The Fights of The Rabbis:
The Fight Continues With The Karaites

This article was printed in the Kankan Journal Vol 2. Issue 16 Tisrei 5781

In last month’s issue of Kankan, we began a series exploring the great ideological battles of Jewish history.  We began by delving into the disruption to the Jewish world caused by the Sadducees.  In this issue, the historical narrative continues with their spiritual heirs, the Karaites.

During the reign of Shlomtzion HaMalka, with the help of her brother and the head of the Sanhedrin, Shimon Ben Shetach, the Sadducees were decimated.1Shlomtzion HaMalka: The Unsung Heroine Who Guaranteed the Jewish Future. Kankan Journal Volume 2, Issue 10, Nissan 5780. They lost their power, which had been based on their control of the government, the Sanhedrin, and the Kehuna.  In essence it became illegal to be a Sadducee.  Sadducee loyalists went underground or vanished for almost a millennium, until their ideology re-emerged in the form of the Karaite beliefs.

The exact nature of the relationship between the Karaites and the Sadducees is unclear.  The Karaites themselves did not talk much about their history, stating only that there have always been challenges to the Rabbinic Establishment, and presenting themselves as just another incarnation of such “truth seekers.”2Gordon , Nehemia. “History of Karaism.” Karaite Korner – History of Karaism, 1999, www.karaite-korner.org/history.shtml.

There are secular scholars who strive to show direct ties between the Sadducees of antiquity and the Karaites of the Middle Ages.  Most famous among them was Abraham Geiger, who is credited with being the founder of the Reform Movement in Germany.3Geiger, Abraham, Das Juentum und seine Geschichte, [Breslau, 1865], p. 53.  In 1838, Geiger was actually nominated to be the Chief Rabbi of Breslau.  In the great fight that broke out as a result, the Orthodox community claimed that Geiger was in fact a Karaite and therefore could not possibly lead the Jewish community.4 “Geiger, Abraham.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. pp. 412–415.

It seems to this author that Geiger’s obsession with the Karaites, and his unyielding attempt to show their ancient roots, was an attempt at providing validation for the movement that he was then spearheading.  If Geiger could show that the Rabbinical/Talmudic establishment had been consistently challenged for 2 millennia, that would give his fledgling movement much-needed credibility.  This position is rejected by scholars who are more sensitive to Jewish Tradition.

Description: Photo of Crimean Karaites traditional clothes in Trakai, Lithuania.
Date: 19 July 2017
Author: Patrick Janicek
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of what the truth of the antecedence of Karaism might be, all agree that a man by the name of Anan Ben David was the founder/organizer of the Karaite sect that emerged in Iraq in the Eighth Century.  Its period of prominence lasted for four centuries, and a small remnant still exists today in a few isolated outposts.

The traditional rabbinical source discussing the origins of the Karaites is the writings of Rav Saadia Gaon, who became the movement’s most fearsome opponent.5Eliyahu Ben Avraham’s Hiluk HaKaraim V’Robonim, 11th century. By the mid-8th century, the onslaught of Islam throughout Europe and Asia had taken its toll on the Jewish people in more ways than one.  The core of Jewish tradition was being challenged by new fringe heretical groups such as the Isawites (so named after its founder, Abu Isa), the Yudganites, and the Shadganites (followers of Yudgan and Shadgan6Abraham de Harkavy. Jewish Encyclopedia V:1 P:553.), as well as the henceforth dormant Sadducees and other sectarian groups, left over from the late Second Temple era.

Our sages teach that there were no less than 24 heretical groups that hastened the destruction of the Second Temple.7Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 10:5.  These groups would likely have appeared and passed quite quickly from the scene were it not for the rallying effect of one successful and dynamic personality, Anan Ben David.

