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October 19, 2014 12:02 pm

The Karaites and Simchat Torah

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Torah scroll. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Who are the Karaites, and do they keep Simchat Torah?

I have several times in the past come across Jews, invariably thoughtful and charming, who have told me that they are so fed up with the excesses of rabbinic Judaism that they have decided to become Karaites. Just this week, a delightful young Israeli woman living in New York told me in synagogue that she was so fed up with extra days of festivals and other rabbinic-added strictness that she too was a Karaite and so only kept one day of festivals.

This set me wondering why my little Persian community in New York, most of whom do not bother with second days, did not themselves adopt the Karaite variation? All the more since many of the early founders came from Persia. But the fact is that, if you look more carefully into it, becoming a Karaite is not really to be recommended, and if it might solve one set of problems, it would create a heck of a lot of other ones.

The Karaites take their name from the word for “text,” which indicates that they only accept the text of the Torah. They reject post-Torah rabbinic interpretations, additions, and customs, and those theological ideas such as Resurrection and Life After Death that are not explicit in the Torah. What makes them popular with Reform communities is that they accepted patrilineal descent as the definition of Jewish identity and they are even less happy about conversion than the London Beth Din.

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Some scholars trace them back to the Sadducees, who themselves held such opinions, others to the Dead Sea Sects. They were dormant or marginal after the destruction of the Temple; but later and under the dynamic leadership of Anan Ben David (715-795), who some say really founded them, they flourished to such an extent that at one moment in the ninth century they nearly became the dominant sect of Judaism in Persia and Babylonia. Salo Baron thought they accounted for 40% of the Iraqi Jewish population.

It was thanks mainly to the great Saadiah Gaon (d. 942), who campaigned energetically and relentlessly against them, that they receded and declined to the very small sect that they are today. Currently some 30,000 live in Israel and about 4,000 in the U.S. Despite their differences, Sephardi rabbis such as Rav David-Chaim Chelouche and the late Rav Ovadia Yosef have always maintained that they count as Jews and do not need conversions to “return to the fold.” The Ashkenazi rabbinate, surprise, surprise, is not so open.

The Karaite calendar differs from the accepted Jewish calendar. It follows the literal reading of the Torah text for festivals lasting only one day. But I don’t understand why they celebrate Simchat Torah, which is not mentioned in the Torah as such. They do not include Chanukah – which they consider a post-Biblical festival, but do keep Purim.

But before you go out and sign up, let me tell you the downside. Not accepting rabbinic innovation does have its drawbacks. Karaites do not allow lights and fire in their homes on Shabbat, although I am told reformist ideas on this issue now divide them into the “lighters” and “the darkeners.” Still, no sex on Shabbat – that’s a real downer, as are far stricter rules on family purity, which really put women in a state of Purdah. And the laws of marriage are so strict that any blood relative however distant is forbidden. You really are hurting your chances of getting married! That more than anything else probably explains why there are so few today.

It’s true they don’t interpret the Torah texts about Tefillin and Mezuzot as requiring literal objects – they see them merely as symbolic – but they are very keen on Tzitzit, especially the blue thread. They do not take the four kinds of plants we wave on Sukkot, because they understand the Torah references to mean that they were to be used only in building a Sukkah. And because their laws of how to slaughter animals are different and stricter than Orthodox shechitah, this means that a good Karaite will not eat normal kosher meat. In addition if one cares about marrying “in,” then the pool of possible partners is ridiculously small. If you are interested in learning more, they have websites such as www.karaite.org or http://www.karaite-korner.org. The fact that they have several that conflict must prove they really are regular Jews!

On balance, I conclude, it makes more sense from a social point of view to stay technically within the dominant expression of Jewish religious life. After all, we are small enough as it is compared to the major religions of the world and riven enough by denominational conflict without confining oneself to an even narrower religious network. But then we have never played the numbers games. Still to claim adherence to an apparently more lenient way of life based simply on convenience, and usually ignorance, just does not cut it from the point of view of integrity or logic. If you don’t want to keep something, fess up to it. Don’t seek justification elsewhere.

If Karaites see themselves as part of the Jewish people then the variations in their beliefs and practices are no different than those of most Conservative and Reform Jews today. But if someone simply wants a justification for only keeping one day of Rosh Hashanah and the other festivals, there are, believe me, easier ways to go about it. Meanwhile we can all enjoy Simchat Torah together!

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  • איתי בן נחום

    האם הרב המכובד נעזר ביהודים קראים בעת מלאכת הכתיבה? מקריאת הכתבה, עולה מידה רבה של חוסר הבנה בסיסיים של מהות, היסטוריה, ותפילוסופיה של היהדות הקראית, מחבר הכתבה באופן ברור מסתמך על דעות המתנגדים, אני נמנה מלהשתמש במילה בורות מתוך כבוד לרב שבברור לא מחזיר באותה מטבע.

    צא ולמד…

    • Jeremy Rosen

      You are right, I do not have first hand experience any more than a one time visit to the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem and I was indeed relying on articles and information all second hand.

