What Kind of Jew Are You?

בית כנסת רבי שמחהJewish social media is now abuzz discussing the implications of the latest Pew Survey on Jewish Americans. The Pew survey, in part, gathered intel on whether Jews identify themselves as Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. But there used to be another way to answer this very simple question: “What kind of Jew are you?”

In 1979, Hadassah Magazine’s Jewish Traveler section ran a fascinating piece on the Karaite Jews of Egypt. The story’s author, Rabbi Boruch Helman, had first arrived in Cairo to study Arabic in the aftermath of the 1967 war. [1.]

Rabbi Helman explained to his Arabic teacher that he would not be able to attend classes on Shabbat. The teacher understood Rabbi Helman’s religious constraints, and asked in a friendly voice, “Are you a Karaite or a Rabbanite?”

Rabbi Helman tells us that he had never had to identify himself as a Rabbanite prior to that moment. And in the last 200 years, Cairo, Egypt is probably the only place on Earth where it would occur to someone (especially a non-Jew) to ask that question.

But I believe the question and answer are important.

I was recently eating with some friends whom I’d met through the Mission Minyan (my Rabbanite congregation of choice these days), and a few of them remarked that they had never heard the term “Rabbanite” before I started dropping K Bombs left and right.

I think, though, that Rabbanite Judaism is strengthened when Jews who follow the Rabbinic tradition actually identify themselves as “Rabbanites.” In my estimation, it shows an active adherence to this particular tradition and halakha. It reflects a conscious choice to live a Jewish life by Rabbinic principles. And that is beautiful – even if it is not the choice I make.

So too, of course, does identification as a “Karaite” strengthen Karaite Judaism. I was born into a Karaite Jewish family and it was the tradition in which I was raised. But as an objective matter, I don’t think I became a Karaite Jew – in the sense of affirmatively deciding that it was my preferred form of Judaism – until my college days.

I’ve said publicly that my life’s work is not to convince more Jews to follow the Karaite tradition; but I would be honored if, as a result of my work, more Jews who follow the Rabbinic tradition actually identified themselves Rabbanites.

*  *  *

1. Rabbi Boruch K. Helman, The Karaite Jews of Cairo, Hadassah Magazine, March 1979.

10 Comments

Filed under Karaite Synagogues, What is Karaite Judaism

10 Responses to What Kind of Jew Are You?

  1. Z.

    I really liek this history and the post! It is quite true. Thanks for the insight!

  2. An excellent piece, short and sweet…thank you.

  3. Gabriel Moskovitz

    Let me ask, in a non argumentative manner, how Karaites interpret the myriad of commandments found in the Torah that have little to no explanation or detail?
    Some simple examples are, Totafot (what are they? what is written? where is it written?), Succah (dimensions? materials?), Mezuzah (what is written?).
    Then there are the big or more severe commandments such as Shabbat where the intentional violation triggered capital punishment. How is work on Shabbat defined? Yom Kippur, what is meant by afflicting your souls?
    Is there a Karaite tradition or explanation or Law Code such as the Rabbanite Talmud and later followed by the Shulchan Aruch or is religious practice determined arbitrarily by each individual?

    • Hi Gabriel, all great questions. I think in many of those situations, if you had never heard of the “Oral Law,” you never would feel something was missing.

      – The general Karaite view is that if you feel some details are missing, then 1) Hashem actually is not concerned with the specifics, 2) Hashem was actually leaving in place the existing practice at the time; 3) nothing is missing, but the Rabbinic tradition has added several requirements that are unnecessary or based on incorrect interpretation; or 4) we have lost the real meaning through our exile and our inability to bridge a 3000 year cultural and linguistic gap.

      – Totafot – is possibly a form of tiara/headwear/jewel/droplet. But it might also be derived from a word that means “speak” – which is possible because in one of the tefillen verses, Totafot is replaced with Zichron. But Karaites interpret this verse metaphorically. Same with Mezuzah. (See this post: http://wp.me/p2MerI-nH) And here is something on the etymology of totafot. http://www.balashon.com/2007/01/totafot.html (Incidentally, I am not convinced Totafot is related to the word “speak”.)

      – Shabbat is an example where most Karaites would say that we have a fairly good understanding of Melacha, but we do not have a perfect one. This lack of perfect understanding is due to the linguistic and cultural gap. In the Karaite view, the word melacha meant something in ancient Israel and the Israelites knew what it meant. Let me give you an example, if you read the Torah and only the Torah, you would not know that selling is forbidden on Shabbat. But when you come to the time of Ezra/Nehemiah, you see that they made sure to stop commerce on Shabbat. So, the Karaite inference is that the word melacha meant something to them (even though they do not call selling melacha). That is why they knew to prevent the sales. (E.g. Nehemia 10:31.) Incidentally, a modern Karaite Hakham is writing a book on Karaite halakha and his section on shabbat is currently some 50 letter-sized pages. I have not seen it, though.

      – Sukkot – this is an example, where Karaites feel that Rabbanites misunderstood the four species and what to do with them. http://www.karaite-korner.org/sukkot.shtml

      – Yom Kippur: here is an article on it. http://www.karaite-korner.org/yom_kippur.shtml

      – There are MANY karaite halakhic works and many Karaite commentaries. But none of them is binding and no one paskens by them (so to speak). But that does not mean that Karaite interpretation is arbitrary. Karaite exegesis is limited by the text of the Scripture and any logical inferences that are made from it, the biblical narrative, and linguistic principles.

      I hope this answers your questions at a high level.

      On Thu, Oct 3, 2013 at 7:39 AM, A Blue Thread

  4. Sha'ul Bentsion

    Excellent article, Shawn!

  5. Yelena

    What a great idea!

  6. Would Reform Jews be Rabbanites?

    • That is a great question. As a non-Rabbanite, I want to be delicate in my response here. In my (outsider’s) view, I believe that the reform leadership clearly operates within the Rabbinic framework. I think that most Jews throughout the world (including Reform Jews) operate against a Rabbinic background/context, even if they do not adhere to the principles of Rabbanism. The same might also be said of Karaites and Karaism..

  7. Ari Bright

    I’m not so certain anymore. I appreciate my Rabbinate background but Karaism is very appealing. The man thing that hinders me from Karaism is its strictly literal approach which fails in the context of Biblical criticism. The Torah is not much more outstanding than other Near Eastern literature and more than not borrows legends and myths from other NE cultures. I don’t see the Torah as a literal work but a metaphorical treatise. The Torah, IMO, is a metaphor for human spiritual growth and development- a journey of the soul. Otherwise, you simply have a text of non-orginal myths, legends and false history.

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