Thursday, November 10, 2005

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

As we saw in part one, the Karaites were not liberal Jews. The essence of their disagreement with the majority of Jews, the so-called Rabbanites (rabbanim) began with the issue of the authenticity of Torah she-be-al peh and the authority of the Talmud.

In a surprising fact, 'Anan ben David, made extensive use of the 13 rules of R. Yishmael. This isn't hypocritical--'Anan thought they were good logic, just not divinely revealed or the property of the tannaim. Later Karaite scholars used some of those principles as well in interpreting Torah and deriving law from it. The most commonly used rule was heqesh.

'Anan was not the true founder of Karaism, as we said. In fact, in an early phase of Karaism there was a backlash against 'Anan. Not him per se, but his views. Perhaps they were cognizant of the expression he coined, "Search thoroughly the Torah"--"and do not rely on my opinion", which was the later gloss on his words, attributed to him and repeated constantly by Karaite scholars. 'Anan offered many severe interpretations, as we shall see. At the same time, he also wrote that a believer who sincerely studied scripture and came to conclusions that opposed the majority must follow their own understanding. Of course, this is a prescription for anarchy, which is why Karaism ultimately did stabilize.

'Anan interpreted lehem 'oni (matza) to mean matza made only from barley rather than wheat or any of the other "five grains" . He introduced the idea of the dark Friday nights--which Karaites quite literally observed until well into the Middle Ages. He forbade sex on shabbat. He advocated a yearly 70 day fast (although no one listened), modeled on Ramadan, ostensibly. He required the bris milah to be performed on the 8th day--of the month. Thus, if a baby was born on the 7th day, he'd have to be circumcized the following day. If the baby was born on the 9th day, he'd wait a month. He introduced ascetic practices in mourning for the Temple, like forbidding wine (perhaps one is beginning to see why many Jews thought that Karaism was overly Islamized; another was the practice of removing shoes in the synagogue, which he based on the story of Moshe by the burning bush). 'Anan also outlawed all meat besides venison.

In any case, his word was not law, and that itself was a pillar of Karaism. Karaite scholars, taking off from where 'Anan left off, greatly expanded the types of forbidden marriages. For example, they believed that the rabbinic permission to marry one's niece opened the possibility of marrying one's own daughter! Keitzad? A man marries his brother's daughter and dies childless. His brother could the be obliged to marry his own daughter (yibbum). It reached a point where such a complicated web of fobidden marriages between relatives were woven that in smaller Karaite communities there was a shortage of marriage material.

Karaites, naturally, reintroduced the practice of observing the moon to declare rosh hodesh. They took literally the idea of displaying the cloth of a virginal bride as in Deut. 22:17 (Karaite hatanim had two best men, whose task it was to collect and display the sheet).

They had tefillah twice daily, modeled after the daily temidim offerings in the Temple, not unlike the Rabbanite Jews. (Again, this isn't hypocrisy--there is a verse (Hosea 14:3) which specifically equates prayer with sacrifice for the times without a Temple.) Following that route, they added a mussaf prayer on occasions which warranted it--and the mussafim were cumulative. So, for example, if Rosh Hashana happened on shabbos they prayed three mussafim, one for rosh hashana (or Yom Teruah, as they only called it), one for rosh hodesh and one for shabbos. The contents of their tefillos were different, as they dropped the shemona esrei, and substituted intially exceprts from Tanakh and later included some piyuttim by Karaite poets.

Later Karaite scholars came up with new interpretations which they tried to persuade each other and make normative. Daniel al-Qumisi, for example, decided that no birds besides pigeons were permissible, as [we] didn't know the precise meaning of the birds listed in the Torah (aside from pigeons, apparently). Many Karaites ate no eggs or bee honey (because of bee particles in it). They did eat milk and meat (but would never seethe a kid in its mother's milk, of course). They retained, at least initially, the terumos and ma'asros (with unique interpretations) due to kohanim and levi'im. And they paid.

Again, it must be stressed that not every rumor cited in a polemical source about them is true. To show the point in reverse, I will cite the great Karaite scholar Ya'akub al-Qirqisani. In his polemical writings against the Rabbanites he asserted that the Jews in Eretz Yisrael and Bavel criticize each other over the one day/ two days of Yom Tov issue by citing Deut. 13:1 against each other. The Israelis say that the Babylonians are adding and the Babylonians say the Israelis are diminishing from the Torah. Of course we know that this is false. It seems that a rabbinic practice of scorn was kiddush, which the Karaites interpreted and exaggerated. Salmon ben Yeruham attacked R. Sa'adya Ga'on's "lightheadedness" because "this inebriate drinks during the very time of prayer." Similarly, polemical material from our camp also stereotyped and misrepresented opinions and misinterpreted divisiveness in the other camp.

For a time many Karaites rejeted medical attention of any kind because of Ex. 15:26 and Chron. 16:12. Although not empowered to enact any of the punishments prescribed in the Torah, they believed and advocated in an academic sense "an eye for an eye", the death penalties etc.

Now it should be apparent that the cacaphony I described is simply impossible to maintain for long. After some centuries Karaism began to stablize and moderate some of its excesses. They readmitted much traditional lore and practices under the influence and guise of a widely accepted Islamic principle of the day called "idjna", which means "common consent" (they called it "ha'ataqah"). They agreed that wherever ALL Jews agreed on an interpretation then it surely must be the original meaning.This was a saner approach and greatly enabled Karaism to begin to flourish. (It should be noted that it bears some similarity to Solomon Schechter's "Catholic Israel".)

Before any gets smug about the strange development of Karaite halakhah and related things, consider this: One, they never claimed to be strict literalists, and, two, this information was uncovered through historical scholarship, which sees similar things in the development of our own traditions, albeit on a different track, third, their view didn't require the kind of perception of stability in practice that our does.

Two final notes on interesting phenomena. It seems that the still-current practice of calling every Yankel, Shmerel and Berel "rabbi" or "reb", in our version, was a reaction among Rabbanite Jews to Karaism. It was a kind of winking dig at the Karaites. Secondly, Karaites often called their own scholars "rabbi", which after all means "my master". 'Anan was called "Rabbenu" by Yehuda Hadassi, for example.

A third installment to follow, including info about later Karaite developments, the Crimea, the issue of Karaite "Jewishness" and so on.

1 comment:

  1. what are the sources for this article?



Related Posts with Thumbnails