My Interview with Dr. Gabriel Wasserman – Translator of “Royal Attire”

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-11-12-40-amAs you now know, I have spent much of my last year in Karaite terms getting The Karaite Press off the ground. Dr. Gabriel Wasserman (PhD, Yeshiva University) has been incredibly instrumental in that process. Not only has he given me guidance on various projects, but he himself has translated the incredibly successful publication Royal Attire: On Karaite and Rabbanite Beliefs.

Today I interview Gabriel about his experience translating Karaite works, and in honor of this interview, The Karaite Press is selling Royal Attire for 20% off for the entire month of January.

1. Prior to working on Royal Attire, what was your exposure to Karaite Judaism?

I don’t believe that I had ever met or interacted with a Karaite Jew before. I had friends who had Karaite friends, and would occasionally talk about them. I had read Ibn Ezra’s responses to Karaites, and I knew that some of the masoretes were Karaites, and I had occasionally come across Karaite piyyutim (poetry) through Google. I was aware of a few Karaite halakhic positions, and some important Karaite sages, such as Caleb Afendopolo. Also, I had colleagues who worked on Karaitica, such as Danny Lasker and Riikka Tuori.

2. What was the most interesting aspect of the traditional Karaite halakha you learned from Royal Attire?[*]

Where to begin: perhaps the position that levirate marriage (yibbum, and consequently, ḥaliẓa) applies only in the Land of Israel (perhaps only at a time when the tribes are dwelling in the areas assigned to them by Joshua), whereas the laws of ritual purity, inasmuch as they can be observed, must be observed everywhere in the world. This is the reverse of the standard Rabbanite positions – and yet the argumentation is so typically “rabbinic”! In general, what was most fascinating about the book was just how Karaite Judaism in the time and place of the author used exegetical methods that the larger Jewish community associated with rabbinic Judaism – the same kinds of arguments, and the same kinds of readings of texts, but without the assumption that the Talmudic Oral Law is binding.

Historically, the Rabbanites and Karaites are both involved in the same endeavor of seeking Scripture well, following their common rules, and nearly all Karaite exegesis in Royal Attire look like they could have been uttered by Rabbinic Sages in the years 1–500 CE. What divides Karaites and Rabbanites is that Karaites believe that even today, they have the authority to derive laws from Scripture this way, whereas Rabbanites believe that the time for doing so is long past, so Rabbanite Sages today can derive laws only through study – and exegesis – of the statements of earlier Rabbinic Sages.

Similarly, if I were interviewing a Karaite, and asked a question like: “Why are the writings of Rashbam and Ibn Ezra so important to the Jewish world?”, and they responded something like: “Their searching out of Scripture is so Scripturalist — so Karaite”, I would probably wince for a moment, but I would understand that such things come up when we reach across divides like this.

And all this brings me to my answer to your next question.

3. Why is the work of The Karaite Press important to the Jewish world?

As I began to say in my previous answer, Karaite Judaism is very, very Jewish, and needs to be part of the Jewish dialogue: part of the halakhic dialogue, part of the interpretational dialogue, part of the literary dialogue. Many people whom I meet confuse Karaites with Samaritans, and yet they are really quite different; the most prominent difference is that Karaites are Jews, whereas Samaritans are not Jews. (They aren’t quite gentiles, either, but that is a discussion for a different time.) We Jews all have the same twenty-four books of Scripture, the same Hebrew language — Karaite prose is written just like Rabbanite prose of the same periods, and Karaite poetry is written just like the Rabbanite poetry of the same periods – the same historical experience of exile from our land and return to it, and much more. Yet Karaite texts are not accessible to the typical reader today. And many non-Karaite Jews, if they are aware of Karaitica at all, think of it as a very peripheral area of Jewish studies. I hope that The Karaite Press will change this, and make this aspect of our tradition accessible to all who want to read it: Karaite Jews, non-Karaite Jews, and interested non-Jews.

4. You have mentioned the possibility of doing an expanded second edition of Royal Attire. What would you want to add in that edition?

I would want to add more references to rabbinic sources; I only included selected sources in the first edition, because both Shawn and I believed that it was important to get out the first book as soon as possible. I would also like to include more analysis of the historical narrative that R. Mordecai ben Nisan presents in the first chapter; I already showed that he uses Josippon and Rabbinic sources in his narrative, but I really need to show how he is constructing a narrative that bears little resemblance to the actual history, or to any earlier sources; he creates a kind of polemical historical novel, as it were, in order to give a Second Temple back-history to the Karaite movement. Since the publication of the book, I have come across a brief discussion of this, in a book by Fred Astren. A complete exposition of Levush Malkhuth [i.e., the Hebrew name of the original work] would need to include a fuller analysis of this.

In addition, I would also like to use certain details in the book as springboards for notes on side-points, which illuminate the background of the text and the culture that produced it: for example, when the author mentions the Yiddish word tsimmes, and says that it is the name of a kind of dish in “their language”, that of the Rabbanites, I would add a note explaining that the Eastern European Karaites spoke a Turkic language called Karaim, whereas the Eastern European Rabbanites spoke Yiddish (or, in the countries in more southerly Eastern Europe, such as Bulgaria, they spoke Ladino). I would mention that various modern Karaite books from that part of the world include translations of traditional texts (Biblical and liturgical) into Karaim. In Eastern Europe, the Karaites and Rabbanites were very separate communities (as the author of Levush Malkhuth mentions), and the linguistic difference was surely a barrier between them. This was unlike in the Byzantine Empire, where both groups spoke a form of Greek, or Egypt, where both groups spoke a form of Judaeo-Arabic — and indeed, in those places, there was much more contact, and marriage, between the groups.

