Why Rabbi Rosen at the algemeiner is (Mostly) Wrong about Karaite, Persian and Reform Jews

AlgemeinerEvery once in a while someone takes an unnecessary shot at Karaites and Karaism. Sometimes these shots actually cause collateral damage to the Rabbinic community. So, even though I hate to respond to modern polemics, Rabbi Jeremy Rosen at the algemeiner, you’ve got my attention.

Rabbi Rosen starts off well-meaning enough. He asks a simple question “Who are the Karaites, and do they keep Simchat Torah?” But from there he veers wildly off course. Let’s review.

Revolt against Rabbinic Strictures:

Rabbi Rosen relates that “just this week, a delightful young Israeli woman living in New York told me [i.e., Rabbi Rosen] in synagogue that she was so fed up with extra days of festivals and other rabbinic-added strictness that she too was a Karaite and so only kept one day of festivals.”

This is a rather unfortunate way to explain Karaism. Rabbi Rosen paints Karaites as a “protestant” group, which revolted against the Rabbinic authority. In doing so, he completely ignores the theological perspective of Karaite Judaism.

At its core, Karaite Judaism believes as follows: in biblical times, the nation of Israel was led by prophets and divinely sanctioned priests and judges, all of whom helped clarify and uphold the Law. Today, we have no prophets, and no divinely sanctioned priests and judges; so we are all responsible to search the Scripture well and determine the meaning of the commandments. We should not be comfortable delegating that responsibility to any non-divinely sanctioned leader.

“Only” Accepting the Text of the Torah:

Rosen then (unfortunately) gives a wrong answer to his own question: “The Karaites take their name from the word for ‘text,’ which indicates that they only accept the text of the Torah.”

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First, Karaites derive our laws from the entire Tanakh – yes the whole thing. In fact, a Karaite wrote the most perfect copy of the entire Tanakh. And the Karaite community of Egypt maintained the Cairo Codex of the Prophets – which shows that Karaites have an affinity for text beyond the Torah.

Second, Rosen states that Karaites “reject post-Torah rabbinic interpretations, additions and customs, and those theological ideas such as Resurrection and Life after Death that are not explicit in the Torah.”

Wrong again.

At least since the 12th Century the majority of Karaites have believed in the Resurrection of the Dead. The resurrection of the dead is one of the 10 principles of faith of Hakham Yehudah Hadassi, a 12th Century Karaite Sage. Eli Shemuel even made a two-part video focusing on this. (Part 1 and Part 2 – Part 2 discusses the resurrection of the dead.)

Matrilineal & Patrilineal Descent and Reform Jews:

Rabbi Rosen also tries to link (maybe, “defame”?) Karaites and Reform Jews by comparing our views of Jewish identity: “What makes them [i.e., Karaites] popular with Reform communities is that they accepted patrilineal lineal descent as the definition of Jewish identity.”

To be clear, any Jew who wants to have a meaningful Jewish interaction with our Creator and our people is okay in my book. So let me be the first to apologize to the Reform community for its getting dragged into Rosen’s anti-Karaite diatribe. You deserve better from our Jewish brethren. And so do we.

Regardless of affiliation, the overwhelming weight of biblical evidence is that Jewish (or “Israelite”, to be more precise) status is patrilineal. And the difference between Karaites and (my understanding of) the Reform Movement, is that the Reform Movement accepts Jewish identity through patrilineal or matrilineal descent. The general Karaite view is that it is only patrilineal descent that matters.

Persian Jews:

I am still waiting for someone to do a definitive article on this, but there is no doubt that the Persian Jewish community has had very strong Karaite-type tendencies and practices. As far as I can tell, these are sincerely held historical beliefs. And, again, as far as I can tell from speaking to Persian Jews, these practices cannot be explained away as a modern rebellion against Rabbinic Judaism. So it is not fair of Rosen to criticize his “little Persian community” as people who “do not bother with second days” of holidays.

