A Place for Rabbinic Thought in Karaite Literature?

Just finished Professor Goldstein's book. An excellent read about a little known Karaite text, the Talkhis.

Just finished Professor Goldstein’s book. An excellent read about a little known Karaite text, the Talkhis.

Karaite Judaism is often described as “anti-Rabbinic.” I prefer the term “non-Rabbinic”, even though there was plenty of “anti” in the early Karaite movement.

Today, I look at something that may appear incongruous: Rabbinic thought in Karaite literature.

Before delving into the topic, let’s make some foundational observations that can provide context for why Rabbinic thought would have made its way into the literature of the most successful non-Rabbinic movement.

First, the Karaites, even at our height, were a minority of the Jewish people, and it is to be expected that the majority movement would influence the views of the minority – despite the minority’s active resistance.

Second, Karaite Judaism, at least in theory, values the message over the messenger, and many opinions held by the Rabbinic Sages are great messages.

Third, as is commonly the case with minority movements, the minority may actively look to bring its literature in-line with the majority.

Fourth, many Karaites were former Rabbanites; and it is to be expected that some Rabbinic thought would be preserved in Karaite literature.

In addition to this background, it also makes a difference as to what type of Rabbinic thought makes its way into Karaite literature. Is the Rabbinic thought simply another way of understanding the text? Is the Rabbinic thought a midrash that has no (or little) connection to the text?  Are some midrashim okay and others not?

Let’s run through two examples of midrashic influence, and feel free to vote as to whether the use of Rabbinic thought would be acceptable:

Examples of Midrashic Influence:

Hakham Aaron ben Joseph’s Piyyut (poem) for Lekh Lekha: One of my favorite parts of the traditional Karaite Shabbat service is reading the piyyut parasha (liturgical poem corresponding to the weekly Torah portion), written by Hakham Aaron ben Joseph. While helping Eli Shemuel translate the piyyut for Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), I noticed that Hakham Aaron drew on a common Rabbinic Midrash – that Abraham smashed the idols at Terah, a story that is wholly absent from the text. Here is what the weekly piyyut says:

בָּחַר ׀ לְאָב הֲמוֹן יְדִידוֹ: וְהוֹצִיאוֹ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים ׀ וְהֵכִין צַעֲדוֹ: כִּי אִבַּד צַלְמֵי שְׂכִיָּה ׀ בְּכָל מְאֹדוֹ

“He chose the father of multitude [i.e., Abraham] and brought him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees, and directed his steps because he [i.e., Abraham] destroyed the images of ornament with all his might.”

The red/underlined words are a reference to Numbers 33:52. Of note, Aaron ben Joseph wedges this Rabbinic midrash into a completely unrelated verse in the Torah to give it a textual basis. Of course, the liturgical poem is not a halakhic code, so perhaps the standard of textual precision may be relaxed slightly.

So, on this one, what do you think?

Acceptable use of Midrash in the Poem?

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Hakham Abu al Faraj Harun’s Talkhis: As regulars to the blog know, I have been on a mission to spread awareness of early Karaite literature. (See here and here.) As part of that mission, I recently read Professor Miriam Goldstein’s work, Karaite Exegesis in Medieval Jerusalem, which focuses on the Talkhis, an abridged commentary on the Torah. [1.] Hakham Harun’s Talkhis also reflects Rabbinic midrash with respect to an interpretation of Jacob’s arrival “whole” to Shechem.  (See Genesis 33:18). The Talkhis comments:“It is said that the word ‘whole’ means that he arrived whole of body and property.”

According to Professor Goldstein, this interpretation “adopt[s] an approach similar to the rabbinic explanation which cites these two [wholeness of body and property] in addition to a third type of ‘wholeness,’ the safety of his children following the encounter with Esau.”  [p. 65]

Let’s assume for the moment that this interpretation was borrowed from the Rabbanites (though, Professor Goldstein does not say that it was).[2.]  This strikes me as different from the midrashic use of Aaron ben Joseph, who took wholly atextual explanation and tried to make it textual.

So, on this one, what do you think?

Acceptable Use of Midrash in the Talkhis?

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There are multiple other examples of Rabbinic thought in Karaite literature.  In fact, there is an entire two-volume book on this topic. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get my hands on a copy.

In the end, I am not wholly bothered by some of the Rabbinic influences on Karaite literature. But it further underscores the need to search the Scripture well and not rely on the knowledge of anyone. The need is exacerbated when Karaites are “relying” on Karaite literature – because we tend to believe that Karaite literature is more textual. But as this analysis suggests we must resist that tendency.

We must hold our own opinions and the opinions of the Karaite Sages to the same objective standards that we hold Rabbinic opinions.

 *   *    *

[1.] The Talkhis began as a commentary on the Torah by Hakham Yusuf ibn Nuh, a Karaite Sage who lived in 10th Century Jerusalem. He founded a Karaite learning institution there – the one referenced here. His commentary has not survived intact, as it was abridged by his pupil Hakham Abu al-Faraj Harun (also known as “Aaron of Jerusalem”). The word talkhis itself has the meaning of abridgment.  “In the case of the Talkhis, it is clear that Abu al-Faraj Harun’s project of abridgment involved abbreviation along with adaptation and the addition of material.” (See Karaite Exegesis in Medieval Jerusalem, p. 19.)

[2.] Professor Goldstein provides fascinating examples of midrashic uses in the Talkhis, and I recommend picking up her book. One example that struck me was the Talkhis’ inclusion of midrashic sources that are not preserved in early Rabbinic literature.  (See pp. 64-67.)  Goldstein summarizes this section as follows: “In numerous instances, then, tenth-century Karaite exegetes incorporated interpretations familiar from rabbinic literature. In many other cases, though exegetes applied the literary-contextual methods that were the foundation of their exegetical approach, in a method nearly as conjectural as the midrash itself.” (See p. 67.)

12 Comments

Filed under Aaron ben Joseph, Abu al-Faraj Harun, Dr. Goldstein, Rabbinic Influence, Talkhis, Yusuf ibn Nuh

12 Responses to A Place for Rabbinic Thought in Karaite Literature?

  1. I find no issue with incorporating concepts founded in Rabbinic thought into Karaite Jewish practice or study. Really, you last point pretty much hit the nail on the head — no one’s opinions are written in stone as truth merely based on the prestige of the speaker. I actually feel that more insight can be derived from a sage, Karaite or Rabbinic, when they are not put on a pedestal. They’re not Nevi’im, they’re teachers.

  2. Zvi

    Shawn, there is another valid interpretation, or rather translation, of the first five words of Beresheet 33:18 (וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם): “Ya`aqov arrived at Shalem, a city of Shekhem”.

  3. The message was conveyed beautifully, Shawn. And this article truly reflects upon–what I think at least–karaite philosophy. We, as karaites, must rely soley upon the text if the Tanach together with reasoning. Karaite commentators should only be used as a referrence to help us reach our goal. However, we are by no means forced to accept karaite commentaries universally. Accepting interpretations from commentators who share the same theological philosophy–universally without any exceptions–is a concept that rabbinic philosophy believes in. This would mean that if we are to accept every karaite interpretation, we are inherently contradicting the karaite philosophy. this means that sometimes a rabbinic interpretation can be favored even over a karaite interpretation in certain circumstances! However, this phenomenon has a one-in-a-billion chance of happening! once again, thank you Shawn for bringing this topic to light. And what are your thoughts about my comment?

    • Hi Isaac,

      I want to respond to this one statement: “this means that sometimes a rabbinic interpretation can be favored even over a karaite interpretation in certain circumstances! However, this phenomenon has a one-in-a-billion chance of happening!”

      I think in most cases the Karaites got it right. In a few select ones they got it wrong (in my opinion), and the Rabbanites got it right in some of those and also got it wrong in other ways.

  4. Yo-man

    Why should anyone rely on any writings period- this includes the Tanakh. Yes, Rabbinic Judaism has thousands of commentaries which is why it is referred to as a religion of books. The whole idea of whether one opinion is valid or not depends entirely on how one wishes to look at this subject. In fact, the Torah is an amalgamation of other ideas, folklore and culture from the ancient Mesopotamian area. If we are going to be overly critical then by the same standards of judgment used to discount Rabbinic Midrash and such one could just as easily discount the entire Torah as nothing appears in its narrative which is original to the Mesopotamian region. Karaite philosophy is one foot in Judaism and one foot in Atheism which is why so many pass through Karaism on there way out of Judaism proper.

    • Why do you say that it is one foot atheism?

      • Yo-man

        I’ve seen many people who have become critical of the “establishment” and feel that the Torah is the final authority and truth of it “all.” These people I have observed come from Jewish and Christian backgrounds- mostly Christian though. Their critical nature doesn’t end at the door of Karaism though. Once they begin looking at the Torah from a sola-scriptura point of view they sometimes discover the harsh reality of textual criticism and historical scholastic which demonstrate that the Torah is simply a book of adapted customs and folklore of other previous Mesopotamian cultures. Some deal with this reality well such as Modern Orthodoxy which maintains its footing in Tradition with an acknowledgment of the traditional basis for even Torah itself. See- http://www.thetorah.com for some great Orthodox resources and scholarship. Judaism is a cultural value and a shared partnership and collective experience. Judaism is not a received revelation from Sinai written by Moses who is himself a mythological combination of Sargon and Dionysian elements. As a Jew I value Karaites as a legitimate expression of the Jewish heritage but the overly exaggerated push of Karaites to discredit Rabbinic Judaism has led to a backlash simply because when the same criticism is directed towards Karaism it doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny neither. When the whole edifice is seen as a house of cards then it doesn’t take much for one to have an identity crisis when the foundation itself crumbles under scrutiny. I guess my whole point is that if Karaites wish to interpret Torah differently then so be it but the lens through which Karaism interprets Torah is no more valid than that of Rabbinic Judaism. The problem with Karaism or any form of fundamentalism is that when the illusion of infallibility is compromised then what does a person have left? No Judaism and no Torah. Do you understand what I’m “trying” to express?

  5. Davey

    Since midrash is tradition not from the Torah some who call themselves Karaites could not accept it. But we see that Karaite scholars considered information even not in the Torah to be valid tradition! Read my other postings in the article on Byzantium.

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