Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Strange Encounters; Hassidim and Karaites, Eastern Europe and Jerusalem's Old City

The casual visitor to Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, has probably come across the historic Synagogue of the Karaites on Karaim Street (photo bottom). Directly opposite, lies the ruins of a once magnificent edifice called the "Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue" built by the Hassidim of the Ruzhin sect who settled in the city (see before and after photos).

Completed in 1872, it merited a visit from the Kaiser Franz Josef I of Austria in 1871, en route to attend the inauguration of the Suez Canal. The visit was described in the hebrew Havatzelet Journal (one wonders if the Kaiser visited the Karaite Synagogue as well, if he did, I have been unable to locate a record of it). The Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue would serve as the general center of Hassidic Jews in the Old City until its fall in the War of Independence in 1948.

The Karaite Synagogue "Anan ben David" is according to scholars the most ancient continuously functioning (except for the period of the Jordanian occupation from 1948-67) Synagogue in Jerusalem, and perhaps in the entire Land of Israel. While the Karaite Synagogue was restored after the Six Day War, the Hassidic Synagogue, on the other hand, still lies in ruins (though there has been talk recently of restoring it as well).

One can only wonder what kind of (if any) neighborly relations existed between the Ruzhiner Hassidim and their Karaite neighbors, mere meters away...


This curious rendezvous between Hasidim and Karaites in Jerusalem, may not have been such a strange one after all; Karaites have lived in parts of Eastern Europe since at least the 13th c. and according to some scholars may have laid the foundations of certain eastern European Jewish communities (1). There certainly were relations between the two communities (Hassidim and Karaites) back in Poland, Galicia, and Volhynia, although not always good ones.

The most famous Karaite of the 19th c. was undoubtedly Avraham Firkovich (known by his penname אבן רש"ף). He was a prodigious scholar as well as traveler and bibliophile. Firkovich was born in Luck, Poland and spent the waning years of his life in the Karaite stronghold of Chufut Qale in the Crimea. He corresponded throughout his life with a wide variety of people, including prominent Hassidim, such as the third Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch (2). In 1834 during his stay in the town of Berdichev, he quarreled with the local Hassidic Rabbi who called him 'an ignoramus'. According to one account the ideological debate developed into a fist-fight. Berditchev was a center of Hassidism (a famous Hassidic dynasty was founded there by Rabbi Levi Isaac) as well as a stronghold of Maskilim. It is no surprise that the arrival of Firkovich (and his decidedly pro-maskilic and anti-hassidic bent) added to the already boiling cauldron.
(It should be pointed out that the Karaite approach to Kaballah -and presumably the movements it inspired, such as Hassidism, was allot more nuanced than commonly perceived, see for instance the biography and works of Simcha Yiztchak Lutzki, termed in this paper a "Karaite Kabbalist").

Another famous Karaite scholar, Mordechai Sultansky actually met Rabbi Yisrael, founder of the Linkaforementioned Ruzhin Hassidic dynasty. David Assaf gives an account of Sultansky's less than charitable impression of the man:

Writing in 1841, Mordechai Sultansky of Chufut-Qale (Crimea), a prominent Karaite sage and historian recalled his encounter in Ruzhin with the young Israel, which probably took place around 1815

When I was young I had heard of the fame of the baal shem Israel, who was adored by his believers. I had a desire to see him and to assess his quality. I went there to the town of Ruzhin; however I could not see his face because of the crowd who flocked from all over the country to ask his assistance. Finally I had an idea. I wrote a letter of poems and phrases dedicated to his honor and delivered it to his attendant, and then he ordered that I be invited. That is how I came to see him, and he was then 18 years old. He said to me: my dear, you wrote your letter in vain, since I will not understand ay of it. That is because I haven’t any knowledge in wisdom or in books. I am devoted only to theoretical Kabbala. When I tested him, I realized that he had neither faith nor knowledge or sense, but he is one of Jezebel’s prophets, who merely consumes the remnants of the brainless Jews and strips them of their skin with his crazy tricks. However in their eyes he is as lofty as an angel. (3)


If Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin was a controversial figure, so much more so for his colorful son, Rabbi Dovber (bernyu) Friedman (pictured) who was given the post of Rebbe of Leova (1815-1877). The latter is one of the only 'admorim' in Hassidic history to have willingly resigned his post.

Dovber was on intimate terms with the Maskilim of his locale. He regularly spouted 'maskilic ideas', rejecting what he termed "the superstitious baggage that Judaism has accrued since the Babylonian exile". One can only speculate what his views on Karaite Judaism were.....

By 1869, he had relocated to Czernowicz , where he stayed at the residence of the noted maskil, Dr. Yehuda Leib Reitman and refused to see any of his former followers. During his stay there, he would often engage the local Christian mailman in philosophical discussion, which he is said to have enjoyed immensely. He also publicized a scandalous letter which I reproduce here:

ידעתי קוראים נכבדים כי בני עמנו הנפוצים בארצות רחוקות כחכמים היושבים על גפי מרומי השכלה ככסילים היושבים אחורי התנור והכירים אשר שמעו את שמי ישיחו בי וישאלו: מה היה לי כי נהפכתי לאיש אחר? לכן גמרתי בלבי לבוא במגלת ספר להודיע בקהל עדת ישורון שורש דבר נמצא בי כי בלבי צפנתי אמונת אל אחד ובו אדבק כל הימים ונאמן אנכי לתורתו ולחכמי ישראל ההולכים לפנים ולא לאחור ולא אסרתי מעלי את יראת השם רק הרחקתי מעלי את המון הפתאים השומרים הבלי שווא אשר סביב שתו עלי. אולם לא אל אנשי חנף השמים חושך לאור ואור לחושך המתכסים באדרת החניפה למען כחש אשים דברתי כי המה מורדי אור החכמה ואמונה טהורה רק אל החכמים והנבונים בעם אשר החכמה נר לרגלם והאמונה אור לנתיבתם אביעה רוחי ואודיע דברי איתם כי האמת אזור מתני והאמונה אזור חלצי

ואם אמנם אין לאל ידי לבער את הקוצים מכרם בית ישראל לטהר את אמנותנו מהבלי המנהגים אשר אין להם עיקר בתורת אלהים רק עלו עם בני עמנו מבבל ושאר הגוים אשר התערבו בהם כאשר דרשו חז"ל: כתוב אחד אומר כמשפטי הגויים עשיתם וכתוב אחר אומר לא עשיתם הא כיצד? כמתוקנים שבהם לא עשיתם כמקולקלים שבהם עשיתם". הלא טוב לי כי אעבוד את אלהי אמת על כן לא אירא מרבבות פתאים אשר כהמות ימים פתיון ולא אערוץ מהמון רבה אשר בחשיכה יתהלכון אם רק מחשבתי רצויה בעיני אלהים וישרי לב.

ובזה אשים קנצי למילן ולכל אוהבי חכמה שוחרי מוסר שלום!

טשערנאוויץ יום א' לחודש אדר תרכ"ט לפ"ק

דוב בער במוהר"ר ישראל

Finally, under tremendous pressure from his family (who were at the receiving end of vicious attacks by rival Hassidim as a result of his activities), he publicized a second letter wherein he "recanted" his former heretical views. An impossible maskil and a tortured soul, he would spend the remaining years of his life at the house of his nephew the Rebbe of Sadigura.

According to the Yivo Encyclopedia:

Disillusioned with Hasidism and with his role as tsadik, he began to keep company with maskilim. In 1868, following the death of a brother, he experienced a profound personal crisis and decided to abandon his standing as a Hasidic rebbe. Attempts to persuade him to recant failed, and rumors abounded regarding alleged contacts with missionaries and his desire to convert to Christianity. Fearful of the damage to the reputation of the dynasty, his wife and brothers brought him forcibly to Sadagora in 1869, but maskilim from nearby Czernowitz secured his release with the help of the police. He stayed at the home of a communal elder, a lawyer named Yehudah Leib Reitman; was openly lax in his religious observance; and published a declaration in the Jewish press rejecting Hasidism and espousing Haskalah values. A storm ensued: maskilim lauded him as a hero, while his former Hasidim believed he had gone mad. After one and a half months, Bernyu repented his actions and returned to his brother’s court at Sadagora. He did not resume his rabbinical duties, however, and lived in solitude until his death.

Bernyu’s actions and his followers’ reluctance to denounce them (some of his Hasidim claimed that he had not sinned at all, attributing his behavior to some inscrutable religious mystery) inspired Ḥayim Halberstam of Sandz, an extremely conservative rebbe and important halakhic authority, to attack Sadagora Hasidism, condemning their regal style of life and pronouncing a ban upon its members as long as the four “brothers” remained unrepentant and refused to acknowledge their misdeeds in public. The controversy was marked by violence and split the Hasidic communities of Galicia and Hungary bans and counterbans flew back and forth. Sadagora Hasidim in the Land of Israel excommunicated Reb Ḥayim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and dozens of vitriolic polemical pamphlets were published. Only after the deaths of Bernyu and Halberstam (both in 1876) did the dispute die down, but the warring camps remained hostile to one another for many years thereafter.


While have no record of Dovber/Bernyu having correspondence with Karaites, we do have extensive evidence of other maskilim and their overtures to Karaites. One example, is the famous thinkers and writer Nachman Krochmal author of Moreh Nevuchei Hazman (Guide to the Perplexed of this Age). Krochmal carried on a correspondence with the Karaite cantor of the town of Kuzikow, David ben Mordechai, author of Semmah David and also with the important Karaite leader Abraham Leonowicz of Halicz. When this correspondence was discovered by local Hassidim, they termed him a Karaite and a heretic. Krochmal wrote a defense of his actions, wherein he denied becoming a Karaite but at the same time, he fiercely defended the Karaites as fellow Jews who believed in the most important aspects of the Jewish faith.

According to Reuven Fahn, 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. (4)


1). see for instance Eliach, Yaffa. There once was a world: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok 1998

2).Mentioned in Shapira, Dan. AVRAHAM FIRKOWITZ IN ISTANBUL p. 77 n. 151

It's interesting to note that the famed 'Chabad library' (one of several) contains plenty of maskilic and Karaite works such as this one by the Karaite Scholar Elijah Bashyaczi.

3). Assaf, David. The regal way: the life and times of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin P. 73I

4). The Karaites of Galicia: an ethnoreligious minority among the Ashkenazim by Mikhail Kizilov, p. 224-5

The whole Krochmal Karaite controversy is narrated in detail in Krochmal’s letter to Zeev-Wolf Shiff of 1816 (Krochmal Kitvei, 413-416).


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