Friday, June 03, 2005


A Karaite Godol. Posted by Hello

After the chasimas ha-talmud all Jews accepted the Talmud, right? Wrong. Many Jews did not accept the Talmud as the natural progression or the authentic codification of Judaism up until that time. They rejected it, either at the behest of one Anan ben David or not, but they were called Karaites. They looked back in history towards the Saducees, the Tzedukim, and said "This Talmudic Judaism (or Rabbinic, as they called it) isn't the only valid, ancient expression of Judaism. Hundreds of years ago there were Tzedukim just like their were Perushim". And they rejected the authority of the Talmud and the idea of the Oral Torah and returned to the Torah itself, or so they thought, much like how early Protestants rejected what they felt were illegitimate accretions to Christianity in the form of Catholicism. They rejected that too and "returned to the Bible", to sola scriptura. The connection was not lost on the Protestants themselves or on the Catholic Church. The Church called the Protestants Karaites. For their part, Protestants felt proud to be viewed as a Christian sort of Karaites.
Be that as it may, Karaite Judaism is not our Judaism, that is to say what can rightfully be called normative Judaism. Even non-halakhic forms of Judaism are offsprings of Talmudic or Rabbinic Judaism. But Karaites exist in small numbers today, and in much larger numbers hundreds of years ago. In the early centuries of the Middle Ages, Karaism posed a viable threat to Rabbinic Judaism in several times and places.
The Karaites, at least originally, rejected a fluid, non-literal interpretation of Torah. No tefillin, no hot food on shabbos (at least until the 15th century), no sex on shabbos (figure that out) et cetera.
Without labeling any specific group of Jews, I contend that there are Jews today who reject a fluid, non-literal interpretation of Talmud. In my conversations and participation in various internet discussions I've encounted Jews who believe that tannaim could literally revive the dead (or the late Rimnitzer Rebbe for that matter!). That there were once a species of primate that was attached to the earth by an umbilical cord. That hepatitis can be cured by placing a pigeon on the bellybutton. That each and every ma'amar chazal has only one meaning: the literal, often shallow meaning of the words themselves, no matter if idiom was employed or the context makes clear that a different meaning or meanings is intended.
I think these Jews are fraknly neo-Karaites, Talmudic Karaites -- Talmudites. They have codified and canonized and tranformed Torah she-ba'al peh into another, competing Torah she-bichtav. Worse, they have ignored the many lush ways that the meforshim and poskim throughout the ages have interpreted and viewed the Talmud. Please note: I am not talking about the traditional, central role of the Talmud or the normal Jewish view of the Talmud. I am talking about people who seem to go over and beyond, who have virtually created for themselves a second Written Torah.
Now, I realize that there is a huge practical distinction between them and the actual Karaites. For one, the fact that they have turned the Talmud into Scripture does not really impact their halakhic observance, which is unimpeachable. So I don't think Talmudic Karaism is going to drift away anytime soon, into a sect of Jews on the outside. In fact, they may gain the strength of the upper hand, if they haven't already.

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