statement that the Karaite and Rabbinical conflicts were a modern situation. I seem to remember reading on one Karaite site, though I can’t seem to remember which one off-hand, that there were great struggles between the Rabbis and those who didn’t accept Oral Torah during the rise of Caliphates of the mid east. Some might take it back as far as the Pharisees vs the Sadducees; the names and specifics are a bit different but I think the spirit of that same struggle has lived on since before that time.

    Keep it up… Like I need another blog / pod-cast to follow! 🙂
    YHVH bless,
    Aaron Kavli

    1. Good observation! Yes, there were many struggles in the past when Karaites and Rabbanites had their disputes, but there were also many hundreds of years of unity between the movements.

      One thing I would like to point out: Though it’s very easy to associate the Karaites with the Sadducees because of their disbelief in the divinity of the oral law, most of Karaism does their best to distance themselves from being equated to Sadducees. There’s very little known about this movement and what is known about their theology can differ greatly from Karaism. Though there are some Sadducean-leaning Karaites out there, they do not represent the majority of Karaite Judaism.

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