The True Origins of the Karaite Movement (and its influence on later Liberal Streams of Judaism)
In the recent Summer, 2011 issue of the magazine REFORM JUDAISM (the official publication of the Union of Reform Judaism), columnist Chaya Burstein seeks to condense the most important events in Jewish history and gets some things right but some important details quite wrong.
It is understandable when writers such as the eminent Orthodox historian Berel Wein and author Lawrence Keleman (both of whom have my utmost respect) give a less than objective view of the history of the development of Karaite Judaism (see here and here), but when representatives of 'liberal streams' of Judaism (and the supposed ethos of scholarly objectivity that they so often champion) do the same, it comes as a bit of a surprise.
Burstein in her column The Ever-Evolving Faith (p.43), writes:
A challenge to the Talmud's authority arose when the Babylonian Jewish leader Anan ben David rejected the extra biblical laws and opinions that Rabbinic Judaism had developed. Insisting that only the original Torah was God's word, he accused the Rabbis teaching Talmud of being impostors and hypocrites. Ben david believed that Judaism's purpose was to prepare for the final redemption. So long as Jews remained in exile, they needed to mourn the loss of their land and temple. Storming into holiday parties wearing his dark cloak of mourning (source?!) he scolded the celebrants, "How can you laugh and drink wine? Our Temple is destroyed. Our land lies desolate. Blow out the candles! Douse the oil lamps! We must sit in the dark on Shabbat as the Torah commands. We must pray for God's forgiveness and obey every letter of every law in the Torah. Only then will we bring the redemption".
A large group of followers called Karaites gathered around Anan ben David. Some found the Torah easier to follow than the commentaries and interpretations of the contentious Rabbis of the Talmud.
Again Jews faced a choice. Should they try to live within the limits imposed by the Torah? Should they sit in the dark on shabbat or enjoy the holiday by the light of a previously lit Shabbat lamp, as the Rabbis suggested? Should they dedicate their lives, studies, and prayers to bringing redemption or should they enjoy God's gifts of life, family, community and prayer?
The continued practice of Karaism with its focus on a destroyed Temple and hopes for redemption might have led the Jews into a dead end. Rabbinic Judaism, in contrast, gave Jews guidance in adapting to new environments as well as philosophical tools to compete with Christianity and Islam. A majority of Jews chose to go forward. Karaism was eventually reduced to small sects of purists
There are several problems with Burstein's thesis. Her linear simplistic view of the development of Judaism as we know it, is just that: simplistic- almost child-like. The notion that Anan ben David and his supposed movement, "the karaites" grew out of a vacuum (ex-nihilo)-and challenged what was hitherto the norm, is wrong and goes against scholarly consensus. All competent historians agree that Anan ben David was not the founder of what we now refer to as Karaite Judaism, neither was he accepted as an authentic scripturalist by many early Karaites (like Benjamin Nahawendi). The truth is far more nuanced than that described by Burstein. The following are excerpts of a much larger article I am working on, which will attempt to trace the beginnings of Karaism and more importantly to burst the many silly myths about their origin and practice.
Leon Nemoy, a foremost expert on Karaism and author of the highly acclaimed Karaite Anthology (Yale University Press, 1987) XV-XVI:
The Arab conquest of the 7th century rapidly consolidated into a far-flung empire, brought nearly all Jewish centers of that period under the control and influence of islam. The most important of these centers of medieval jewery; the mainspring of Jewish learning, culture and authority, had long since been anchored in Iraq, the ancient Babylonia.
...the conquest and pacification of the sparsely populated provinces in the east and north (Xurasan, Gibal, Adarbaygan, Armenia, etc.), and their incorporation into the Arab state opened a vast territory for immigration and made possible an exodus for discontented elements among the Iraqi Jews for new homes on the frontier. Like all such movements this emigration was undoubtedly composed of mainly of self-reliant and venturesome individuals, and the mountainous character of their new homelands caused them to acquire quickly the mountaineers desire to be left alone to live in his fashion. The remoteness of these frontier settlements from the metropolitan centers of Iraq made them practically independent, in both religious and secular matters from exilarchic and geonic authority.
For their own religious platform the Jewish frontiersmen had a ready made example-the ancient and never entirely suppressed opposition (represented in earlier times by the Saduccee faction) to the validity of the post-biblical law based on oral tradition and codified in the Talmud and to the authority of its official administrators and interpreters in Iraq.
