That Time I Walked out of a Rabbanite Congregation

A two thousand year-old debate triggered a Rabbi.

What started out as a beautiful Shabbat evening with community and discussion devolved quickly – and mostly privately. First the orthodox rabbi made a mistake. Then I made two. Then the rabbi intended to offend me. He failed, but it was clear that I was not welcome. And I walked out. That might have been a mistake as well.

Last erev Shabbat, I found myself away from home and away from my family. It was the first Shabbat after the shooting in Poway and I wanted to be with a Jewish community. So, I made my way to an upstart, very lively Jewish community (in a city that I won’t mention).

When I go to religious gatherings, I go as a Jew. I go as someone seeking community. I go as someone who wants to praise our Creator. And yes, wherever I go, I go as a Karaite.

But I never go as a Debate-Me-Bro. As I hope you can see from my blog, I have a profound respect for all Jewish traditions.  I always defer to my hosts and the topics they are comfortable discussing.

Back to Last Friday Night:

Some of the first people I met were a wonderful couple and their friend. They saw a new face and, without hesitation, made sure that I felt at home. They would invite me to sit with them at dinner to make sure I was included.

I also made my way over to an incredibly warm and insightful woman. She decided to start this community with her husband, a rabbi. I introduced myself to her and she was thrilled to welcome me. From what I experienced, she is exactly the kind of person you want leading your community. My wife knew her fairly well several years ago. And this, my first meeting with her, confirmed all the wonderful things I had heard.

Next I went over to the rabbi. Outwardly, he is warm and open-minded and even invited every single person there to coffee with him. And my initial interaction with him was consistent with this warmth. But whenever a proud and practicing Karaite meets an orthodox rabbi and drops a K-bomb, we never know what the response is going to be and what impression it leaves.

Anyway, I introduced myself to the rabbi. At some point (after he learned about my affinity for Chabad), he asked me which synagogue I attend. I told him that I attend the Karaite synagogue, and he said, “That must be a trip.”

I didn’t think much of it. I thought he was just saying “how cool”.

The Rabbi’s Mistake:

Fast forward about an hour, and it was time to count the omer. The rabbi mistakenly counted the omer for the 21st night, instead of the 14th night. So, his wife reminded him, and then he redid the count for the 14th night.

My First Mistake:

Something the rabbi said earlier in the night caused me to be confused, and I had a brain fart and I thought it was the 7th night. So, I wanted to ask him about this.

My Second Mistake:

I intentionally waited till the rabbi was done speaking and he walked away toward a side table to put his prayer book down and I approached him to ask him about the counting. I thought everyone was getting up to get food, and that it was a decent time to chat with him. I was wrong, his wife still had a few more words. And I picked the wrong time to discuss this with him.

So I took a seat and waited till his wife formally invited everyone to dinner. I apologized to him last erev Shabbat (twice) and I now apologize to him again. I’m sorry for the poor timing.

Why I Walked Out:

Before I realized his wife was still speaking, I asked the rabbi very politely, why he said it was the 14th night, when I (mistakenly) thought it was the seventh night. There were a million ways he could have responded. Here is the way he did respond (almost verbatim):

“Don’t come at me with that Karaite stuff, I will wipe the floor with that Karaite stuff . . . Two thousand years ago, the Karaites came and started a new religion. Prior to that, Jews had always started counting [the omer] on the second night of the seder.”

For those who don’t know the counting of the omer was one of the biggest debates between the Karaites and the Rabbanites.

After his wife was done speaking, I asked him why he responded the way he did and he said that he felt attacked that I came over to talk to him about the counting. I explained that this was not my intent and that I was just simply mistaken about the day of the counting.

He then understood that I was not trying to challenge him and then he said, “I’m taking a step back now and I want to tell you that I was triggered when you came up to me . . .” (Pretty close to verbatim.)

I  made clear that I was asking him a question through a paradigm of observance and that I have deep respect for his observance, but that I found what he said about Karaites being a new religion profoundly offensive. To be clear, I was not actually offended, I just thought it was offensive.

He then said, “I have a whole lot more offensive things to say. I don’t have respect for everybody. I don’t come from a place of love everybody. I have no respect for the Reform.”

At that point, it was clear that I was not welcome there. Although I am not Reform, I was looking for a different experience for my Friday evening. And it was also clear that I am one of the people he has no respect for. So I thanked him for what he and his wife were trying to build, and I said Shabbat Shalom, and I said that I thought I should go. He didn’t ask me to stay and by the look on his face, he seemed to agree that I should go.

I then walked over to one of the people who had warmly received me and I told him that I didn’t feel welcome here anymore and I said Shabbat Shalom and left.

I am still ruminating about whether I made a mistake by leaving. But it was clear to me that the rabbi was not comfortable with my being there. And I left out of respect to him.

