No; A Karaite Did Not Steal Your Shoes

Last week, an Orthodox Jewish website, Hamodia, published an Op Ed discussing whether Reform and Conservative (Rabbinic) Jews have the right to hold services at the Western Wall. For those who do not know, the State of Israel recently designated certain areas of prayer at the Wall for Reform and Conservative Jews, but many in the Orthodox community are not too pleased.

And the best way for the Orthodox world to express their dissatisfaction with their fellow Rabbanites is to start by making fun of Karaites.

Okay, well, maybe it’s not the best way. But this is a common tactic, which I have blogged about before.

In the Op Ed, the attack on Karaites is an often repeated joke: that Karaites stole Moses’s shoes. You can read the full joke at Hamodia, but the gist is that a Karaite and Rabbanite are standing before a king and are about to debate which form of Judaism is more proper. The king asked the Rabbanite why he was clutching his shoes tightly (rather than leaving his shoes behind in the palace like all the other Jews). The Rabbanite responds that, when God told Moses to remove his shoes at the burning bush, a Karaite stole Moses’s shoes. Since then, the Rabbanite explains, “whenever we are in the presence of Karaites, we make sure to hold on to our shoes.” Wanting to defend himself, the Karaite says that this is absurd, because everyone knows there were no Karaites back then. And with that, the Rabbanite rested his case.

In the context of the Op Ed, the joke is meant to say that just like the Karaites, the Reform and the Conservative were not around at the time of Moses.

I stay out of intra-Rabbanite debates – so I just want to touch on one aspect of the joke that is not very funny at all.  (Let’s set aside the issue of the origins of Karaism for now.)

At its heart, the joke suggests that we should not listen to dissenting religious opinions. It is very easy to label something else as inauthentic or a reform when you are the majority. In fact, it’s too easy. This type of mentality will divide the Jewish people long before it will ever unite us.

From a religious perspective, I am humble enough to admit that I may be wrong about everything. Because of this, I seek Jewish unity and not Jewish uniformity.

I actually heard an interesting anecdote from a Karaite friend about how he first heard the joke about the Karaite and Moses’s shoes.  As my friend related it to me, the purpose of the joke when he heard it was to explain a glaring oversight in Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s Kuzari. The Kuzari is a famous work that seeks to establish Rabbinic Judaism as the proper form of Judaism.

The Kuzari contains a fictional dialogue between a rabbi and the king of the Khazars. The fictional dialogue was prompted by a dream the king had.  The king learned in his dream that his heart was right in the right place, but his worship of God was wrong.

So the king summoned a Greek Philosopher, a Muslim, and a Christian. These large medieval religions each have a voice in this fictional dialogue and they each get a few paragraphs to make their case as to why their belief system is “correct.” The rest of the book consists of the rabbi explaining Judaism to the king, spending a significant amount of space attacking Karaite Judaism. The oversight is that the Karaite never got an opportunity to give his side before the king.

According to my friend, in this context, the tale about the Karaite stealing Moses’ shoes is meant to explain why the Greek Philosopher, the Christian, and the Muslim were able to make their case before the king, but the Karaite did not have the chance to present his case.

Whether Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi’s omission of the Karaite’s arguments was intentional or not, I do not know. I do know that, according to a letter written by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi himself found in the Cairo Geniza, he wrote the Kuzari (which is largely an anti-Karaite polemic) because he had a friend who was considering becoming a Karaite.

For the past 500 years, the Karaite voices have been too silent. So silent that Orthodox Rabbanites only rarely mention that we exist, and when they do, it is often to deny us the opportunity to make our case. In many ways, this blog is the voice that the Karaite standing before the king never had.

So, as I seek to give a voice, I pray that I do not take the voices of others.


Filed under Judah HaLevi, Kuzari

13 Responses to No; A Karaite Did Not Steal Your Shoes

  1. It’s interesting that the story begins with the Karaite Jews even entering the picture because they weren’t being recognized as “true Jews” — a common issues in the Jewish world because of the Karaite unwillingness to relinquish the Torah’s stance on patriarchal descent. I wasn’t there, but I can assume that the Karaites were simply saying, “We are true Jews” but the retelling could be “they claimed that they were THE true Jews.” It’s amazing the difference a word can make.

    — And on another subject, I don’t know of any Karaite Jews or even Karaite-leaning Jews who claim that the Torah was passed down to the Karaite Jews. They will readily admit, “Yes, Karaism is a breakaway group, but a breakaway in what we believe to be in the proper direction.”

  2. Zvi

    The argument over whether Reform and Conservative Jews have the right to hold services at Har haBayit’s western epitomizes so much of what is wrong with the Jewish people. What each of us should spend our time and energy arguing over, in terms of Jewish sites, is how to improve our stance on the Real McCoy, namely Har haBayit, and how we can get along there.
    Since we are “too” unique anyway and so many of the Orthodox will keep deriding us no matter what we do or say, we Peshaṭ-true and Qaraite Jews might as well gradually undertake to be the avant-guarde of our people in helping reclaim Har haBayit for Jewry as the Qaraite movement regrows.

  3. The Joke is illogical because there were no Rabbies in the time of Moses either.

  4. Henry Mourad

    When God commanded Moses to take off his sandals at the holy mount, there was no mention in the Torah of the existence of another human with Moses. If the claim was that a Karaite stole his shoes, the anecdote bestows on the Karaites the highest order of purity and sanctity. That’s an honor I’ll accept any day.

  5. Albert Gamill

    This is the correct version:
    The Rabbanite responds that, when God told Moses to remove his shoes at the burning bush, a Karaite stole Moses’s shoes. Since then, the Rabbanite explains, “whenever we are in the presence of Karaites, we make sure to hold on to our shoes.” The Karaite says: You see your Majesty that the Rabbanite himself Admited that the Karaite bekiefs existed since Moses was facing God. With that the Karaite rested his case.

  6. Albert Gamill

    Vanity of vanity and all is vanity

  7. Albert Gamill

    This is the correct version of the story:
    The Rabbanite responds that, when God told Moses to remove his shoes at the burning bush, a Karaite stole Moses’s shoes. Since then, the Rabbanite explains, “whenever we are in the presence of Karaites, we make sure to hold on to our shoes.”
    The karaite responded: If the facts prove that there were no Karaites during Moses time, then the Rabanite is a liar. The Court don’t rely on a liar and he should be removed and be prosecuted. If the facts prove that there were Karaites during Moses, then I rest my case.

    The New Solomon Ben yeroham

  8. IMHO, the reason the Temple will not be built any time soon is because of the “baseless hatred” the Orthodox have for any other stream or idea of Judaism or Jewish tradition.

    Until they realize their problem and welcome ALL Jews (including those of patriarchal descent) into the family, the Temple Mount will stay in ruin (i.e. with a Muslim shrine on the place of the Holy of Holies).

  9. Katriel

    Stop putting all these negative thing here regarding what the Rabbanite think…The Qaraite branch is such a beautiful branch of Judaism. Lets just continue studying and practicing the Qaraite traditional ways. Focus on God, and let all the madness of trying to change and fit in with others fall by the wayside. I’m new to the Qaraite branch, and know very little about it, but the little I do know, I LOVE. I live in So.Cali, but hopefully soon, I’ll be able to visit Daly City and meet the community there. Thank you Zvi, you’re speaking the truth.
    Being a Black Jew, I can agree no matter what you do or say, will be derailed…I know I’m a Jew and that’s all that matters.

  10. Keith Barton

    The Orthodox calumny that a Karaite stole the shoes of Moses can only work with a goyish king, and therefore depends on goyish ignorance (because any Jew can see that it is mishuga). In fact, it is a calumny against the goyim, as well as the dissenting Jews. But is the joke not on the Orthodox rabbi, who thinks he can pull the wool over the king’s eyes? It may backfire, if the king reflects about what was said. The goyim may be slow, but they aren’t altogether stupid. And sometimes, the goyim retaliate.
    The other issue here is that if the Jews don’t have an external enemy, they will soon become their own mortal enemies. Witness Dahlia in the book of Jeremiah. Jews are not alone in this perpetual paranoia, but why is it?

  11. Ray Provance

    I was raised Orthodox,
    After many years of study I determined that the oral Torah was just the thoughts and directives of Rabbis who think their musings are more important than the words written in the Tenach.
    I follow the Karaite (original Judaism) path now.

  12. Larry Sterner

    It’s not that a Karaite stole Moses’ shoes, but that Karaites strive to walk in Moses’ shoes. The Rabbinate movement would have done well to follow the example of their Karaite kinsmen.

  13. Dror

    No one should pray at a wall built by an Edomite murderer….It is an historical site, not a Holy site…

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