All these influences by their combined action, produced at a very early date the principles common to a large number of schismatic movements, which eventually through a long process of elimination and consolidation, formed the Karaite sect: first the rejection of the validity of the Talmud, whose adherents were now called rabbanites, i.e., partisans of the Talmudic rabbis; second, the disinclination inspired no doubt by their grievances against the Iraqi religious and secular officials, to recognize a permanent authority of a religious leader, or of a succession of leaders, and the insistence on the freedom of each individual to interpret the bible –the sole repository of law- in the light of his own understanding and judgement; third, a fervid messianic nationalism, impatient of the seeming endless delay in the redemption and restoration of Israel; fourth, a strong flavor of unworldly asceticism; and fifth, an acute sense of social justice and opposition to economic inequality and oppression.
Nemoy goes on to list various sectarian leaders and describes Anan as the individual to whom fell "The honor of supplying a (first) pioneer manual of non-rabbanite theology" (p. XVIII) to those groups who were unwilling to accept the hegemony of the main Talmudical Academies of Sura and Pumbeditha (both moved to Baghdad after the Arab conquest in the 7th century).
Nemoy describes Anan as "a learned and cultured Iraqi of aristocratic Rabbanite descent who flourished in the seventh decade of the 8th century" (Ibid). Similarly he does away with the silly (but widely accepted notion) that he founded a splinter movement because of a personal slight; Nemoy: "How he came to break with the faith of his fathers we do not know but it seems certain that it was not the result of angry disappointment over the failure of his candidacy for the office of Exilarch, as the traditional Rabbanite account would have it (Ibid).
As mentioned earlier, there seemed to have always existed groups of Jews who did not accept the legitimacy of the rabbis to enact new legislation or abrogate old ones (from approx the year 70-200 CE we find only approximately 120 tannaitic sages/Pharissees that are mentioned in the Mishna. It is highly possible that they did not represent the majority of the Jewish population of their own time) Anan ben David was hardly a pioneer in this respect. Moreover, it is important to point out that ben David never fully broke with his Rabbanite roots and still held on to some purely Rabbinic traditions (such as the 13 hermeneutical principles which are traditionally attributed to the Tannaitic sage R' Ishmael --see beginning of the Rabbinic compendium "Sifra"). For that and some of his other beliefs he was often harshly critizied by Karaites (both his contemporaries and those who succeeded him). It also important to point out that Anan ben David did not found a new movement because of some alleged slight on the part of the Geonic Rabbis, as the common myth alleges (see later) and although initially not accepted by all Karaites as a legitimate arbiter of Torah law, he was undoubtedly a charismatic leader and the fact that he came from the princely house of David only enhanced his stature among his followers who were originally referred to as 'ananites'-not 'karaites'.
Bernard Revel, rector of the Orthodox Yeshiva University in his The Karaite Halakah and its Relation to Sadducean, Samaritan and Philonian Halakah, (Philadelphia, 1913): "The question of the origin of Karaism, its causes and early development is still awaiting solution. That Karaism is not the result of Anan's desire to revenge himself on Babylonian official Jewry, need not be said."
Ankori, Zvi. Karaites in Byzantium, p.15:
The historicity of Anan’s Davidic genealogy and his eligibility for the exilarchic office seems to have been unduly impugned by recent scholars. Of course, the familiar Rabbanite story, which would explain Karaite rebellion merely in terms of a private vengeance by Anan for alleged Geonic interference with his right to exilarchic succession, should rightly be rejected.Yoram Erder in his recently published אבלי ציון, הקראים ומגילות קומראן
(הקיבוץ המאוחד, Tel Aviv : ha-Ḳibuts ha-meʼuḥad, 2004.)
"Anan ben David’s movement was preceded by many sects that set the stage for its creation".
and again on p. 38:
"It is wrong to attribute the creation of the Karaite sect to Anan ben David".
On p. 39:
"The earliest sources make a clear distinction between the Karaites and the Ananites who were followers of Anan and were formed 100 years after the latter’s death."
On p. 41:
"Anan sprung out of the Rabbanites and was not related to the schismatic sects that were active in his time."
where he posits that there were important parallels between the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Karaite literature (mainly of the 9th-11th centuries). These parallels manifested themselves in terminology, general concepts, and imagery. In his opinion, even if a direct historical link between both these sectarian-ideological movements was difficult to prove, it was possible that the Karaites borrowed from the Dead Sea literature during the early Middle Ages, when portions of the Qumran library came into their possession, such as the medieval copy of the Damascus Covenant (pictured above) found by Schechter in the Cairo Geniza. see here
Michael Korinaldi in his book מעמד האישי של הקראים pp. 15-16:
"There seems to be a consensus both among the early Rabbanite (esp. Raabad) as well as Karaite source that the Karaites did not spring out of nowhere in the days of Anan."