How the Night Started:

 The saddest part for me is that up to that point the night was exactly what I was looking for.

  • The rabbi had mentioned to everyone that his sister was battling cancer, so I later asked him for his sister’s name, and then I said, “El na refa na la” (Please, God, please heal her). The rabbi actually responded, “Amen.” He, an orthodox rabbi, affirmed a prayer of healing from me, a Karaite. This was a beautiful moment. And now that I know his sister’s name, I have said a few prayers for her health.
  • The people I met were welcoming and wonderful people. We spent a long time talking about Torah, Talmud, and Judaism in general. I even quoted Talmud on numerous occasions. It was a great conversation. I learned about their family histories: Israeli; Persian; Syrian-Morrocan-Argentine-Israeli. And I had fun.
  • When one of them asked whether I count the omer, I said yes, but I count it in the morning. The other one knew right away the textual reason why I count in the morning.
  • One woman explained how she as a Persian Jew attended Ashkenazi schools, and began to think that her family mispronounced things and just did many things “wrong” – because they “didn’t know” how to do it. I told her that I had gone through the same experiences growing up. Her husband said (something to the effect of), “The more differences I see out there, the more I realize that none of it is ‘wrong.’” I told him that as a Karaite I am willing to believe that I am wrong about anything and everything, but like him, I have come to the conclusion over the years that labeling variant practices and pronunciations as “wrong” misses the big picture.
  • Most importantly, it was amazing to see about 60 youngish (at least mostly younger than me) people having Shabbat together in a community that didn’t even exist six or so months ago. I wish that there was a single Karaite community in the world where this could be the case.

I have no ill feelings toward the rabbi. We all have our moments. Between his sister having cancer and trying to build a new community in a new city, life is not always easy. But I am saddened that the state of our Jewish community is such that a simple question could trigger him about events that happened 2,000 years ago (in his opinion). If we cannot have conversations about theology and halacha, or we do not have the patience to find out where someone else is coming from, then I am not sure where our people is headed.

I want him and his wife to build a thriving community. I hope that the community is also a welcoming and positive one – so that one day, the next time someone like me visits, he or she feels welcome to stay for the entire meal.

Seriously. I left before the chicken! Who leaves before the chicken?!

***

Today is the second day of the third week of the seven weeks.

Today is the 16th day of the counting of 50 days from waving of the omer on the morrow after the Sabbath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under Counting of the Omer, Shavuot

8 Responses to That Time I Walked out of a Rabbanite Congregation

  1. Henry Mourad

    Shawn, if I were in your place, I would look back at it as a mostly positive experience overall. You met with a newly thriving community. I’m sure the weight on the Rabbi shoulder is tremendous. You have shown good will and compassion by praying for his sister healing.
    For sixteen years I was a member of a large reform Synagogue. What I learned there is tolerance for all Jewish branches. Many conservatives frown upon Reform Judaism. Oddly, it was there that I gained happiness and how to welcome Shabbat as a groom receives his new bride. Even though as a Karaite, I didn’t agree with the candle lighting and the musical instruments playing in the Synagogue, I nonetheless felt uplifted and Joyful. What was even stranger, when I mentioned to the Rabbi that I was a Karaite from Egypt, he said that it was impossible because our branch of Judaism was extinct. But I assured him that it was not the case and was contrary to what they were taught at the Yeshiva school. I formed a bond with the Rabbi for several years because on many occasions, he wanted to know more about the life and practices of the Jewish people in Egypt.
    God bless you and thank you for sharing your experience.

  2. Torey Bowen

    Boy oh boy do I empathize! Who the heck really know the correct way to do things? I’m a female rabbi ordained by a new-Hasidic yogi who loved everyone and respected everyone. I’m a rabbi but I see being a rabbi as a teacher, not a posek. I am intrigued my karaism. Jews are all about learning.
    The discussion never ends. I see so much wrong with the way rabbinic Judaism has evolved but I never claim to have a monopoly on the truth. This rabbi did not have the heart of a proper rabbi, in my opinion. I’m a rabbi who questions rabbinic Judaism. Doesn’t that say enough?

  3. Kalev

    Now put your self in a Karaite convert’s shoes,
    No love anywhere no community anywhere,
    But funny how he dislikes the reform and the Karaites a bit like how i look at any mob that adds or subtracts from Torah how would king David look at that night do you think he would have gone into a mob like that no matter how many loving nice people attended i find it very hard to justify any group who say they walk in Torah but ( dont ) and follow man made commandment’s am i wrong ?

  4. Tim Cravens

    I’m very sorry to hear this. If it’s any consolation, I attended Shabbat morning services at the local Reform synagogue on the first day of Pesach. It was a small congregation, meeting in the chapel. In lieu of a d’var Torah, the rabbi asked people to share their family customs from their Seder. I shared that I go to a Seder every year where we have lots of Haggadot from many different Jewish traditions, sharing different things from each as people wish at each point in the Seder. I also shared that I was excited to be bringing a Karaite Haggadah, and the rabbi was intrigued, and told the congregation just a little bit about Karaites. He was very interested at the kiddush when I told him about going to the Karaite Shabbaton in Philadelphia a few weeks ago.

