Thursday, November 03, 2005

Karaism: on origins and what they were about Pt. I

Ever since I first heard of Karaites, probably at age 12 or so, I was fascinated with them. Why this is can be summed up with three words: The Twilight Zone. Karaism seemed to be a Twilight Zone version of Judaism, far more so than orthodox Islam (which I see as kind of a photo negative version) in two ways:

  1. The kind of religious schism that I, as an Orthodox Jew, was acquainted with was one that seemed motivated by the desire to abrogate or follow less halakhah, to be less frum, to be more lenient and convenient.As we shall see, this isn't the case with Karaism. My examples ranged from Christians to Sabbateans to Reform and Conservatives, all of whom seemed to make religious life less of a burden on time and/ or more "fun".
  2. In form. From a purely aesthetic perspective, Karaism really resembled Judaism as I know it. Karaism happened to have risen at the end of the Talmudic period, during the ascent of Islam. Insofar as the Jewish 'edot mizrahim managed to be less touched by modernity, and for longer, and preserved a very 'Oriental' character in their minhagim, religious expressions and aesthetic forms which seem to go back to that period and that type of environment. The Karaites seemed very "Sephardic" and used plenty of original Talmudic terminology--not because they were Talmudic, but because their culture had its origin in the same culture that our own religious culture was greatly shaped.
And of course, The Twilight Zone if very popular. Many people are intrigued by the Twilight Zone or the X-Files. I am intrigued by the Twilight Zone version of my life. From my conversations with other people I gather that the Sabbatean movement is roughly the same for them, which explains the widespread appeal of Scholem's "Sabbetai Zevi" and the kiddy version, "The Imposter" by "Avner Gold".

My apologies in advance to online Karaites who may be reading this, they are of course free to regard us as their own Twilight Zone version of themselves.

Where did Karaism come from? There are three basic opinions. One is the traditional Jewish view, one is what historical scholarship seems to show and one is that of the Karaites themselves (it should be noted that there is some overlap between the scholarly views and the traditional as well as overlap between the scholarly and the view of the Karaites).

Briefly, the most popular version is the traditional Jewish view. According to this view it was founded virtually ex nihilo from one 'Anan ben David. According to the story, 'Anan, was the nephew of the Baylonian resh galuta (exilarch). When the post became vacant, 'Anan felt that he was entitled to it. However, his brother was appointed in his stead and the Muslim khalif confirmed the appointment. Incensed, 'Anan declared himself resh galuta and was promptly rewarded for this rebellion by being thrown into prison. There he met Abu Hanifa, also in prison, who was a distinguished Muslim jurist, the founder of the Islamic Hanafi school of sharia, in fact. Abu Hanifa counseled him as follows: declare yourself and your circle of followers an entirely separate type of Judaism. If the khalif would recognize that then 'Anan would have a good claim to not being subject to the authority of the establishment and a valid reason for seceeding. Which 'Anan proceeded to do and, his claim given validity, was released and he proceeded to create a new Judaism or "write a new Talmud" in the words of R. Sharira Gaon (referring to his Sefer ha-mitzvot). Another version of this story has 'Anan claiming that Eliyahu Ha-navi visited him and gave him a new revelation (and not Abu Hanifa).

The trouble with this story is that it comes from only one source, about two centuries after the fact, and from a Rabbanite (that's us ;) ) source. In defense of the story, the Karaites themselves seem never to have addressed this story, which is curious due to the level of polemics going back and forth.

In any case, Karaite and Rabbanite literature make distinctions between benei miqra or karaim and 'Ananites, which would seem to indicate that he didn't actually found the movement. While it didn't exist as a movement per se until after his time, and while Karaites did attribute much signifigance to him, it seems likely that he was viewed as an important early defector from the rabbinic establishment. 'Anan came from the distinguished family of the exilarchs. He was not, no matter what any polemics say otherwise, an am ha'aretz (in fact, the traditional view has him as a willful changer of Judaism, not an ignoramus). From this view, he may have been seen by Karaites as a trophy to display. (I plan to discuss his views and rabbinic characterizations of them, including the claim that all of his stuff actually come from the Talmud in another post)

What seems to have been the case is that all sorts of intellectual malcontents existed at the time. Many of them saw the ridiculous sophistries that Muslim scholars were going through at the time and the extreme lengths to establish the 'true traditions of the prophet'. It seemed to them that if a nonsensical oral Islamic tradition could be both made up in such a short time, a period of only a century or two, as well as such completely mutually contradictory views that this cast doubt on the Talmudic view of Torah and halakhah. These people weren't organized in any way, but began to crystalize as a movement after the period of 'Anan. Perhaps many of them were actual or spiritual descendents of earlier sects that never truly disappeared.

The Karaites themselves, naturally, maintained that they were nothing new at all, that there were always bene miqra, that is Jews who remained faithful to Tanakh--in contrasdiction to the majority who they felt were deviating from the Torah and Nakh. Some of them found support in the existence of different groups in antiquity, such as the Zedukim (while later Karaites tended to deny that they were modern Sadduccees, since they felt that the Sadduccees were themselves in error as regards to tehiyas ha-metim and other issues). For their part, Rabbanites (or rabbanim, as the Karaites called them, which is to say "rabbinic Jews", e.g., us) also identified them with the Sadduccees. Not that they considered them actual Sadduccees, but it provided a frame of reference. In Jewish literature in subsequent centuries there is a constant confusion between actual Karaite beliefs and doctrines and that of the Sadduccees, as articulated in the Mishna and Gemara. An interesting thing is that many Karaites came to believe that they were descended (physically or spirituallu) from an ancient Jewish group called the Tzadikkim. They were well aware of the Zedukim, and most definitely did not mean the latter.

Finally, I should mention that a great deal of material about and also by Karaites is stereotyped and polemical. While its worth studying those views, they aren't necessarily accurate. An example: many Jews believe that the Karaites wore teffilin between their eyes and hand tzitzis on their walls. They don't wear tefillin and do wear tzitzis, on their garments. Someone once adamantly refused to believe this telling me that the Mishna Berura repeats this claim (anyone know where?). In other words, its true because the MB repeated a vintage polemical claim, it doesn't matter what they say they do or what they actually do!

More to follow... (edit: much of this overview comes from Salo Baron's Social & Religious History and Nemoy's Karaite Anthology, among other sundry sources)

1 comment:

  1. An interesting article. I myself am a Karaite, but to be honest, this article is very unbias and truthful; unlike many other articles written on the subject, be they by Karaites, Rabbanites or Gentiles. You are a true scholar in that you search for the truth, not evidence for what you wish the truth to be.
    By the way, are you sure that Anan Ben-David was even of an important Rabbinic family? That claim (I believe) first appears in the traditional Rabbinate view you gave from the 12th century, 200 years after Anan's lifetime. There also might be some confusion with Anan Ben-David and his grandson Anan Ben-Daniel in many documents. Some say Ben-Daniel was a Karaite, whereas Anan Ben-David was an Annanite which is what leads to the confusion (Nathan Schur, "The Karaite Encyclopedia".)
    I also had a question: I remember my Rabbanite friend telling me of a Rabbanite writing that itself claimed that Anan "took up" or "motivated" remnants of ancient sects of Jews which rejected the Oral Law. Have you heard of these texts? I don't believe the person who told me about them gave me a source or not.(not that it would matter, since I have only a relatively modest understanding of Rabbanic Literature)
    Again, thank you for the interesting, well researched and well written article. :)



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