Hanukkah, Purim and Simchat Torah:

Rosen also wondered why we celebrate Purim but not Hanukkah. One short answer is that Purim is in the Tanakh; whereas Hanukkah is not. A deeper answer is that most Karaites do not believe Purim to be a “required” holiday. Unlike our Rabbinic brethren, Karaites do not have mitzvoth attached to Purim. Under this view, Purim is simply a custom ingrained in our Jewish fabric.

As to Hanukkah, another reason Karaites tend not to celebrate it is because the story of the oil lasting for eight days is, well, not historical. Hanukkah, at its heart, celebrates the rededication of the Temple; but today the Temple is not standing. So a celebration of Hanukkah seems a little empty.

Simchat Torah (“The Rejoicing of the Torah”) is a different story altogether. The holiday celebrates the conclusion of our annual cycle of Torah readings, and thrusts back to the beginning of the Torah for our next annual cycle. This is a relatively recent Jewish holiday, even in the Rabbinic tradition, and as far as I can tell the holiday cannot reliably be dated prior to the middle ages.

But having said all that, Simchat Torah is a beautiful custom. I cannot think of any greater joy for the Jewish people than that of receiving God’s revelation through the Torah. And there is inherently nothing wrong with celebrating the end of the Torah cycle. Some of my greatest memories are of celebrating “Simchat Torah” as a young child.

I do not know a single Karaite today who believes that it is forbidden for us to follow customs (that otherwise do not violate the Torah). Karaites object to turning customs into commandments and placing greater importance on our customs than on God’s laws. (See Isaiah 29:13.)

What Rosen Got Mostly Right:

Rosen is correct that Karaites do not wear tefillen and do not believe that mezuzot are required. He is correct that we do not wave the “four species” on Sukkot – rather we are to use the items to build our sukkah. He is also right that Karaite shechita (or ritual slaughter) is more strict than Rabbinic shechita. For example Karaites historically have not permitted slaughtering pregnant animals; whereas the Rabbinic halacha permits this. Eli Shemuel did a video on Karaite shechita.

Rosen is also correct that Karaites historically had very strict limitations on permissible marriages. I’ll be honest, the Karaites probably went too far. (Full disclosure: I myself am a descendant of a marriage that Karaites would historically have deemed forbidden.)

But Rabbanites probably did not go far enough. For example, Leviticus 18:12 forbids a man from sleeping with his aunt. Karaites have historically inferred from this that an uncle is also forbidden from sleeping with is niece. This makes sense because the relationship between an aunt and her nephew is (structurally) the same as that between a niece and her uncle. But in the Rabbinic tradition a man is *encouraged* to marry his niece.

What Rosen Got 100% Right:

At the end of the day, I wholeheartedly endorse Rabbi Rosen’s most important thesis: we need to be Jewish with all of our heart. We cannot practice Judaism as matter of convenience. If a Jew’s adherence to any form of Judaism is based solely on leniency – that person will stop being Jewish (of whatever denomination) as soon as it becomes inconvenient.

So may we all search for the truth and adhere to our values, regardless of how inconvenient that truth is. And, yes, Rabbi Rosen, may we all rejoice with the Torah – this year and every year.


Filed under Aleppo Codex, Cairo Codex, Eli Shmuel, Judah Hadassi, Kashrut, Patrilineal Descent, Purim, Shechita, What is Karaite Judaism

11 Responses to Why Rabbi Rosen at the algemeiner is (Mostly) Wrong about Karaite, Persian and Reform Jews

  1. maurice

    You let them off the hook too easily. Rabbanites are the protestants, protesting that the Torah needs a fence which, of course, is provided by them. Of course, they are the ones who they feel that have been given the right to “interpret” the Law, creating a whole new religion originating from Judaism, but, like Protestantism, is no longer the same as the original.
    Their explanations are selfish and self-serving. Don’t be so easy on them.

