Monday, May 11, 2009

A Very Karaite Lag B'Omer

Think today is the 33rd day of the Omer? You must be a "Rabbanite," who counts the Omer from the second day of Passover. But if you're a Karaite, you take the Bible as literally as possible – so when it says you count from "the morrow of the Sabbath," you always start counting on a Sunday.*

Around the time of Christ, this difference caused a huge rift between Rabbanite and Karaite Jews. But these days, many Jews have not even heard of Shavuot. In such times, wouldn't it be wise to broaden our horizons a little and welcome the Karaites into the greater Jewish community... even if they celebrate Shavuot a little later in the week?

The thriving Karaite community in
San Francisco recently celebrated a major milestone: a Karaite conversion ceremony, the first since 1465. Browsing online, I found this interview with the Karaite rabbi, Joe Pessah. To me, the most interesting stuff is what he says about interacting, and intermarrying, with Rabbanites. This could be the start of something big, the mending of a rift that has festered for far too long.

I am reminded of a
mishna every Jew should know:

בית שמאי מתירין את הצרות לאחין, ובית הלל אוסרין. חלצו--בית שמאי פוסלין מן הכהונה, ובית הלל מכשירין; נתייבמו--בית שמאי מכשירין, ובית הלל פוסלין. אף על פי שאלו פוסלין ואלו מכשירין, אלו אוסרין ואלו מתירין--לא נמנעו בית שמאי מלישא נשים מבית הלל, ולא בית הלל מבית שמאי. וכל הטהרות והטומאות שהיו אלו מטהרין ואלו מטמאין, לא נמנעו עושין טהרות אלו על גב אלו

Beth Shammai permit the [rival wives] to the surviving brothers, and Beth Hillel prohibit them... Though these forbade what the others permitted, and these regarded as ineligible what the others declared eligible, Beth Shammai nevertheless did not refrain from marrying women from Beth Hillel, nor did Beth Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beth Shammai. [Similarly...] neither of them abstained from using the utensils of the others for the preparation of food that was ritually clean. (Y'vamot 1:4)

Amen.

*The intricacies of the debate are far too boring to go into here. All interested parties should start with Leviticus 23:9-21 and Joshua 5:11. The interested Rabbanite should proceed to the Babylonian Talmud (Menahot 65a-66aa); the interested Karaite to the Korner. The Modern Orthodox movement has prompted much more in-depth learning of Hebrew Bible, and this has re-opened a very interesting debate about literal (p'shat) vs. exegetical (d'rash) understanding of the Torah. Historically, a chasm has developed between Orthodox Jews and the Karaites and Samaritans. Perhaps this newfound appreciation of "p'shat" will lead back to a reunification of sorts.

12 comments:

Dave L said...

Just for the sake of accuracy… there was no Karaite movement until the Ninth Century. The rift that you speak of as occurring “[a]round the time of Christ” was actually a dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees tended to read the Bible broadly and had accepted traditions of interpretation of the Bible that didn’t always correspond to the simplest (or easiest) reading of the Biblical text. The Sadducees tended to read the Bible as literally as possible. (This is an EXTREME over-simplification of the differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees.) By the Second Centurty, the Sadducees seem to have disappeared from recorded history. The remaining Jewish religious leaders (that appear in recorded history) were heirs of the Pharisees.

The Karaites appeared 700 years later. They too attempt to read the Bible as literally as possible, but over time have developed traditions of their own regarding Biblical interpretation. They might consider themselves the spiritual descendants of the Sadducees, but there is no proven direct link between the Karaites and Sadducees.

Samurai Scientist said...

@Dave,
there was no Karaite movement until the Ninth Century.

Depends who you ask.

In addition to Karaites and Sadducees, I'd add to the list the Baa'thusians and Samaritans.

Dave L said...

Depends on who you ask? Excuse me, but no one has shown evidence of a direct historical link between the Sadducees and Karaites -- the most that you have is speculations of a possible connection based upon some similarities in their practices. You will notice that the “Karaite Korner” linked in your comment has no footnotes or other references to source material. In fact, in another Karaite Korner (Newsletter #213, found at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/karaite_korner_news/message/231), Nechamia Gordon (a Karaite scholar) tries to deal with the fact that the First Century Sadducees had different beliefs on resurrection than the Karaites, which would seem to indicate that there is not a direct link between the two groups. He also explains that the Sadducees were merely a “Karaite movement,” but that not all Karaites were Sadducees. This idea is troubling because we have no record of anything called “Karaite” until the Ninth Century. In fact, the only record we have of groups who specifically interpret the Torah literally before the Second Century were the Sadducees and Beothusians (terms which seem to have been used interchangeably). In summary, there is no direct evidence that the current Karaite movement was around before the Ninth Century.

(There are a number of other historical issues that I have with Nechamia Gordon’s message which I will not go into because this post is already long as it is and I am getting off topic.)

“In addition to Karaites and Sadducees, I'd add to the list the Baa'thusians and Samaritans.”

I would agree about the Beothusians, since no one has been able to conclusively determine how they differed from the Sadducees (although there are some theories). I would hesitate to put the Samaritans in this categories, since they only share the first five books of the Bible with Jews and even those books are a bit different. In fact, there is quite a bit of hostility between towards the Samaritans in the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah.

Dave L said...

The link that I meant to reference above is: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/karaite_korner_news/message/231

Dave L said...

The link seems to have gotten garbled again, it is:

http://groups.yahoo.com/
group/
karaite_korner_news/
message/231

Sim said...

karaite korner??? do they even want to be taken seriously?

Samurai Scientist said...

@Dave, thanks for your comments. It is an interesting historical question when exactly the Karaite movement arose - or any of these movements for that matter.

Sorry about the link frustration, blogger kills long words... either use tinyurl.com to shorten links, or the html a tag.

DF said...

Larry Bird is a Kairite?

Samurai Scientist said...

@DF,
Larry Bird is a Kairite?

Not that I know of... but look at the number on his jersey.

Volcanicuz said...

I'll weigh in on this, tho Dave beat me to my main comment. The Sadducees of the Temple era and the Karaites from Gaonic times are quite separate groups.

On the specific subject of the Mishna you quote, I have some input you might find interesting:

A few years ago, the Israel Museum ran an exhibit of finds from the Cairo Geniza. One of the themes explored in the exhibit was the relationship between the "mainstream" Jewish community of Cairo (and Egypt) and the Karaite community there.

It seems that different authorities at different times had differing opinions (big surprise...) over exactly how much contact can and should be maintained. The issue is one of balancing the idea of unity and harmony, as exemplified by the Mishna in Y'vamot you quoted, and the problem of preventing potential heresy. It sort of boils down to whether Karaism qualifies as heresy in offical legal terms, and whether Rabbanites have an interest in "returning them to the fold".

The exhibit actually included a Ketubah from a "mixed" Karaite/Rabbanite marriage. The document included a "prenuptial" agreement of sorts, setting out the issues that each side was willing to compromise on, or not, in their traditions for the common household. It was fascinating, to say the least.

One last, somewhat somber, anecdote. During one of my reserve army stints, I found out that one of my fellow soldiers was a Karaite, from one of the communities in Israel. Being the curious researcher I am, I began asking all sorts of questions about Karaite traditions. And found, to my disappointment, that the kid was quite secularized, like any standard secular Israeli. He had no acquaintance at all with even his family's special traditions of Judaism, nor of much Judaism at all. He claimed his father was quite knowledgable, but apparently the latter was unwilling or unsuccessful at passing anything on. For some reason, I expected a small, separate community within Judaism to be more capable of maintaining tradition and observance, but I was apparently wrong. It's a sad statement about loss of connection to roots that plagues us all, in all of our denominations.

believer said...

Not to throw water on the entire idea of reunification, as a descendant of Karaites, there are certain divisive issues that present major stumbling blocks. Besides the paternal versus maternal recognition of one's ethnicity, there are memories that will take a long time to erase. One of these concerns the Rabbinical attitide towards Karaites as exemplified by the Jewish spiritual sage of the tenth century Saadiah Gaon. For those unfamiliar with this episode, Saadiah compared the killing of Karaites to the killing of dogs. Thousands died during the expulsion. In Mahoza, where my family lived for centuries, wild dogs were hunted down, so you can better understand what the Gaon meant by this reference. The stories of scorn and ridicule heaped upon my ancestors by Rabbinic adherents kept us constantly migrating until we ended up in Bessarabia and Romania where at least the community had some respite from the abuse. Even now you can find orthodox rabbinic sites that are still making derogatory references to our community, one being that we're really Muslims and not Jews at all. Fact is, as Karaites, we can probably trace our ancestory a lot better than most.

Samurai Scientist said...

@Volcanic,
The exhibit actually included a Ketubah from a "mixed" Karaite/Rabbanite marriage. The document included a "prenuptial" agreement of sorts, setting out the issues that each side was willing to compromise on, or not, in their traditions for the common household. It was fascinating, to say the least.

Fascinating indeed! This is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about, although I had no idea that it was actually history. Compromise is what it's all about.

@believer,
Besides the paternal versus maternal recognition of one's ethnicity, there are memories that will take a long time to erase... For those unfamiliar with this episode, Saadiah compared the killing of Karaites to the killing of dogs. Thousands died during the expulsion...Even now you can find orthodox rabbinic sites that are still making derogatory references to our community.

I was unaware of this history. It might be beneficial for today's rabbinate to apologize to Karaites for the actions of previous generations; to spread awareness of these historical events; and to take steps to make sure that such persecutions never happen again. They might start by taking down those websites.

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