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.  

I Still Miss Pork Rinds

There are many rabbis I’ve heard talk about how we should make our will conform to the Torah. I’ve heard Christian pastors say similar things about believers. While I see some value in keeping organizations together, I find that this kind of thinking makes it where the Torah isn’t that much different from the world. It doesn’t feel as fresh. If the Torah’s laws are completely my own will, then the Torah is no more meaningful to a law that I don’t have the possibility of breaking. I’ll do my best to explain. 

Any converted Jew who says they hate the taste of ham, of REAL bacon, or some fresh shrimp is lying to themselves on some level. Yes, I’m making a very broad statement because there could have been people out there who didn’t like any of these things even before they started keeping kosher. But the point is, once you hit the mikvah or make a covenant with God, this does not turn off your love of things that you no longer than do. 

With full confidence and without shame, I can say I wish I could still do these things: 

  • Eat pork rinds – I loved pork rinds. 
  • Eat fried shrimp – I ate fried shrimp at every seafood restaurant I would go to. 
  • Take a bite out of a big fresh ham – FRESH ham, mind you; that low quality ham has always been gross. 
  • Play gigs on Friday nights – not every Shabbat, of course.
  • Shave…when it’s convenient (job interviews, etc), even though I don’t think I ever would. Just the idea that I could would be nice. 
  • Go out without wearing tzitzit. I get weird looks – especially being in Oklahoma.
  • Get some tattoos – I’ve never had a tattoo, but if they were ok according to Torah, I’d probably have quite a few. 

Is it wrong for me to still want to do these things? Not at all – as long as I don’t do any of them. That’s actually something I really love about the Torah; it’s so much bigger than me. I loved these things, but I love God more. The Torah can definitely be inconvenient when it comes to my own fleshly desires and that’s why I cherish it; it lets me know that not everything is about me. I don’t try and justify doing these things just because I want to do them and I feel that really makes the Torah so beautiful.

I Don't Eat Kosher. I Eat Food.

While I was in college, I held many part-time jobs that allowed me to come in contact with many people I normally would not have come in contact with. While I was working at a printer cartridge re-manufacturing store, around the same time I was really shifting away from Christian thought and more into a Hebraic perspective of the Scriptures, I was fortunate enough to have a conversation one day with a certain customer who really shined new light on eating kosher. Interestingly enough, this man was a Christian. By Christian, I mean he probably believed that his salvation came from Jesus, but other than that, I bet this guy had been kicked out of a couple churches just by the way he spoke. 

At this point in my conversion, I did not consider myself B’nai Yisrael, but rather since I kept many of the tenants of the Torah, I considered myself a “weird Christian.” That was the best way I knew how to explain it to anyone who asked by I was wearing blue-accented fringes and didn’t cut my beard. 

I think the customer was waiting on some of his printer cartridges to be refilled and he asked me about my fringes and beard. I explained to him where I was, spiritually, and didn’t really know what to expect in reply. He gave me an approving “hmmp” with “will ya look at that?” happy frown and raised slightly surprised raised eyebrows. 

“Well, ya know, Jesus kept kosher. So did all the disciples; even after Jesus’ resurrection. No, I betcha money even Paul never touched a ham sandwich. The Bible plainly says eating certain things is forbidden and there’s no getting around it.”

His reply surprised me. All the other Christians I knew had quoted the classic “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?” line from Matthew 17; which goes on to say “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” as well as “…to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” What most Christians will claim is Jesus’ way of abolishing the laws of eating kosher in the Torah (which doesn’t make sense because the rest of the Bible says that if anyone comes claiming to be Messiah, but teaches against the Torah, cannot not possibly Messiah) is actually a teaching against speaking evil and also enforcing man-made laws as though they are in the Torah. Though washing one’s hands before eating might be a good idea, the command to wash one’s hands before eating bread isn’t found anywhere in the Torah. 

The customer didn’t quote that famous Matthew 17 verse, instead he started to speak about Torah by quoting verses from Leviticus 11. According to the Torah, Israel is forbidden to eat: 
  • Mammals that don’t both have a cloven hoof AND chew their cud 
  • Fish that don’t have both scales and fins 
  • Birds of prey
  • Winged insects that go on all four besides those that have jointed legs above the feet for hopping
  • Any reptiles or amphibians 
  • Pretty much any animals that eat other animals
This man did not bring the usual argument about these creatures being disgusting or cursed or anything. He made it even more simple than that:

“These animals were not designed to be food. Animals that die in the wilderness are eaten by scavengers; wild pigs, vultures, wolves, some tinier than you can see, and the like. When fish die, they fall to the lake bottom or ocean floor and are eaten by bottom-feeders like crabs, lobsters, and catfish. You wouldn’t try and eat the garbage truck, would you? I wouldn’t eat these creatures any sooner than I’d eat my own shoe. It’s not because I consider my shoe to be cursed, but simply because I need my shoe. God designed these creatures to take care of the earth by keeping it clean.” 

It was very bizarre that this Christian was bringing a very Jewish perspective to eating clean foods, but he was absolutely right. These animals are not necessarily non-kosher food, but they simply weren’t meant to be food anymore than my shoe is meant to be food. 

When I look at a big piece of ham, I don’t really think “Oh, disgusting! That’s sick!” After my chat with that guy one day at work, I see a big sizzling sneaker on a plate and that bacon hidden in the salad is more like little pieces of rubber. 

So, I’m not really against eating non-kosher, but more about eating what the Torah considers to be food.  

The Kosher Mohawk

As many of you know, I am a big James Harden fan. If you don’t know who James Harden is, he is probably the only guy you’re going to see playing basketball with giant beard unless you’re watching the Haifa Heat. Known even more for his skills as a shooting guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder than for this facial hair, Harden is also known to sport a mohawk-style hair cut as he helps carry the Thunder through the NBA finals.
In celebration of the Thunder’s success, my wife has given me a mohawk hairstyle as well. I will admit, this is the most radically different hairstyle I’ve ever had as I have been told I typically have the fashion sense of a man 40 years my senior. Some of you might be saying “But Ken; isn’t a mohawk hairstyle one worn typically by pagans who violate the Torah by trimming the hair on the sides of their heads?” In reply to that, I would say “Go back and study your Torah more in depth!” 
While there is section of Torah that specifically prohibits a certain hairstyle, when studying Torah, it is one of the only aspects of life where it is, in fact, GOOD, to split hairs. You see, the passage in Leviticus 19:27 reads like this: 

לא תקפו פאת ראשכם ולא תשחית את פאת זקנך
You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.”

Where there is a prohibition against harming/trimming the corners of one’s beard, the prohibition does not extend to the temples or the sides of one’s head. In this instance, the term “פאת ” refers to a complete removal of hair down to the skin and is used to prohibit the shaving of the hair completely clean from the sides of one’s head, but the beard is not to even be “תשחית“, or harmed. 

So while this is laudable, yet not completely necessary in order to fulfill the mitzvah (picture below)…

…this (below) is prohibited according to the Torah. Besides that, I personally think it looks pretty stupid.

But a mohawk, as long as the hair is not completely shaved from the skin, is, in fact, a kosher hair style and does look pretty sweet with a kippah. 

– Ken