      But from the replies here from committed Karaites I see that the things I got wrong or took as universal instead of being subject to different opinions are all minor and irrelevant to the main point of my article that being Karaite is not an easy way out!!

  • While I agree with the Rabbi’s fundamental thesis – that Judaism for “convenience” benefits no one. I disagree with most of everything else he says.

    I’ve written an article about it here: http://wp.me/p43Sek-Ae

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Always good to see another point of view.
      J

      • BTW, in some ways Karaites are more lenient than the Rabbanites with respect to female purity. For example, we don’t observe the white days – we just observe 7 days of niddah.

      • RickyS

        “Always good to see another point of view”

        Well, not always. Some points of view are quite toxic, and we are better off if they had not been expressed.

  • Sarah R

    Very informative, thank you. I’ve been guilty of saying of various rules, “This makes me feel like a Karaite,” without really understanding what it means. I’ll “fess up” that Simchat Torah is the only holiday I refuse to do at all, on the grounds of too much veneration towards a physical object. I’m pretty sure there’s no established label for this, except possibly “Calvinist,” so I certainly hope one can observe eccentrically without adopting a historical movement wholesale!

    • Jeremy Rosen

      I am all in favor of eccentricity and individuality. Its competing movements and ideologies that create greater challenges. But in the end one simply decides where one wants to “hang ones hat” and identify oneself.
      J

      • Sarah R

        Not convinced that a settled identity can ever support sincere religiosity for very long. Sorry if that’s rude.