  5. Edna Stewart

    The Rabbi was rude to you! I always bristle at rabbis (or any other observant person) who studies Torah but does not live it. One of our primary teachings is to “welcome the ger” (stranger) which means making him/her feel welcome and not insulting anything about the stranger – which includes the religion they practice. What he said to you about Karaites (and Reform Jews) was unconscionable. No wonder you didn’t feel welcome, you weren’t. While we all like to see the good in people, sometimes we need to choose our Shabbat company carefully and not be afraid to cut ties when their practice does not reflect Torah morality.

  6. Keren de Torno

    Ouch, Ouch, OUCH! ….’The Karaites started a new religion’???
    It was the Rabbinites that actually created their own religion with their adding to and subtracting from Torah and writing their own Jewish practice texts.

    Shawn, I sincerely thank you for sharing your humble, honest and just account of how you handled yourself in this unfortunate occurrence. You were unfortunately made a victim of abuse due to his own insecurity and his reactive need based on fear, to protect his domain. And yes it was indeed unfortunate for this Rabbinite as well, unless of course he too is strong enough in the faith of his beliefs in Torah, and can stop his fear for long enough to sit and contemplate how he could have responded to his own reaction triggers of defense in a healthier way. Who knows, perhaps you will receive an apology for his rash behavior trigger-based on FEAR. But, I highly doubt that will occur.
    You learned many many lessons by stepping into this unfamiliar domain and into this congregation.
    You learned much from these embracing brethren congregants, who were open and shared similarities and differences with you.
    I sadly must also inform you and others, that I have had several similar shunnings and on some occasions outbursts, all were elicited from the Orthodoxy sects of Rabbinate, and paradoxically I was the one who had erroneously, logically thought and believed that I would be more “accepted” as a Karaite amongst those as “brethren” and have much more in common with them, actually my thinking logic was based on the fact BECAUSE of the polemics of our differences in some interpretations and thus application of Torah, would bring forth healthy discussion and growth for both in the exchange of our understandings. But, what I found instead at least in the
    SE region of the US, is that as a Karaite, I am much more “accepted” as brethren amongst the reformed sects, and best accepted amongst the Rabbinites of Conservative Congregations because of their open approach and willingness to actually learn from our polemic “differences”, instead of the defensive Orthodox knee-jerk reactions of flat out refuting and repelling against our Karaite understandings, because they have to be RIGHT/CORRECT.
    Thus from my experiences, the Reformed sects responses are not based on defensive reactions to hearing differences in interpretations because it is not based on their leaders of Rabbinate historical arrogance, or the Rabbinite hierarchical entrenchments of Defense that have been taught in Orthodoxy in order to protect their created hierarchy of political and Jewish domain. This all begins and starts in their Shuls of origin instructions. The reformed shuls are not entrenched on that territorial defense, and they are also teaching Hebrew language in their root understanding of the Torah.

    I am afraid you have firsthand witnessed the unsavory ghost of the history of behavior of the obstinate Jew against righteous Jew, and this behavior does not feel, nor is righteous or just at all to treat any brethren in this way no matter what their belief or practice, in my regard.

  7. Ana Lopes

    Shalom, Shawn!
    I don’t think you made a mistake by leaving. I believe any person would have done the same.
    So sad that there is still so much intolerance in our days.

  8. Charles Eliyah Pelosof

    Shalom Shawn from Shanghai, China.
    We are the family that came to your synagogue few years ago in the San Francisco bay area.
    I can say it was our first visit in a Karaite synagogue and we felt welcomed, very welcomed I should say.
    I was a bit afraid for my wife as although she is a Proselyte having decided to join the house of Israel and have a Jewish family raised in the observance of the written Torah given by Moshe Rabbenu.
    The fact that she was Chinese, made me a bit afraid that maybe she won’t be able to go and pray YHWH , the God of Israel.
    She felt welcomed and I thank the KJA congregation for that.
    Regarding the story you shared, I believe you did the right thing to leave.
    I am sorry that you missed the chicken but like French people say: ” C’est la vie” translated as “That’s life”.

    The fact that you shared your views, expressed them, is a part of what Judaism is all about. We do not have only one view, but several of them and sharing them bring food for thought and challenge our thinking and mind.
    You have planted some seeds in the minds for the ones that listened to you and if they are genuine in their love for YHWH, his Torah, then they will look it up in the holy books and try to find if what you said made sense.

    Basically, I would have done the same thing as you did Shawn.
    I wish you and to all the community a Shabbat Shalom from Shanghai, China.

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