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