  • Dear Rabbi Rosen:
    I am one of the three original founding board members of Karaite Jewish University, and I would like to thank you for article focusing on Karaite Judaism, the oldest branch of Judaism known by its current name. It is a rare occasion to find an Orthodox Rabbi writing an article covering the worship practices of Karaite Jews. It was slightly ironic that your article I viewed online in “the Algemeiner” had a picture of a Sefer Torah without the ta’amin, according to Karaite Halakhah a “Sefer Torah” without vowels and accents is invalid, although I realize that authors frequently do not have control of editorial headlines or insertions of pictures.
    Although It was interesting to hear that you were running into former Jews who have adopted Karaite Judaism, I must admit that I was not enamored with their stated reason(s) for doing so. The reason to become a Karaite Jew should be based upon one’s belief that it is the most authentic form a Judaism capable of being observed today.
    If the idea is to avoid “extra strictness” the young lady mentioned should stay out of the food preparation business where Karaite standards of Kashrut are more strictly enforced avoiding Rabbinic leniencies. One such example is the 1/60th rule wherein if a trey substance pollutes a kosher item by less than 1.66% by volume the food is still kosher, is not adhered to by Karaite Jews, as well as the complete non-use of Chelev fats.
    While the reform movement’s responsa on Patrilineal descent cited the position of Karaite Judaism we do not hold identical views. A child of a Jewish father is born Jewish and a child of a Jewish mother is not. We learn this from Vayikra 24:10 which states: “And the son of an Israelitish woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel: and this son of the Israelitish woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp;” The passage does not treat a child whose father was Egyptian as part of the “Children of Israel.” Reform also requires specific acts of “Jewish identification” for a child born a Jew, whereas Karaite Judaism does not.
    It is inaccurate to say that the Karaites “accept only the text of the Torah.” The Karaites accept as divinely inspired the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, i.e. the TaNaKh. The correct view is referenced in Professor Uriel Simon of Bar Ilan University who wrote “…[Yehuda ben Eliyahu] Hadassi brings proof- texts for this Karaite view of the prophetic books and Hagiographa as the only authentic supplement to the Torah.” Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms: From Saadiah Gaon to Abraham Ibn Ezra, p. 205.
    In stating that Karaite Judiasm rejects “post-Torah rabbinic interpretations, additions, and customs, and those theological ideas such as Resurrection and Life After Death that are not explicit in the Torah” you have confused Karaite Judaism with what has been written about Sadducean Judaism. The Karaite-Korner.org website notes: ‘These doctrines are attributed to the Sadducees by their enemies and it is difficult to reconstruct the precise Sadducee view on these subjects. All Karaites believe in Reward and Punishment and most Karaites believe in the Final Resurrection as described in Daniel 12,2: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.””
    Many young Jews growing up reform have an internal search for knowledge and truth. When they read Shemot 35:3 that teaches that “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day” and reform Jews light candles in their temples after sundown, when they attend pot luck dinners at their temples with treyf meat but no milk, some of the ask what justifies these practices and leave the movement seeking something more authentic. For historical reasons to detailed to address here Karaite Judaism did not accept converts, let alone other Jews into the movement, but in 2005 I was part of a core group that brought about the first conversions to Karaite Judaism since 1465. (See, http://www.jweekly.com/article/full/33048/a-conversion-for-the-ages/).
    Today, the scholarly community has rejected the assertion that Anan ben David was a Karaite Jew, let alone the founder of Karaite Judaism. Professor Meira Polliack of Tel Aviv University was the editor of the Brill Publication HDO: A Guide to the History and Literary Sources in which an article by Professor Moshe Gil appeared entitled: “The Origins of the Karaites” Rejecting the view that Anan was the founder, Professor Gil wrote: “It is patently clear that this outlook is totally fanciful and was mainly intended to portray Karaism, within the milieu in which its adherents began to function, as having an especially long history….A new perception of the origins of Karaism is possible today , due in large part to the transcripts of the Cairo Geniza.” Professor Gil added “Upon closer scrutiny, the assertion that Anan I left the Rabbanite circles does not hold water….”
    Now as to Yom Simchat Torah. In “Karaite Jews of Egypt: 1882 – 1986″ by the late Mourad El Kodsi,z’tl the author a former Principal of the Karaite School in Cairo and Professor Emeritus of KJU the author described the practice of the Egyptian Karaite community noting: “This most joyous of all holy days is known also as Yom Shemini ‘Aseret. It is the day when the Torah was completed. According to Karaite belief, Simhat Torah marks the 22nd day of the 7th month, and is the last of the 18 days that the Torah designates as “holy convocation” Karaites do not work on this day. On Yom Simhat Torah, both associations that offered instruction in Hebrew used the occasion to celebrate a kind of graduation.”
    As to your “downsides” let us review the facts:
    But before you go out and sign up, let me tell you the downside. Not accepting rabbinic innovation does have its drawbacks. Karaites do not allow lights and fire in their homes on Shabbat, although I am told reformist ideas on this issue now divide them into the “lighters” and “the darkeners.”
    There is no issue with using florescent lights on Shabbat. Unfortunately, the ancient Karaite Jews did not have access to them so the myth still persists. See, http://www.orahsaddiqim.org/halakha/HolyDays/YamimTovim/Shabbat_-_Lights.shtml. I can assure you that the Chief Karaite Rabbi of Israel, Moshe Yosef Firrouz does not sit in the dark in Synagogue or at his home on Shabbat.
    As to sexual intercourse on Shabbat, both I and the Jew who was the first to use the term Karaite Benjamin ben Moses al-Nahawendi are in favor of it. This is the beauty of Karaite Judaism, captured in its motto: “Search in the Scriptures well”. There is not a commandment specifically related to sexual intercourse on the Shabbat. Therefore, resort to the “use of reason” or as Karaite Sage Yacoub al-Kirisani put it that the Scripture “confirmed “the validity of the use of reason” (p. 56 Karaite Anthology) and Karaite Hakham Elihayu Basyatchi wrote: “You must know there are many ordinances which are not expressly mentioned in the Law but from which the validity of other ordinances or from the accounts of prophetic utterances, and their excellence requires their being obligatory.” (p.246 Karaite Anthology). Briefly the analysis of sexual intercourse on Shabbat is one of competing values, do we “go forth an multiple” (Deut 6) or do we remain Tahor on the Shabbat day? A Karaite Jew must analyze the texts and determine the best reasoned opinion as to which position is correct.
    As to intermarrying with or Jewish brethren, I am surprised that you believe that marriage with a fellow non-Karaite Jew is prohibited. In Professor Marina Rustow’s book “Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate” she gives a number of examples of Ketubot from the Cairo Geniza in which Karaites married their fellow Jews.
    Quite frankly Rabbi, If a Jew wants leniency I would suggest that they consider either the Reconstructionist movement which holds there is no personal god and therefore that “There is no such thing as divine intervention” or a secular Judaism.
    However, if they want to do their best to put into practice the laws, precepts and ordinances which the creator gave to Abraham and Moses by seeking entry into a movement which is the most authentic form of Judaism capable of being practiced today, the Karaite Jewish movement stands ready, willing and able to accept them.
    Once a very wise Rabbi, Yitz Greenberg told Dennis Prager it is easy to take the best parts of your movement, and compare it to the worst part of another’s. We should avoid that temptation in promoting the values of our respective movements.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Thank you very much for that very thorough response and with your permission I will post it on my own blog.

      What you have accurately shown is that Karaites are as divided and have as many different opinions on law and belief as does mainstream orthodox Judaism. Funny people we are, we just love disagreeing.

      I concede I was too cavalier in trying to encapsulate them and over simplify. Your comments about Anan Ben David require further research. And by Torah I did indeed mean Tanach and that was an editing error. Everything else is indeed part of the Karaite tradition even if there have been and are varying opinions and degrees of strictness.

      My main overriding point and the essence of the piece however remains correct. namely that those who think Karaites have it easier are completely wrong! And indeed you bear this out.

      • Jeremy Rosen

        I should also add that the illustration was chosen by the team at Algemeiner, not me.

  • Rosen you are not chosen
    and the Torah is the guide and the rule and it will come the time when people will follow the word of God.
    Do not put down the Karaites when they are right

  • Haim Ben Rahmin

    AN EXCELLENT And very succinct article. Can you explain WHY the Ashkenazi Orthodox Authorities do not accept their Jewishness. Incidentally your article has contributed greatly to clarifying many misconceptions on Karaism.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Haim
      The obvious answer is the patrilineal issue. Some Ashkenazi authorities have raised the issue on Mamzerut. But I think the crucial answer is that theres a difference between those sects that never encountered Rabbinic Judaism and those ideologically opposed to them.
      J

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