  2. Isaac Kight

    Simchat Torah is a modern iteration of Shmeini Atseret, a Torah based holiday which concludes the Chag HaSukkot. The “eighth day of absolution” is the final holiday of the Seventh Month Festivals. It is thus recognized and observed as such by all Jews. As with many Temple based feast days, in the modern era we have had to seek a redefinition and recreation if the holiday to make it relevant in a post-Temple Judaism. Simchat Torah is one way to do this, finding a theme for Shmeini Atseret would be another. Although the Chag HaShavuot was a celebration that concluded the end of the Omer and the arrival of the first of the Middle East’s two main fig (and fruit) harvests (Sukkot celebrates the second) it has been reinvented as a holiday acknowledging the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Since the emphasis has remained on Torah and the holiday has renewed relevance as a result, I see no problem with this approach.

    • Zvi

      I think many Qaraite Ḥakhamim have historically disagreed with recasting Ḥag haShavu`ot as “the holiday of the Torah’s Giving”. Mordokhai Alfandari and Nehemia Gordon certainly have not accepted this reinvention, and neither has Meir Rekhavi if memory serves correctly.

  3. Shawn Lichaa, this ignorance is due to lack of contact with the Karaite community and its literature. I, too, at first had no knowledge of Karaism or Karaites, except for a mention in the Talmud as well as the misrepresentation by messianic Christians. Not until Leon Nemoy’s (OBM) anthology did the complexity and similarity of Karaite Judaism become clear in my mind. As a Rabbi, I still hold fast to the wisdom of the Talmud. Yet I see the validity and wisdom in the Hakamim found in the Egyptian Karaite writings. More education and communication needs to be brought to the fore so Rabbinical Judaism can begin a dialogue with these rich traditions and Minhag. This (I believe) will reunify Judaism toward the Messianic Age.

  4. It’s a unique responsibility of modern Karaite Jews to correct misconceptions about traditional Karaite Judaism. Still, being such a “minority of a minority” makes this a very great task indeed. With HaShem’s help, may these misconceptions be put to rest so that increased Jewish unity can occur.

    • Ken,

      Amein to what you stated. It is important that more knowledge is spread ,in the common language, not just Hebrew and Aramaic, to dispel the misinformation of what and how Karaism is observed and what they are as a people. Most of what has been “Bad press” has come from those who have not honestly portrayed Karaism and its practices; as well as those who have from the Christian Community, who totally misrepresented what Karaism is to both Jews and other Religious groups.
      We, (Me and others) need more educational tools to learn as well as inform members of Judaism and the Community at large to what Karaism is and is NOT. That will stop the slander and libel found by Judaism and being perpetrated by Evangelical Christianity en masse.

      • Ari Bright

        It seems to me that Xtians view Karaites as the equivalent of their “sola scriptura” protestantism. The similarities are apparent but without stressing the differences then the Xtian can satisfactoraly approach and study the Torah on their own and there is no reason to approach the wisdom of Karaism in their own estimation. Rabbanism, from my experience, doesn’t take Karaism seriously because it doesn’t have anything to offer of substance. There isn’t much coming out of the movement, innovation is nearly impossible, there isn’t any philosophy or metaphysical treatise to delve into and of course there isn’t any threat of the Karaites becoming popular amongst Klal Israel for exactly the same reasons already mentioned. Therefore it will be incredible difficult to “clear up” misconceptions amongst a Jewish world wherein Karaites don’t even appear on the radar of Jewish consciousness. Karaites have a long and hard road ahead of them and with Judaism struggling to be relevant it will be even harder for Karaites to make headway. That’s just how I see it right now. I appreciate diversity in Judaism and hope I’m incorrect in my analyses.

  5. Reynaldo Lopez Reyes

    Los Rabinos solo enseñan lo que ellos han recibido como instruccion para ser lo que son, pero no tienen ni idea de lo que es el caraismo. Nesecitan profundizar para dar respuestas concretas y reales. Ojala que sigan asi estas polemicas porque asi aprendemos mas. Gracias.

  6. Etay

    There is a good degree of ignorance and opinionated writing. Clearly the dear Rabbi didn’t do his research, or at least kept and open mind. His comment back to you: “Good to see a different opinion J”. Somewhat arrogant in my opinion.

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