From the time of King Yechonya’s exile to Babylon at the hands of Nevuchadnezzer in 434 BCE, the provincial leader of the Jewish people in exile was known as the Reish Galusa (Exilarch – head of the exile) with Yechonya being the first to hold the position.  The Reish Galusa was the de facto heir apparent in exile from the House of David.  The extent of his power varied over the centuries until the position became defunct in the mid-13th Century.  During the Islamic Caliphate, the position was quite powerful and regarded an official part of the government.

Anan was the nephew of the Reish Galusa, although the identity of the Reish Galusa at the time is not known with certainty.  We do know that around 760, the Reish Galusa died childless, leading some to speculate that it was Shlomo Ben Chasdai because he in fact died childless.8Joseph Jacobs, Schulim Ochser. Jewish Encyclopedia V:11 P:451.  The Reish Galusa had two nephews, Anan and Chananya.  While Anan was the clear favorite, the Gaonim (the rabbinic leaders of the great Yeshivas of Sura and Pumbadisa) did not trust him due to his charisma and free-thinking spirit, and they passed him over for the quieter, less learned, but far more humble and pious brother, Chananya.  The Gaonim quickly had the position ratified by the Caliph of Baghdad, and Chananya was installed as the Reish Galusa.

Description: Karaite Kenesa in Vilnius, Lithuania
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Unwilling to absorb this monumental snub quietly, Anan proceeded to assemble a group, consisting of disgruntled Jews belonging to the various existing sectarian groups.  His newfound followers appointed him as their Reish Galusa in secret, for if the Caliphate were to find out, such a move would be considered treasonous.

Nevertheless, Anan’s secret elevation to his position was found out, and he was arrested and sentenced to death.  While awaiting execution, Anan met Abu Hanifa, founder of the Hanahi School of Sunni Islam, who was in the identical predicament.  The latter suggested that the treasonous Jew adopt a defense strategy similar to the one he planned to use.  He advised Anan to claim that he was in no way challenging the position of Reish Galusa sanctioned by the Caliphate, and that indeed, he was the leader of a completely different religion which rejected the Talmudic tradition followed by the Reish Galusa in favor of an ideology based on a literal reading of Scripture.  This strategy, aided by Anan’s charisma and a fair amount of bribery, worked, and Anan was set free.

The immediate followers of Anan were called Ananites, with the name Karaites only developing later.  Anan told his followers that he had been visited by Eliyahu HaNavi who told him that he was committing a mortal sin by following the Torah in the Talmudic Tradition, which motivated Anan to teach and practice the Torah’s “true meaning.”

Anan then went on to commit his theology to writing, and circa 770, he published his Sefer HaMitzvot in which he explained his core tenets.  In an effort to attract Jews from other movements, he incorporated much of what he understood from the Sadducees, Philo,9Dr. Bernard Revel argues that the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE) was the primary influence on the statutes of Anan (The Karaite halakah : and its relation to Sadducean, Samaritan and Philonian halakah, Philadelphia.1913). the Essenes and Qumran sects. He also composed his own version of the Thirteen Middos, or hermeneutic principles, used to expound the Torah.

Unlike many other rogue movements throughout history, Anan was more stringent than the Rabbis in many areas.  For example: He rejected the notion of minimum measurements for prohibitions, and instead prohibited even the smallest amount.  All meat, other than that of the deer was forbidden out of mourning for the Beis HaMikdash; one could only leave his house on Shabbos for prayer or other spiritual necessities, and a pre-kindled fire could not be used on Shabbos, matzah could only be made from barley, and many more.

Needless to say, such a rigid approach to Jewish belief could not last, and indeed it did not.  After Anan’s passing circa 795, the Ananites migrated to Jerusalem with the permission of the Caliphate where they lived a secluded life of asceticism, and were never a force to be reckoned with again.  That left the other anti-rabbinical groups, united and empowered, to form a more palatable version known to us as Karaism.

The more liberal Karaism caught on like wildfire in the Arabic world.  The Karaite community functioned completely separately from the traditional Jewish community, developing its own institutions, and producing many works containing their beliefs and teachings.

According to many historians, they created a movement that engulfed up to 40% of the entire Jewish world at that time, and its members actively debated and missionized the traditional Jewish community of this time.10Salo Wittmayer Baron.  It would take two rabbinic giants to subdue this assault.

In the year 903, a 23-year-old Egyptian scholar named Saadia ben Yosef wrote a polemic against Anan Ben David which took the war of words between these communities to a whole new level that sometimes got physically violent.11“Karaites.” Encyclopedia Judaica, page 789. In 928, Rav Saadia was appointed as Gaon, the chief religious leader of Babylonian Jewry, giving him a new position from which to attack Karaism as an outright heresy that was beyond the pale of Judaism.

Interior of a house of Karaite Jews, in Crimea, vintage engraved illustration. Magasin Pittoresque 1855

After its birth in Babylon, another stronghold of Karaism developed in Egypt, where the Rambam arrived in 1168.  In some of his writings, the Rambam seems to follow the lead of R’ Saadia Gaon, describing the Karaites as heretics12Igeres HaTeiman. and ruling that they are deserving of the death penalty.13Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Mamrim 3:1–2. Yet, in his Teshuvos, the Rambam takes a polar opposite approach, writing that the Karaites “should be treated with respect, honor, kindness, and humility, as long as they… do not… slander the authorities of the Mishnah and the Talmud.  They may be associated with, and one may enter their homes, circumcise their children, bury their dead, and comfort their mourners.”14Teshuvos HaRambam §449.

Perhaps the Rambam believed that despite the fact that Karaism is heresy, there is an obligation to reach out to every misguided Jew, to teach them, and to bring them close to the Torah.  Through this approach, by the time he took leave of this world in 1204, the Karaite community of Egypt had declined precipitously, and the Golden Age of Karaism had come to an end.

For the next 600 years, the Karaites would remain a small, insignificant group living in peace with the far larger and more influential community of Rabbanic Jews.  In the late 19th century, when the wrath of the Russian Czar was being unleashed on the Jewish community, the Karaites opportunistically lobbied the Russian government for recognition as a separate people, arguing that they were in the Crimea before Jesus was even born.

The Czar agreed, and thus, the Karaites were saved from the brutal oppression that befell the traditional Jewish community in Czarist Russia.15“Karaite.” Encyclopedia Judaica p. 793. Needless to say, this did not bode well for their relationship with the traditional Jewish community.

When the Bolsheviks came to power, they outlawed Karaism along with every other religion. The Nazis, however, left the Karaites alone.  After the founding of the modern State of Israel, Karaites experienced the same persecution in Arab countries as traditional Jews did, forcing their remaining members to emigrate to Israel.

In Halacha, the predominant opinion is that of the Remah who says that since the Karaites never practiced the Torah’s laws of marriage and divorce, they are all considered possible mamzerim, and since a mamzer can never marry another Jew, marriage with Karaites is forbidden (even were they to undergo a halachic conversion).16Rema, Even HaEzer 4:37. While the renowned contemporary posek R’ Eliezer Waldenburg upholds this position,17Tzitz Eliezer 5:16. R’ Ovadia Yosef permitted marriage with a Karaite in the very rare case where the mother was Jewish and the individual was completely severed from the Karaite traditions.18Yabia Omer, Even HaEzer 8:12. He was, however, alone in this leniency.  Today, less than 30,000 Karaites remain, mostly located in Israel.  While the State of Israel does not recognize the Karaites as full-fledged Jews, they are given a certain amount of religious protection.  Israel allowed the Karaites to immigrate there in the belief that they would be swallowed up by the traditional Jewish community and undergo conversion.19Freeman, Joshua. “Laying down the (Oral) law”. The Jerusalem Post, May 22, 2007, p. 14. In the Diaspora, the only significant Karaite community is the one located in San Francisco, numbering a few thousand members.