Finally, one of the major accomplishments of Royal Attire is the inclusion of never-before-published Karaite texts in the endnotes. These notes expound upon historical Karaite practices and beliefs. I would love to work with Tomer Mangoubi and others to add more notes from historical Karaite works, in the hopes that it will inspire others to read and republish these texts.

5. You are currently working on another project for The Karaite Press: translations of the liturgical poetry of H’ Aharon ben Yosef (Constantinople 1300s). What can people look forward to learning when that project is done.

Well, that depends on whether or not they come from a traditional Karaite community. Readers who are not from traditional Karaite communities are likely to never have heard of R. Aharon ben Yosef, and perhaps the greatest things that they will learn are: (a) there is such a thing as Karaite piyyut (liturgical poetry), just as there is Rabbanite poetry; (b) Karaites have the same 53 or 54 parashiyyoth as all other Jews today; (c) Karaites recite a qedusha prayer, just like other Jews; and (d) Karaites have special piyyutim for each parasha — well, in truth, many Rabbanite groups had that, as well, in the past, but most Jews and even many scholars of Jewish studies are unaware of that. (Incidentally, there’s a great book by Prof. Shulamit Elizur, in Hebrew, called Shirah Shel Parasha — a piyyut, or a piece of a piyyut, for every parasha, selected from the vastness of Jewish tradition with her literary analysis of it. One day I would like to translate this book into English. I don’t think she includes any Karaite selections in that book, but a Karaite parallel could potentially be a future project for The Karaite Press.)

Traditional Karaites who read my next book will be given the tools to grapple with the texts that they recite in synagogue each Sabbath. R. Aharon ben Yosef uses various poetic structures for his poems, and makes reference to many Biblical verses; moreover, it is often difficult to understand how he is reading Biblical passages. Fortunately, the poet is also the author of a commentary, Sefer Ha-mivḥar, on the Torah, and on many other Biblical books. This can act as a key to unlock his understanding of the Biblical verses that he cites. I have elucidated all these features in my notes. I assume that many people who have been reciting these prayers for years have seen them until now as merely words on a page; I hope that they will now both understand their content, and appreciate them as poetry.

*   *   *

[*]  Editor’s Note: Gabriel and I had a long back and forth regarding this answer, and he accepted some of my proposed changes – particularly clarifying that the exegetical methods at the *time and place* of the author of Royal Attire were similar to rabbinic methods. I felt this was an important caveat because Karaite literature in other places and at other times may read differently. I pray that The Karaite Press will bring other exegetical works from many other regions and times to the public soon.

Interested in Royal Attire?

(100% of the proceeds goes to bringing other Karaite works to the public.)


Filed under Aaron ben Joseph, Dr. Gabriel Wasserman, Karaite Press, Karaite Rabbanite Relations, Royal Attire, The Karaite Press

6 Responses to My Interview with Dr. Gabriel Wasserman – Translator of “Royal Attire”

  1. Isaac Sardar

    Karaite Judaism and Karaite works are very valuable to every Jew. They can help all of us Jews–Karaite or not–to have a new, deeper understanding of Jewish scripture, Halakha and thought, regardless if we accept or reject that understanding. I hope the Karaite press will be successful in publishing all Karaite works which would otherwise be inaccessible to many. Best of wishes

  2. ilan

    Interesting Interview. I take offense though at his claim that Shomrohim not being Jews are some sort of different animal. People keep confusing Jew with Judean. I can claim Israelite, Ivri, and Yehudai. But I cant claim to be of any other tribe. Just because he follows the that Tamud that tells partisan lies about the Shomronim does not mean its worth more then a 3 dollar bill.

    I would like to know what Adon Wasserman feels about the Chachams Ben Nissans pertinent observations about the nonsensical Kashrut laws put in place by the self appointed rulers of the Israelite nation. Chacham Ben Nissan in a few simple words gives the Torahs declaration on meat and milk and all the illegal additions. Is Adon Wasserman ready to abandon some of the burden the Rabbinate has imposed on the nation? Glatt Kosher nonsense wherein logic tells you if its not kosher in the first place, then it can never be Glatt anything. And this is the problem we have and why Jews live on the barest mean because they cant get Kosher meat without the Glatt label which is so like designer clothes.
    Perhaps in attaining more knowledge in his, no doubt about it, wonderfully translated book and hopefully more. Adon Wasserman will abandon many of the Rabbinic addtions to the Torah and move closer to Karaism. After all
    What kind of lie of a bracha is it that Yahaweh commanded the lighting of the Chanukiah. If ever that is taking the lords name in vain, this is a perfect example.

    I look foreward to more publications of the Chachmei Hatorah and let them speak to us in the their language and not second hand.

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  5. miryam weiser

    wonderful that wasserman is doing–a real contribution to scholarship

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