Monday, May 08, 2006

Rabbanite/ Karaite folklore

A very interesting folk tale can be found in this parasha sheet from 1997 here, on Ohr Sameach's web site (given as "heard from Rabbi Zev Leff"):
During the Ottoman Empire, the Karaites attempted to gain recognition for themselves as the 'authentic Jews.' They approached the sultan, wanting to be recognized as the legitimate 'People of Israel,' and that the Jewish People should be disenfranchised as being fakes. The sultan summoned both a rabbi and a representative of the Karaites to appear in front of him at the royal palace. After hearing both their cases, he would decide who was the authentic "People of the Book."

Of course, as was the custom of the East, both the Karaite and the rabbi were required to remove their shoes before appearing in front of the Sultan. The Karaite removed his shoes and left them by the entrance to the throne room. The rabbi also removed his shoes, but then he picked them up and carried them with him into the audience with the sultan.

When the sultan looked down from his throne, he was struck by the somewhat strange sight of the rabbi holding a pair of shoes, and he demanded an explanation.

"Your Majesty," began the rabbi, "as you know, when the Holy One, may His Name be blessed, appeared to our teacher Moses, peace be upon him, at the site of the burning bush, G-d told Moses "Take off your shoes from on your feet!"

"We have a tradition," said the rabbi, "that while Moses was speaking to the Holy One, a Karaite came and stole his shoes!

"So, now, whenever we are in the company of Karaites, we make sure to hold onto our shoes!"

The Karaite turned to the rabbi and blustered:

"That's nonsense! Everyone knows that at the time of Moses, there were no Karaites!"

The rabbi allowed time for what the Karaite had said to sink in and then quietly added: "Your Majesty, I don't believe there is a need for more to be said..."
This story sounds like an echo of actual historical happenings in the 18th century, when a large number of Karaites came under Russian control, at the same time as Russian oppression of Jews began to mount. Karaite leaders tried, and succeded in convincing Russian authorities that they are Karaites, not Jews, that they were descendents of medieval Khazars who converted to the pure religion of the Old Testament, Karaism, unlike Jews whose religion was Talmudism. They actually did buy this argument, and the many disabilites placed on Jews were not placed on Karaites who lived under Russian aegis, whether in the Crimea or Lithuania. To this day there is a split between Karaites of eastern European and Middle Eastern origin. Middle Eastern Karaites call themselves Karaite Jews, are likely to live in Israel and identify as Jews, whereas Karaites from the Former Soviet Union most definitely do not consider themselves Jews.

Or maybe not. This could be an older story, reflecting something else. But it is an interesting story from a genre of like stories. Karaites had clever ones too.

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