He continues in a similar vein on p. 17:
We don’t know for sure the extent of the influence of the Dead Sea Scroll sect on the Karaites, however it’s reasonable to say that during the times of the Talmud and afterwards, there existed sects who opposed the authority of the Rabbis to legislate new laws and rejected their interpretation of the Torah.
Did liberal minded German Jews look to Karaism for Inspiration? Are (some of) the Roots of Reform Judaism to be found in Karaism?
Ironically, Reform Judaism may owe its early beginnings to Karaitism. At the end of the 19th century when forces of liberalism were steadily making their way into the Synagogue, the presence of Karaites on the European continent did not go completely unnoticed. See for instance the accompanying scan (courtesy of www.onthemainline.blogspot.com ) which appeared as a notice in a publication called The Peculiar People published by a Christian Missionary organization based in Jerusalem during that period.
Close and often warm relations existed between Eastern European Karaites and Maskilim- liberal minded Jews. This was especially true in places like Austrian-occupied Galicia, where jews availed themselves of the civic freedoms afforded to them by the Kaiser Franz Josef I. One of the foremost maskilim of that era and area, Nachman Korchmal forged a close friendship with the Karaite cantor of the local town of Kuzikow, David ben Mordechai, author of Semmah David and also with the important Karaite leader Abraham Leonowicz of Halicz. Krochmal was harshly castigated for these ties by local ultra-traditionalist Jews, when the correspondence between them came to light.
On the preceding episode, The Karaites of Galicia: an ethnoreligious minority among the Ashkenazim By Mikhail Kizilov, p. 224-5:
According to Reuven Fahn , (another well known maskil and writer), Kuzikow was the first Karaite savant to establish close links with the Galician maskilim (David may have inherited his friendly attitude to the Rabbanites from his father, Mordechai ben Nisan who mentioned that it was Rabanite Jews who had taught him the Hebrew Bible and literature. David’s sons continued the family tradition of maintaining close contacts with the Rabbanites. This is why it was the Rabbanite scholar David Maggid who edited a collection of David Kuzikow’s writings; Semah David (St. Petersburg, 1897) and achieve a proper understanding of Rabbinic literature, the Talmud and Haskalah. In many of his writings, Kuzikow referred with deep respect to the Talmudic scholars and their works.
The history of his friendly correspondence with Krochmal was soon marred by an unpleasant episode with clearly shows the complexity of relations not only between the Karaites and Rabbanites but also between the maskilim and other Rabbanite Jews. Approximately from 1814 to 1816 Kuzikow accidentally gave some of his letters to the local hassidic jews. The latter when they discovered that Krochmal’s epistles were full of praise for the Karaite hazzan, copied and publicized these letters. They apparently tried to compromise Krochmal and suggest his deviation from the norms of Judaism and Jewish religious law. The matter was especially sensitive because at the same time the Rabbanite authorities of Lwow imposed a herem (ban) on some maskilim.
While being understandably vexed by these complications, Krochmal did not change his positive views of the Karaites. He mentioned that they believed in the same written law as the Rabbanites, the coming of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and other articles of Jewish creed. Moreover, in spite of the fact that their forefathers rejected the Talmud, in his time many Karaites approached the study of the Oral Law (Torah she-be-al pe, i.e. the Talmud). Krochmal suggested in his letter that the Karaites should be given hope that some day they would join their Rabbanite brethren and there would be no division between these two branches of Israel.
As has been mentioned, Krochmal also maintained contacts with another important Karaite leader, Abraham Leonowicz. During half a century of his tenure in the office of leader of the Halicz community, Leonowicz kept up relations with many Rabbanite thinkers, who later mentioned him in their writings: Isaac Samuel Reggio of Gorizia, Samson Halevi, Luzzatto, Bloch, Geiger and Daniel Hartenstein, to name a few. Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) one of the most famous German maskilim received from Leonowicz a manuscript copy of Mikhtav Ahuz by the Rabbanite scholar Joseph-Solomon of Crete (Yashar Delmedigo- who himself entertained pro-Karaite sympathies), which he published in 1840.
This again shows that the Karaites eagerly read and copied Rabbanite manuscripts-and, moreover, they were the only possessors of some unique manuscripts penned by European Rabbanite scholars. As was mentioned above, Leonwitz’s tenure in the Hazzan’s office was marred by a few conflicts with the Rabbanites. This is why, perhaps, Reuven Fahn came to the conclusion that Leonowicz “did not reach the spiritual state of David Kuzikow” in his relations with the maskilim.
