Last week, an Orthodox Jewish website, Hamodia, published an Op Ed discussing whether Reform and Conservative (Rabbinic) Jews have the right to hold services at the Western Wall. For those who do not know, the State of Israel recently designated certain areas of prayer at the Wall for Reform and Conservative Jews, but many in the Orthodox community are not too pleased.
And the best way for the Orthodox world to express their dissatisfaction with their fellow Rabbanites is to start by making fun of Karaites.
Okay, well, maybe it’s not the best way. But this is a common tactic, which I have blogged about before.
In the Op Ed, the attack on Karaites is an often repeated joke: that Karaites stole Moses’s shoes. You can read the full joke at Hamodia, but the gist is that a Karaite and Rabbanite are standing before a king and are about to debate which form of Judaism is more proper. The king asked the Rabbanite why he was clutching his shoes tightly (rather than leaving his shoes behind in the palace like all the other Jews). The Rabbanite responds that, when God told Moses to remove his shoes at the burning bush, a Karaite stole Moses’s shoes. Since then, the Rabbanite explains, “whenever we are in the presence of Karaites, we make sure to hold on to our shoes.” Wanting to defend himself, the Karaite says that this is absurd, because everyone knows there were no Karaites back then. And with that, the Rabbanite rested his case.
In the context of the Op Ed, the joke is meant to say that just like the Karaites, the Reform and the Conservative were not around at the time of Moses.
I stay out of intra-Rabbanite debates – so I just want to touch on one aspect of the joke that is not very funny at all. (Let’s set aside the issue of the origins of Karaism for now.)
At its heart, the joke suggests that we should not listen to dissenting religious opinions. It is very easy to label something else as inauthentic or a reform when you are the majority. In fact, it’s too easy. This type of mentality will divide the Jewish people long before it will ever unite us.
From a religious perspective, I am humble enough to admit that I may be wrong about everything. Because of this, I seek Jewish unity and not Jewish uniformity.
I actually heard an interesting anecdote from a Karaite friend about how he first heard the joke about the Karaite and Moses’s shoes. As my friend related it to me, the purpose of the joke when he heard it was to explain a glaring oversight in Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s Kuzari. The Kuzari is a famous work that seeks to establish Rabbinic Judaism as the proper form of Judaism.
The Kuzari contains a fictional dialogue between a rabbi and the king of the Khazars. The fictional dialogue was prompted by a dream the king had. The king learned in his dream that his heart was right in the right place, but his worship of God was wrong.
So the king summoned a Greek Philosopher, a Muslim, and a Christian. These large medieval religions each have a voice in this fictional dialogue and they each get a few paragraphs to make their case as to why their belief system is “correct.” The rest of the book consists of the rabbi explaining Judaism to the king, spending a significant amount of space attacking Karaite Judaism. The oversight is that the Karaite never got an opportunity to give his side before the king.
According to my friend, in this context, the tale about the Karaite stealing Moses’ shoes is meant to explain why the Greek Philosopher, the Christian, and the Muslim were able to make their case before the king, but the Karaite did not have the chance to present his case.
Whether Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s omission of the Karaite’s arguments was intentional or not, I do not know. I do know that, according to a letter written by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi himself found in the Cairo Geniza, he wrote the Kuzari (which is largely an anti-Karaite polemic) because he had a friend who was considering becoming a Karaite.
For the past 500 years, the Karaite voices have been too silent. So silent that Orthodox Rabbanites only rarely mention that we exist, and when they do, it is often to deny us the opportunity to make our case. In many ways, this blog is the voice that the Karaite standing before the king never had.
So, as I seek to give a voice, I pray that I do not take the voices of others.