(Editor’s Note: This is the first of what I expect to be many posts relating to women in Karaite Judaism. It is my hope that one day soon this series will be authored by a woman or – better yet – a group of women. If you are a Jewish woman with sincere interest in contributing in this manner, please contact me at Shawn@abluethread.com.)
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“When [a certain Karaite Jew] passed on to hell, he was survived by his accursed wife, whom [his adherents] used to address as al-Mu’allima and on whom they relied for authoritative tradition. They would ask each other what Mu’allima’s usage was, and they would follow suit.”
– Abraham Ibn Daud, Sefer ha-Qabbalah (English: The Book of Tradition)*
(12th Century Spain)
Abraham ibn Daud was an ardent Rabbanite Jew living in Spain during the 12th Century and his brief rendition of the history of Karaites in Spain has always intrigued me. According to Ibn Daud, the Karaite Jews of Spain once had a female leader. The Karaite community referred to this leader as “the Teacher” (Arabic: al-Mu’allima) – which, interestingly, is one of the translations of the word “Rabbi” – and the Karaite community relied on her for authoritative tradition. For now, I’ll address just two of the many thoughts that come to mind.
Women as Community Leaders: Despite his anti-Karaite rhetoric, Ibn Daud actually depicts an interesting aspect of Karaite Judaism. Women, like men, can achieve the status as the leader of a community. For Karaites, this understanding is rooted in the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) where Miriam was a prophetess; Deborah was a prophetess, judge, and warrior; and Hannah, mother of Samuel, composed a prayer praising the Lord. Today, at the Karaite synagogue in Daly City, CA, the weekly explanation of the Torah portion is usually led by a woman.
An un-Karaite Approach: Ibn Daud also reports that the Karaites of Spain relied on al-Mu’allima for authoritative tradition. This practice stands in stark contrast with the fundamental tenet of Karaite Judaism, which provides that each person should search the Scripture and should not rely on anyone’s opinion. This is not a newly minted Karaite slogan; rather, it preceded Ibn Daud’s time by hundreds of years. It is very heartening that the Karaites of Spain had a female community leader long before “modernism.” But it’s a little bittersweet that, at least according to Ibn Daud, those Karaites did so in a manner that was rather un-Karaite.
Ibn Daud’s stated purpose for writing The Book of Tradition was to prove that Rabbanite Judaism was the only true form of Judaism and, by extension, that Karaite Judaism was heresy. This suggests that we should read Ibn Daud’s account of al-Mu’allima and the Karaites of Spain with a bit of caution. Perhaps we’ll revisit Ibn Daud’s work in greater detail in the future.
*(The Book of Tradition, A Critical Edition with a Translation and Notes by Gerson D. Cohen; Littman Library of Jewish Civilization (1967; 2005).)