See ibid footnote 135: On the general attitude of the maskilim to the Karaites, see Reuven Fahn, “Maskilei Yisrael ve-hakhmei Miqra,: in KRF, 65-1411, on Galicia especially, pp. 118-122; Israel Bartal, “Ha-Haskalah be-Eirpoah ve-ha-Qaraim: dimmui u-mesi’utm”, in the Proceedings of 11th World Congress of Jewish Studies 2:2 (Jerusalem, 1994), 15-22: idem, “The Karaites in Eastern Europe and Jewish Enlightenment,” in Karaites in Eastern Europe in the Last Generations. Proceedings of the First International Karaite colloquium, ed. Dan Shapira et al. (Jerusalem, 2008) (in the press); Balaban, “Karaici,” 22; Iris Parush, “Another look at ‘The life of ‘Dead’ Hebrew’. Intentional Ignorance of Hebrew in Nineteenth-Century Eastern European Jewish Society,” Book History 7 (2004): 197, 199-200.The whole Krochmal Karaite controversy is narrated in detail in Krochmal’s letter to Zeev-Wolf Shiff of 1816 (Krochmal Kitvei, 413-416). This period was the time of ideological struggle among maskilim, Orthodox Jews and Hassidim.
More on these tries from Avraham Firkowicz in Istanbul: 1830-1832 : paving the way for Turkic nationalism By Dan Shapira
During the late 1820s Jewish maskilim from Central Europe and prominent figures in the wissenshcfat des judentum began to show a keen interest in things Karaite, in this they were following the earlier Christian, especially missionary model. The trend expressed itself for example in the correspondence between Mordechai Jost, a distinguished Jewish-German historian, and Simcha Babowitz, or in M. Steinschneider’s edition of the works of Caleb Afendopolo, one of the most important Karaite religious authorities from the early Ottoman period; and in the contacts between Besalel Stern, a leading Russian Maskil, with connections to the authorities, and the Crimean Karaites, including particularly (Abraham) Firkowitz. Especially noteworthy is Stern who was asked by leading European-Jewish scholars to collect information on the Karaites in Southern Russia. Born in Brody, in Austrian Galicia, the city of the afotre-mentioned distinguished Jewish thinker, Nahman Krochmal, whose pupil he was, Stern was appointed in the late 1820s to supervise the famous Odessa Jewish seminary established in 1826. This seminary served as a flagship of the radical Russian maskilim; stern also served as the relgiou head of the Brody emigrants in Odessa leaning toward Reform Judaism and prior to the establishment of the famous Brody Synagogue in Odessa religious services were held in his house.
By the same token, from the 1840's into the early 20th century, many reform communities and thinkers of the English- speaking world would be better described as Neo-Karaites, as they were as horrified by what they called "Liberal Judaism".
See for instance David Woolf Marks' 1843 Siddur that he arranged for the West London Synagogue for British Jews, which was based on the same principles of the Karaite siddur (but without directly mentioning or even being fully aware of it). See here especially the introduction where he poses an eloquent defense of using the Scriptures as the only infallible source of doctrine and liturgy.
Here's a link to Vol 5 of the Siddur (which contains services for the annual fast days, besides services for: circumcision, Pidyon HaBen, Naming a Girl, Burial, Mourning, and Funerals):
It is interesting to note that WLS was the first Reform Synagogue in England, and had several famous members who promoted Tanakh-based Reformed Judaism ('mosaism' as they called it back then), among whom were Moses Mocatta, the Sephardic Jew who translated perhaps the most well-known Karaite work in the world, into the English language: Sefer Hizzuq Emunah.
(I'd like to thank my friend James Walker for bringing the above to my attention)
See also Jakob Petuchowski's article, "Karaite Tendencies in an Early Reform Haggadah." in the Hebrew Union College Annual 31 (1960): 223-49.
How Reform Viewed Karaitism in the 20th Century
This pro-Karaite trend among liberal Jews continued even much later; in 1979, following the Israel-Egypt peace accords, a group of Rabbis, comprising the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox denominations, along with some wealthy and influential Jews paid a visit to Cairo. What followed was comical but also quite telling.
S. from onthemainline blog writes:
..... One of the laymen, businessman and bibliophile Manfred R. Lehmann felt that he witnessed some boorish and appalling behavior on the tour..... and he sent a letter to Conservative Judaism, which they declined to publish. So he sent it to the (Orthodox publication) Jewish Observer, which delightedly published it.
Here is a part of it:
". . . Your readers may be interested in the reaction of an Orthodox person traveling for the first time at close range with Conservative and Reform rabbis. Here are some examples of my experiences, and impressions . . .
