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.
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.
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.
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
- “‘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.
- “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”, rather is more hekeish). 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.
- “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.
- “Karaites are actually opposed to the Rabbinic Oral Torah because they believe it to be man-made.” – 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.
- b. An example 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.
- “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.