A few years back, I met a young Jewish college student at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly. He was fascinated by the concept of Karaism. And although he has certain Karaite affinities, he proudly declares, “At no point did I consider myself a Karaite” and at no point did he consider becoming a Karaite.
Among the reasons he is interested in Karaism, is because, as he put it, once you accept that Karaism is an option, “then, everything is on the table.” I’ve thought about this statement from time time. And I realized, there is no point to being a Karaite if everything is not on the table.
So here are some views that I think are supported by the plain meaning of the text – but clearly would put me outside the normative bounds of Karaism (and Rabbanism).
Before we get started, here’s the usual disclaimer: Search the Scripture Well and Do Not Rely on My Opinion.
Personal Heresy 1: Fire on the Sabbath Day
In my last post, I expressed (in a footnote) that I was open to the view that the Sabbath-fire prohibition only applies to fires on the Sabbath Day (and not to any fires on any night time portions that are affiliated with the Sabbath). Why am I open to this? Because the text tells me so. It says clearly that the prohibition relates to “Yom Shabbat” (the Sabbath day).
But Shawn, in Judaism the day starts in the evening and then continues for the next day till the next evening. Setting aside whether this is correct, let’s look at another use of the word “Yom” and see whether this view that I am open to is possible.
- Berit Mila: The Torah tells us that we are to circumcise a male child on the eighth “yom”. In fact, I spoke to several Rabbanite mohels who told me that a circumcision is to be performed as early as possible in the day time. Two even objected to performing a circumcision in the evening (i.e, the erev that starts the 8th day). Interestingly, these two had no problem at all performing the circumcision at the Karaite Jews of America, and they had no problem at all with the Karaite minhagim (customs), they only had a problem with the time of day. I do not know what the historical Karaite literature says on when a circumcision might be performed, but in the Bay Area, the community has no problem doing the ceremony at night.
So, here’s your challenge. If you think that it is impossible that the fire prohibition applies only to the day time, then prove me wrong.
Personal Heresy Number 2: Stop Marrying Your Niece; Marry Your Brother’s Wife’s Sister Instead.
A great example in which the Karaites, in my humble opinion, stretched logical inference too far is in the laws of forbidden marriages (or “incest”). And this is a great example in which the Rabbanites didn’t stretch far enough, again in my opinion.
Let’s start with the place where the Karaites got it right.
The Torah says:
- Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy father’s sister: she is thy father’s near kinswoman. (Leviticus 18:12).
Here the Torah clearly forbids a man from having relations with his paternal aunt. From this, the Karaites deduce that a man is forbidden to his maternal aunt. But they also deduce that a woman is forbidden to her uncle. After all, these relationships are all structurally the same. And in the traditional Karaite reasoning, there is no basis to distinguish between a “man and his aunt” and a “woman and her uncle.”
The Rabbanaites on the other hand do not make this analogy and they maintain that “uncle-niece” relationships are not forbidden, and in some rabbinic sources this union is even called a “mitzva gedola” (a very big, good deed). Setting aside western values over this type of relationship, I think the Karaites have the better argument. To overcome my view, someone would have to explain to me why the Torah would specifically forbid “nephew-aunt” relationships but not also intend “niece-uncle” relationships.
Now for where the Karaites got it wrong.
The Karaites have a super complex web of forbidden marriages. From this web, the medieval Karaites forbade (as do the modern Israeli Karaites) two brothers from marrying two sisters (in separate marriages, duh). Now, I admit, I am biased here, because my grandmother and her sister married my grandfather and his brother (in separate marriages). But – aside from that – I really think it is the wrong view.
The prohibition on two brothers marrying two sisters comes from the medieval Karaite interpretation of Leviticus 18:11, which the Karaites interpret to forbid marriages between two pairs of close relatives (“she’erim”).
- The nakedness of thy father’s wife’s daughter, begotten of thy father, she is thy sister, thou shalt not uncover her nakedness. (Leviticus 18:11).
Oy. where to begin.
The best place to begin is Tomer Mangoubi’s Section 17 of Mikdash Me’at (warning: this stuff is super technical). As an aside, I shared this section with an Orthodox Rabbi and he was blown away that Tomer (then in his early 20s) could write and reason like this without having spent 10 years in Yeshiva. Go Team Karaite! This is actually very important stuff to study, because it will strengthen your understanding of logical deduction and will also explain various Karaite marriage crises throughout history.
But I’ll summarize here. The Karaites (correctly in my opinion) believed the verse does not apply to a literal sister. They believe it applies to a step-sister, and the phrase “begotten of thy father” is hyperbole. (There is linguistic support for this, but that is not relevant here.) Because under this interpretation, the Torah is forbidding a union between two closely related persons (that is, a “man and his father” may not have [separate] relations with a “woman and her daughter”), the Karaites analogized that other close pairs, such as two brothers and two sisters, are also forbidden.
But why? Even accepting the Karaite interpretation of the verse, why should an example relating to a forbidden vertical relationship (mother-daughter, or father-son) be analogized to a horizontal relationship (brothers, sisters).
Anyway, if you think I’m wrong and that uncles should be allowed to marry their nieces and two brothers are forbidden from marrying two sisters. Prove it to me.
I have many, many other personal heresies that I am open to.
I have resisted posting them here because the main point of this blog is to chronicle the traditional karaite view and the experience of a modern Karaite. But maybe that’s the point. The traditional Karaite view is only interesting because it is one peshatist perspective on Tanakh. Other Karaite perspectives are also interesting. And maybe I’ll express those. But probably not.