Recent Lecture – Anan ben David: The Challenge of Karaism

Anan Ben David and History of KaraismOne of the founders of the Karaite Jewish University brought to my attention a recent videotaped lecture called Anan ben David: The Challenge of Karaism. Dr. Henry (Hillel) Abramson delivered the lecture, which is embedded below.

Overall, the presentation is very informative and I thank Dr. Abramson for including Karaite Judaism in this lecture series.

Dr. Abramson, while undoubtedly well-intentioned, makes a few statements with which most Karaites would disagree. So, as you are watching the video, I have a few comments I’d like you to keep in mind. (And no, I’m not going to nitpick every word. Rather, I again want to thank Dr. Abramson for giving his audience a taste of Karaite Judaism.)

First, Karaite Jews do not view ourselves simply as Eighth Century protestants rejecting the strictures of the Talmud and interpretations of the Rabbis. Karaites and other historically Tanach only movements before us never accepted the Talmud in the first place. In that regard, Karaites do not view Anan ben David as our founder; although, most Karaites recognize him to be a central figure in the unification of other non-Talmudic movements.

Second, at 17:40 [17 Min, 40 Seconds], Dr. Abramson states that Karaites place emphasis on the Five Books of Moses, as opposed to the entire Hebrew Bible. He is mistaken; Karaites derive our laws and interpretive tradition from the entire Hebrew Bible. I provide an example of this in the discussion about the Oral Law below.

The lecture is worth watching in its entirety and I have added my comments regarding just two of the lecture’s more salient points.

Ananism v. Onanism [11:45]

Dr. Abramson jokes that his talk will focus on Ananism and not Onanism. This is a rather interesting (clever?) play on words, because Karaites and Rabbanites differ on whether Onanism (as it is commonly defined) is forbidden.

Onanism is the practice of preejaculatory withdrawal during intercourse. Onanism also refers to (male) masturbation and the term  is derived from the biblical events surrounding the life of Onan. (Genesis 38:7-10.)

As recounted in the Book of Genesis, Onan was instructed to have intercourse with his late brother’s wife for the purpose of impregnating her. The resulting child would have been considered to be the child of Onan’s late brother, not the child of Onan himself. During intercourse, Onan withdrew and spilled his seed on the ground. The Torah tells us that Onan’s actions were detestable.

According to the (general) Karaite view, Onan’s spilling of his seed was detestable only because Onan was instructed to have sex with his brother’s wife for the express purposes of impregnating her. By withdrawing, he made the task more difficult (if not virtually impossible). In the Rabbinic tradition, spilling seed is itself generally prohibited.

Karaites Created an Oral Law [31:05]

Dr. Abramson suggests that the Oral Law is inevitable and that Ananites and Karaites had to develop an oral law of their own to fill in the interpretive gaps in the text.

For example, Dr. Abramson states that Jews need an interpretive tradition to know how to observe Sukkot, on which we are commanded to use the “fruit of a goodly tree.” (Dr. Abramson’s paraphrase of Leviticus 23:40.) According to Dr. Abramson, the Oral Torah is needed to understand that this fruit of a goodly tree” is an Etrog (a yellow citron); otherwise everyone would use a different fruit.

In the Karaite tradition, the Tanach itself (and not some extra biblical source) teaches us that the fruit of the goodly tree (which may also be translated as “goodly fruit tree”) is the olive tree. (See Nehemiah 8:15.) The Karaite Korner has an interesting article on this.

And as we’ve discussed many times here, Karaites believe that every word of the Bible is subject to interpretation and sometimes ambiguities remain even after searching the Scripture.  That’s where an interpretative tradition comes into play; but the difference between the Karaite interpretive tradition and the Oral Law (in the Rabbinic sense) is that Karaites don’t claim that our tradition came from God or is generally binding on everyone.

* * *

I applaud Dr. Abramson for his lecture and I humbly offer my services to him in the event that he seeks to do a similar lecture in the future.

Dr. Abramson’s blog can be accessed here: Anan ben David: The Challenge of Karaism. He is very receptive to comments, so if you have any thoughts on his lecture feel free to post them to his site.


Filed under Academic Lectures, Dr. Hillel Abramson, Sukkot, What is Karaite Judaism

5 Responses to Recent Lecture – Anan ben David: The Challenge of Karaism

  1. Thanks for the kind words. I hope your readership finds the lecture interesting, and I’m glad to promote scholarly interchange.


  2. Matityahu

    He doesn’t seem to have done much research on anything. A quick web search would have put him in touch with people and resources that could have answered his students questions (and his) on marriage, conversion, kashrut, exegesis, etc. I’m certainly glad that he had a talk on Karaite Judaism but it doesn’t seem like his students were informed of anything more than the fact that there is a community of Jews called the Karaites and they reject the Talmud. Most of the rest was either half informed or mis-informed.

  3. You are mistaken Shawn in stating that “Onan’s spilling of his seed was detestable only because Onan was instructed to have sex with his brother’s wife for the express purposes of impregnating her. By withdrawing, he made the task more difficult (if not virtually impossible).”

    I recall reading the late Karaite Chief Rabbi of Israel, Hayyim Halevi who explicitly stated that Karaite Judaism expressly forbids masturbation, and birth control. This may be just one opinion but this seems to be the consensus among the Karaite religious authorities of the last generations.

    • Hi Joels,

      Thank you very much. Because of the diversity of opinions in Karaite communities, I used the word “generally” when describing this position.

      Are you familiar with other Karaite leaders who (have looked into it and) agree with Hayyim Halevy on this issue? Halevy’s Toharat B’Mishpacha beYisrael is required (generally) reading for people who want to be married by the Acting Rav of the Karaite Jews of America. Halevy does express his view against masturbation. (According to Ruth Tsoffar’s book, Stains of Culture, Halevy viewed masturbation as shedding blood. If this is indeed Halevy’s view, then I presume he objects to masturbation, not because of the story of Onan, but because of other commandments. I don’t have a copy of Halevy’s work here with me, so I will try to verify this later.)

      Thank you again!

      • Zvi

        Thanks for keeping tabs on this. the anti-masturbation view seems to be the consensus among the traditional Qaraites at least in Israel. I surmise that Hayim Halewy derived his prohibition through some inference (Hayqesh) which I suspect is illogical. I’d love to learn what this supposed Hayqesh is. If he indeed spoke in the name of Qaraite Judaism as a whole as if it utterly forbids masturbation, that was quite presumptuous. I hope you forgive me for stating this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *