Rabbanite Privilege & The Struggle of Other Judaisms

Professor Hahn-Tapper's new book is a great intro to Judaism(s)

Professor Hahn-Tapper’s new book is a great intro to Judaism(s)

It’s 2016, and let’s face it: despite my best efforts, Karaites remain on the fringe, a mere after thought in the Jewish landscape. The normative form of Judaism today is Rabbinic Judaism – so much so that when someone contemplates his or her Jewish identity, they first think Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform (or maybe Ashkenazi, Sefardi, or Mizrahi). But he or she never even has to come to terms with the fact that their form of Judaism is operating within the Rabbinic Jewish framework.

Let me give you some examples of questions I often receive as a Karaite:

  1. How do you know how to wear tefillin without an oral law? (A: We don’t wear teffillin.)
  2. Are women allowed to sing solo parts in your services? (A. Yes.)
  3. Do you separate chicken and dairy, or just milk and (mammalian) meat? (A. We don’t separate milk and meat of any sort.)
  4. Do women count towards a minyan? (A. We do not require a minyan to begin with.)
  5. Where is your local mikveh? (A. We don’t require a mikveh; a shower suffices.)

While these questions are innocuous in and of themselves, they all reflect a Rabbanite bias. I get it. The entire Jewish world operates within the majority paradigm. But this Rabbanite Privilege means that 99% of Jews never have to worry about this aspect of their Jewish identity and how they fit in.

A few months back, I spoke to Professor Aaron J. Hahn-Tapper’s University of San Francisco class on Judaism. I found myself focusing on matters of Jewish identity, and the fact that every day I have to think about what it means to be a minority of a minority.

In Professor Hahn-Tapper’s excellent book, he places Karaites in the section called “Borders” – and he challenges his readers to ponder whether a group who does not accept Rabbinic Authority can be Jewish. As I mentioned to Professor Hahn-Tapper’s class, “Today, Karaites are rightly placed on the border of the Jewish box – when you consider that Karaites are a super minority and doing things differently from most of the Jews we see in the world.”

But as I also mentioned to his class, “Why are Karaites on the border? We believe in God, we accept the entire Tanakh. Why isn’t the reform movement on the border? Many Reform Jews do not believe in God. Why isn’t reconstructionist on the border? Many Reconstructionist Jews place contemporary norms over biblical norms.” I went on to explain – as I am now, that I have not animosity toward any of these Jewish movements. And I am not challenging their beliefs. I just raise the example to re-orient people’s frame of reference.

But it is clear that the reason Karaites are on the border and these other movements are not is Rabbanite Privilege. These other movements still operate within a Rabbinic paradigm – even if they do not truly accept rabbinic authority.

This reminds me of an episode form 1000 years ago. The Karaite Sage Jacob al-Qirqisani asked why the Rabbanite Jews of his day would not marry the Karaites, but would marry the Issawites, followers of a Jewish messinic figure. The reason Jacob al Qirqisini was telling: “Because [the Issawites] do not disagree with us over the festivals.”

Kirkisani interpreted the response to mean that the Rabbanites “regard open apostasy [i.e., the Issawite adherence to a messianic leader] more favorably than disagreement [by the Karaites] over a festival of [the Rabbanites’] own invention.”

So, even as Karaites were starting to increase in popularity, Rabbanite Privilege was so strong that the Rabbanites would have rather interacted with a messianic group that adhered to the Rabbinic festivals than with Karaites.

But as the title to Professor Hahn-Tapper’s book suggests, perhaps today it is best to think of Judaisms – and not a single Judaism.

Maybe the concept of sects and movements and denominations is a thing of the past.

Maybe I should stop worrying about Karaites and Rabbanites and just promote Karaite Judaism as one of the options related to the various Judaisms out there.

I would love to. But I can’t. I don’t have the privilege to do that: I have 35 emails in my inbox asking me to explain (and sometimes even “defend”) the Karaite approach to this or that.

BTW, there is a Rabbinic custom, which many Karaites have adopted, of not ending a Torah or  Haftarah portion on a negative note. So I won’t end this post on a negative note. Instead, I want to reflect on the fact that many of these historical divisions *are* a thing of the past. I learn weekly with an orthodox rabbi affiliated with Agudath Israel and I study with Chabad. These types of interactions between the Orthodox Jews and Karaite Jews were almost unheard of in previous years.


Filed under Rabbanite Privilege, Rabbinic Influence

16 Responses to Rabbanite Privilege & The Struggle of Other Judaisms

  1. david

    Very interesting. As you said, maybe it’s time for Karaites to do less “defending” and just more “promoting”

    • Ed

      Instead of “defending” or “promoting”, why not just “be”?
      One bears witness to one’s own tradition and needs neither the acknowledgement, jeers or approbation of others.

  2. Zvi

    Dear Shawn … you have conflated the desirable reality with regards to the separation of meat and dairy among the Qaraites with the actual reality.
    As far as I know, the majority of traditional Qaraites do separate meat and dairy under varying levels of Rabbinic influence, even if this is less so in the US.

    I’d like you to know that I am hoping YHWH will give you sufficient strength to get through the constant barrage of inquiries you receive from Rabbanites. And if you ever tire of it or snap at any one of them, you can count on my full support in such events.

    • Ed

      We ask questions more out of curiosity than anything else.

      When I was a kid attending yeshiva over 40 years ago, my teachers were old school, mostly Eastern European refugees, and Karaites (in the rare instance the name was invoked) were spoken of in hushed tones. Less as ‘heretics’ and more in the Rambam-vein of ‘misguided’ or ‘lost souls’. Things have changed greatly in the intervening decades and those of us interested do so out of a desire to understand and gather historical context; not out of derision, contempt or need to confront anyone. Never a need to snap.

    • Larry Sterner

      I think these Rabbinates are just pulling your chain, believing they’ve obeyed God by following their Rabbis. When God cast the Israelites out among the nations; to serve the gods of those nations, gods of wood and stone…what gods did the Rabbanites serve? And who are the prophets of their own delusion who cause Gods people to forget Gods NAME? And who are your kinsmen who hate you because of יהוה’s name?
      Isaiah 66
      5 Hear the word of Jehovah,
      You who are concerned about His word!
      Your kinsmen who hate you,
      Who spurn you because of My name, are saying,
      “Let Jehovah manifest His Presence,
      So that we may look upon your joy.”
      But theirs shall be the shame.
      6 Hark, tumult from the city,
      Thunder from the Temple!
      It is the thunder of the LORD
      As He deals retribution to His foes.

  3. Dale Miller

    Hello Shawn, It is a blessing to know that it was your kindness in sharing with me,yes a ger/gentile/stranger in trying to understand fully the truth that is offen hidden deeply within or is being mired by those who deemed themselves as a seperated factor in not sharing towards the stranger. May the Most High bless you in all that you are doing in sharing such as the “Blue Thread”, I really wished that there could be a place such as a “Karaite”-theme worship in the southern california area…As we do feel out of place when the “facts are” that it is seems that it is not…For there is a wide spec of options in going to worship. So, we opt to worship in our quiet time at home.

  4. Raja Anderson

    …One way to have contact with the wider Rabbinic Jewish Community would be to post Karaite events, information, forums, and other things, in the Bay Area, on BayJews.org…It calls itself the “Jewish Portal to the Bay Area”…
    ….I think that if people saw the posts from Karaites, they might be interested and join in….
    …Shawn, please keep up the great work you are doing!
    …Be Seeing You…Raja…

  5. Abishai

    I don’t think it is really so easy to polarize thinking into Rabbinic or Karaite Judaism. When I learn Talmud (daily) I see and feel the disconnect from development of Spiritual Awareness, but I also have come to realize that what we are reading there is really what nowadays is thought of as case law. Because of this emphasis on case law in the Gemara, and its hair splitting arguments, it is, to me, pretty much useless for any kind of spiritual realizations of the Oneness of God. It is all intellectual study.

    Yet the original basis of it is the Torah itself, and theoretically the Rabbinic rulings are subject to the rule that Torah trumps Rabbinic thought. It’s just convenient, especially for the development of the “fence” around the Torah, which fence has now become defensive walls, moats, razor wire fences and minefields, so that nobody really comes close to the power of Torah as Word of God: it is always in the realm of the intellect. Of course this is one of the purposes of the Torah: a body of law by which a people or a nation is shaped and organized, a body the like of which had not been seen 3500 years ago when it was first given. But because of the intellectual emphasis and the protection from the spiritual, the whole inner purpose has suffered a setback to the point that God has taken away from us the most basic laws of burnt offerings, and the temple within which the offerings were made. What was lost is the key to personal holiness: submission of ego, offering our very lives to God, and wanting our own way. Instead the opposite, the aggrandizement of ego, which is the result of intellectual supremacy with its comparisons and arguments, winning and losing, and at all times separation from the Living Moment into the world of concept and thought.

    I have found it nearly impossible for most to be able to realize the difference between, say, the word “apple” and the actual fruit. Yet the difference is basic, and of utmost importance. We talk blithely of different “Judaisms” not realizing that the whole concept is a concept, and is not any actuality at all. People worldwide are daily living in a mental world which is separate from the actuality of anything at all. Yet it is Torah, deeply understood, which teaches us that it is in God’s answer to Moshe as to who sent him we can find the key to it all. He said “tell them EHYH sent you (Beingness, I Am) and my name is YHWH. That is my name forever, my title for eternity.” There is NO ARGUMENT between the actual and the conceptual. They have no relationship at all. My only point is that it is pointless to make these arguments, but just continue with what God gave us. One person connected to the Actuality of EHYH and who has been cleansed of the connections of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil needs no arguments concerning what they do/believe etc. It is all between the person and God, and the only actuality is God.

  6. Caleb Charleston

    As a new Karaite Jew living in Australia
    Talk about a Minority, No one here to meet
    We don’t have any traditions to explain,
    The Torah is our light and path I see our Rabbis in the same light as our Christian friends does YAH have favourites does he treat all men the same?
    my essay on conversion
    was on Duet 4:2, this with Duet 13 has kept us safe from moving away from our Creator.

    I know that most do treat (some) with more respect then others but why? If a Christian does not do this or that and does do this and that what is the difference from a Rabbie lighting candles and saying GOD commanded it I like King David
    All those who obey YAH’s Law is a friend of mine, before there was a name for any mob
    There was only (Sinners) and (the righteous)
    No matter who they were when we after many years of searching found the truth I did not care
    What there name was,only I thing matters
    Walking in The Path that Our creator gave us through His word the holy Torah with that you need no compromise blessings to all of Gods People I know that for sure !

    • Alerim

      Shalom Caleb Charleston,

      What a beautiful message from you! An honor for me to read it and know that there are some people out there (precious few) from the ‘people of the God of Abraham, YAH’, who thinks like you! I am what you might call a ‘christian’ ( I don’t like the title because it was given by unbelievers to the ones who believed that MESSIAH has already come and IT IS YESHUA), but I do honor and respect every Jewish person who indeed is trying to be ‘a light’ for the nations just like YAH ordained it. Trying to exclude the ‘goim’ and marginalize them, not having anything to do with them even when they so desire to know more about the GOD OF ABRAHAM, YAH, and calling them all sorts of names like ‘dogs’ it’s so unbecoming of the ‘people of the true GOD’. I truly believe that all people are made by YAH in HIS image! YAH says in TORAH that HE had placed JERUSALEM in the middle of the nations and HIS people there in order for them to be a light for the nations and bring glory to the NAME OF THE ONLY TRUE GOD, YAH, BLESSED BE HIS NAME FOREVER AND EVER. AMEN!
      It’s just the opposite that happens! Unfortunately! Dear Brothers, wake up, get back to TORAH, obey IT and be a light for the ones who are not part of the ‘people of GOD, YAH’ , so that they can become part of you too!
      Forget about Mishna, Talmud, Gemara , Zohar etc. , these are man made rules not commandments given by ELLOHIM YAH!

  7. Sara

    Your choice of the term “privilege” to articulate the sense of blind correctness and subsequent empowerment that Rabbinic Jews enjoy today piqued my interest. I’ve never found you to be very critical, which is probably a wise strategic decision on your part, but I will be for you.

    Rabbinic Jews are in a relative position of power today and they no doubt want it to remain that way. The ideology that serves as their foundation is, and has historically been threatened by Karaite truths. Additinally, religious dogma based on oral tradition and man-made laws (the nexus of Karaite-Rabbinic difference) in today’s information-rich world is particularly under threat. Karaites are about as welcome in rabbinic circles as Rosa Parks was in the front of the bus in 1955.

    We can look to your example of Qirqisani to see the extremes that Rabbinics have gone to in the past to oppress those that question their ideas.

    It’s easy to excuse the millions that seemingly, blindly follow rabbinic Judaism from any wrongdoing. They’re merely following clergy and not deviating from familial and societal tradition. It’s likely most have never even heard of Karaism. But as many have eluded to here and in previous posts, the issue is not necessarily one of rejecting Karaism as a legitimate Judaism, rather it’s the Rabbinic determination to squash, whether subtly or overtly, ideas that question their near-universally accepted form of Judaism as the correct form.

    The beauty of Karaism is its committment to enlightenment and truth at the personal level. We know that it isn’t enough to passively follow tradition and the laws and ideas of sages. This is one of many profound, irreconcilable differences between Karaism and Rabbinicism. The very basis of Karaism is to search for truth in Torah alone; we view questions and challenge to our ideas as personal opportunity to enrich our understanding. Let us appreciate our underdog, marginalized “border” position because it’s conducive to religious inquiry and a refined understanding of Judaism. While we may not enjoy Rabbinic Priviledge, our Karaite Priviledge is beautifully subtle, honest and comparatively uncomplicated.

    • Ed

      Sara, an impassioned position but ignoring the very tumultuous trends of the past thousand years in Rabbinic Judaism. The rise of Hasidism and its counter-legalistic reaction, Maimonides rationalist revolution and the rise of the Conservative and Reform movements, though rabbinical in nature, were reactions to the centralized tyranny of the rabbinate and rabbinical academies. The modern trend of abiding by what makes sense to one’s own conscience does echo Karaite rejection of over-interpretation and adding to what never was explicitly enunciated in the Torah. Borrowing the prevailing simplistic Leftist jargon of ‘privilege’ muddles a very complicated millennia-old struggle of Ideas.

  8. Ari

    Is the ‘bluethread’ the only Karaite blog in the vast ocean of the internet? It would seem that the largest problem with the Karaites is that they are not passionate enough to have a voice. Karaites don’t seem to speak and therefore who could possibly listen to the message when they can’t hear it in the first place. I have observed only two synagogue’s in the USA – one in Ca. and one in NY. If there are Karaites in other locations then why do they not organize themselves? Is this due to ambivalence or is there a problem somewhere else? If the Humanistic, Reconstructionist and Renewal communities can thrive then I fail to see why Karaites cannot do the same. I don’t feel that this is related to “Rabbinic privilege” but is is first and foremost a lack of initiative by the overall Karaite community.

  9. Josh

    Its very sad that some Jews choose to challenge the legitimacy of other groups based on their own judgement. I slightly familiar with the Karaite community and some other small ones, but never would I judge them as Jewish based on their ancient practices.

  10. Dave

    It’s interesting that this blog acknowledges the various strands of non-Orthodox Rabbinic Judaism. What follows below is, I think, an “I’ll second Ari’s opinion” remark, and I speak as a long-time sympathizer towards one of the non-orthodox rabbinic streams.

    The biggest “religious issue” regarding Jewish Americans at large is that more and more of them are “None Of The Above.” Orthodox Judaism may have higher birthrates, but it has more liberal defections than people going the other way. This is despite Chabad Lubavitch’s outreach efforts. Conservative Judaism has had the biggest demographic decline. While Reform Judaism remains the biggest rabbinic Jewish denomination, there’s always the intermarriage problem of “Will your grandchildren be Jewish?”

    [I’m not as well-informed on the respective states of Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanist, etc.]

    What does it mean to be Jewish in America?


    1) Remembering the Holocaust (“never forget”): the vast majority of “none of the above” Jews take pride in identifying themselves as Jews based on how the Nazis defined who a Jew was, traditional definitions be damned.

    2) Leading an ethical and moral life: Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Humanist Judaism take great pride in giving the Elohist, Yahwist, Priestly, and Deuteronomist redaction that is the written Torah a second look, even though the lens of secular values. I don’t know about the other three, but Reform Judaism does take great pride in giving this treasured redaction a greater second look than the Talmud. Regardless, at least it considers the Talmud as part of their (“our”) tradition for distant solutions in the patriarchal past.

    I don’t think you can convince Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, or Humanist Jews to be more ritualistic, but I think you can nudge them to be more thorough and systematic in their approach towards ethics and morality. In other words, they can be more halakhic towards the ethical mitzvot. Right now, “ethical and moral life” are just buzzwords for common-sense morality that may or may not be explored further with reference to the written Torah, let alone the Talmud.

    3) Working for justice and equality: Tzedek tzedek tirdof is understood by Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanist, and “None Of The Above” Jews as getting involved in social justice issues.

    4) Being intellectually curious: There are some “None Of The Above” Jews who actually value the Talmud more the Bible itself, because to them the Talmud defines Jewish culture, especially debate and minority opinions.

    A number of Jewish scholars have suggested that critically thinking Jews appreciate the polemical contrasts in the written Torah itself through the lens of small-t talmudic debate. “This and those are the words of the living G-d!”

    [Elohist] All the things that the LORD has commanded, found exclusively in the Covenant Code, will we do! [Elohist]

    [Yahwist] Based on these words of the Ritual Decalogue, and no others, has the LORD made a covenant with Israel! [Yahwist]

    [Priestly] These, the Priestly laws, are the single correct commandments that the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai! [Priestly]

    [Deuteronomist] The Deuteronomist code of Deuteronomy 12-26 is the authentic Torah of Moses, NOT the Elohist Covenant Code of Exodus 19-23, NOT the Priestly code of Leviticus or other priestly laws in other books! Do not add to, or take away from, the Deuteronomist code! [Deuteronomist]

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