"1. When I had located the Karaite community in Cairo and reported this to the group, there ensued enough interest among its members to sacrifice a half hour of the time allocated for the Sphinx and the Pyramids, for a quick breezer through the Karaite main synagogue and community buildings. But by contrast, when I had located the Beth Hamidrash of Maimonides in the Old City -- and this was a most difficult task in itself -- and then, full of excitement, told the group about my discovery, not one member (to my utter amazement, bordering on disbelief) was interested in paying a visit to this hollowed (sic) shrine of Jewish scholarship. Could it be that Conservative and Reform rabbis feel more kinship with the Karaites, than with one of the greatest personalities normative Judaism has produced since the close of the Talmud?"There is no doubt that liberal German-Jewish leaders looked beyond their narrow confines to redefine Judaism. In addition to their looking toward the "Jewish-Spanish Golden Age", for a working model (see my post on that here) , they also looked to Karaite Judaism for inspiration. Their view of Karaism, was very much unlike that of Mrs. Burstein's, that is Karaism as a rigorous movement of unflinching conservatives, but rather as a movement that had fiercely guarded its independence and was unwilling to bend under the yoke of Rabbis [maskilim often suggested that the rest of European Jewry should take the non-talmudic Karaites as an example worthy of being imitated] (see Kizilov p. 231).
In addition to their independent nature, Karaites had always nurtured a strong sense of social justice ('tikkun olam', literally, 'repairing the world' would later become the catchphrase of all liberal Jewish movements). It is fair to say that Karaism was way ahead of its time on many issues that would later became lightning rod issues for movements such as Reform, especially the rights of women, non-Jews (there is no concepts of a 'shabbos goy' for instance), the poor and under-privileged (see Nemoy, xvi) and can also (arguably) be described as the forerunners of the Zionist movement (see for instance Hakham Daniel al-Kumisi's "Appeal to the Karaites of the Dispersion to Come and Settle in Jerusalem" in Nemoy, p. 34).
Karaism had also often been quite practical, much to the surprise of their detractor, tying to reconcile advances in technology with the tenets of their faith. Although not without controversy, the very colorful Hakham Tobias Levi Babovich (see the 2 volume biography on him by Yusef El-Gamil here), the last of the Egyptian Karaite Hakhamim permitted the driving of an automobile on holidays. In addition, Karaite innovative Halakha made it possible for courts to adjudicate issues of divorce in the case of a recalcitrant husband, thus eliminating the problem of agunah.
During the Middle Ages, there was also plenty of cross-pollination (not to mention intermarriage) between the 2 communities. The notion that the 2 communities developed completely independent of each other is a mistaken one. One common Rabbanite custom that possibly has its roots in Karaitism (according to some opinions), is holding (and kissing) ones sissith during keriath shema (see Beth Yosef on Tur, Orah Hayyimm simman 24, where he quotes the geonic sages Natronai and Moshe on this).
Much like Karaites, the Reform movement consciously or unconsciously, in its early stages returned to a more scripture-based Judaism, rejecting for instance the Rabbinic interpretation of Tefillin (metaphorical rather than tangible) [though the issue of tefillin among Reformers has become an issue of controversy over the last several years, see here , here and here]
The same goes for the issue of patrilineal descent, where liberal streams of Judaism adopted a modified non-Rabbinic approach.
When researching the history of Karaites, both ancient and modern, (but especially the latter) a picture emerges very much unlike the one described by Mrs. Burstein. Although Karaite Jews have been reduced to a tiny, almost inconsequential (pathetic almost) sect, they are not your grandmothers Karaites anymore. Instead of a group of morbid ascetics sitting on cold hard stone floors in the dark on the Sabbath and eating cold food, we see a contemporary community here that seeks to modernize and become more practical. One may even observe that it is currently 'flourishing' to some extent, with more than a dozen Synagogues (several of them built in the just the past several years) youth groups, adult study groups and a ready willingness to incorporate modern technology to meet their religious needs. On the subject of fire on the Sabbath, for instance, a New York-based Karaite Hakham, Avaraham Qanai once put it to me: "That is why I have (use) batteries and fluorescent lights. God did not command us “Thou shalt sit in the dark”, but, rather, “You shall not cause fire to burn”. It would seem an imperative to always increase our knowledge and use that knowledge to help us keep Torah."
Perhaps what attracted enlightened Jewish thinkers most to the Karaites was their free-thinking nature. A cardinal principle of early Karaism (and a popular saying among Karaites still) is the following, which is attributed to Anan ben David:
חפישו באורייתא שפיר ואל תשענו על דעתי
"Search diligently in the Torah and don't rely on my opinion."
Perhaps this saying would serve Burstein well; to search diligently not only in the Torah but also in the writings of our history, as well as examine current reality more closely.