Endangered Species: Vanishing Jewish Movements

Stains of CultureLet’s face it: it’s April 11, 2013, and the only viable Jewish movements are Rabbanite ones. Even secular Jews operate completely within the Rabbinic framework.

This lack of religious diversity doesn’t bode well for historically non-Rabbinic movements such as Karaites. At some level, non-Rabbinic movements can only survive if (religious) Jews are open to adopting interpretations that, while differing from mainstream views, are consistent with the Tanakh.

But, fundamentally, it takes much more than “open-mindedness” on behalf of the Jewish community. It takes clear resolve and dedication on behalf of minority Jewish movements.

In the United States, the precarious nature of the Karaite Jewish movement has long been known to its leaders. In November of 1983, the President of the Karaite Jews of America wrote a message to the community’s members: “We may stop [for] a moment and deeply think in our mind ‘How can we save our religion?’ The answer is so simple. . . . [W]e have to be proud of our religion and never deny it, no matter what [the case] may be. And we must teach our children to be the same.” (See Mourad El-Kodsi, The Karaite Jews of Egypt (First Edition), p. 313.)

Similarly, a male Karaite Jewish scholar once noted that in the twenty or so years since the Karaites had emigrated from Egypt to the United States, a centuries-old tradition was destroyed:  “It took twenty years for a community of a thousand years to dissolve. The ice melted as slowly as possible, but it is now sitting in boiling water.” (See Ruth Tsoffar, The Stains of Culture an Ethno-Reading of Karaite Jewish Women, p. 1.)

I don’t know what it will take to reinvigorate the American Karaite Jewish movement or at least reduce the temperature of the water, but I’ve previously proposed some ideas here and here and elsewhere on A Blue Thread.

I do know that it would be a gross injustice to the diversity within the Rabbinic movement to imply that all Rabbanite movements are the same. The Chasidic movement alone has several sub-movements. So maybe the correct diagram of the Jewish world is not a top-down, i.e., Rabbinic v. non-Rabbinic, delineation. Maybe we need to assess the religious Jewish world from the bottom up, movement-by-movement.

Under this approach, the state of Karaite Judaism would still be dire, but its numbers would not be that far off from other, smaller movements. For example, according to the Breslov Research Institute, the Breslov (Hasidic) movement has “perhaps several thousand families in Jerusalem and Bnei Barak[,]” with pockets of families throughout other cities.

By comparison, a recent article about Karaite Passover observance explains that “Karaites in Israel today number in the tens of thousands, with the largest presence in Ashdod and Ramle.” (See Judy Lash Baling/JNS, Taking Passover Back to Its Roots, March 25, 2013.)*

Whatever the proper way to splice the Jewish world, Karaite Judaism clearly has a very long way to go before it is deemed a viable option for the average Jew. It is far more likely for religious Rabbanites to move between Rabbinic movements or even become secular than to adopt Karaite Judaism.

This is why we need to take significant steps to enhance pride in Karaite Judaism and instill it within our children. And maybe, one day, we will have a legitimate Karaite Research Institute. B’Ezrat Hashem.

* I note – perhaps for another day – that this article has many clear inaccuracies about Karaite Judaism. But, as the old saying goes, at least it spelled our name correctly.

* * *

Today is the 5th day of the 2nd week of seven weeks. Today is the 12th day of the counting of fifty days from the day of the waving of the Omer on the morrow after the Sabbath.


Filed under Books, Breslov, Karaite Jews of America, Ruth Tsoffar, The Stains of Culture

5 Responses to Endangered Species: Vanishing Jewish Movements

  1. Eddie

    It is perhaps also an opportunity to speak to secular Jews who look for some connection with the Torah, and are not quite ready to join the Haredi world. This is why it is important to show the deviations of the Talmudists from the Torah’s teachings.

  2. You have a definite talent for writing, Shawn. Keep up the great work. I love the quote by the AKJ Pres. — he hit the nail right on the head.

  3. Zvi

    I don’t know what to say. I have been trying to pull the Qaraites more toward the Miqra, including restoring what we can of the Jubillee and Release year commandment practices, and away from emulating the Rabbanites as in doing Qiddush and Havdalah, wearing headdress, etc., and restoring a semblence of Hag Shavu`ot’s agricultural nature through embracing the tradition of the Kibbutzim where they would harvest produce and bring it to the synagogue in a celebratory procession, presumably while dancing and playing instruments in addition to chanting. And R. Firrouz is too busy to read all my suggestions.

  4. I know that many of the smaller movements, like Breslov Chassids, for instance, take great pains to ensure that their children marry only within the community (refusing even other Chassidic groups), and thus perpetuate the same specific movement practice within their families down the generations.

    In a sense, it makes these communities almost minority communities in a wider Jewish world, just as Jews are a minority community in the gentile world. As all minority communities do, they perpetuate their ways through avoiding intermarriage and teaching their traditions to their children.

    So I suppose the question is – do Karaite communities also make efforts to ensure their children continue to marry within the community, which can be enough to perpetuate even a small community like Breslov? Or do they make a habit of marrying into the wider Rabbinic Jewish community – and then must stand against the familiar pressure to “assimilate”?

  5. Yelena

    This is why there needs to be a karaite courtship website to ensure that people who are karaites and looking for marriage can find each other and so avoid the assimilation issues.

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