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?
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?
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.
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[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.)