Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz has a Fundamental Problem

I know. I know. You’re worried, “Here we go again. This is gonna be another variation of the Thinker post. And Shawn is going to make his name taking down those who speak ill of Karaites.” Don’t worry – it’s not and I won’t.

Last Friday, I got a “Karaite” Google Alert. I was pumped. I love it when we get press. I clicked on the alert and sighed as soon as the I read the title of the article: “Where Fundamental Fails: It is difficult to disagree with fundamentalists. They don the mantle of authenticity, and claim to have all of the answers.”

Karaite google alert

You can probably guess where this is going: Karaites are fundamentalists . . . they get so many things wrong by reading the Torah without the Oral Law . . . they don’t light shabbat candles . . . yada yada yada . . . they live a soulless life.

In case you are wondering: yes, I did yada yada yada over the best part (that Karaites don’t have sex on shabbat).

While Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz fundamentally doesn’t understand Karaism, his post was not snarky. But he did attempt – just like the Thinker did – to use Karaites to manipulate you (or at least other Orthodox Jews).

Why Rabbi Steinmetz is invoking Karaites to begin with:

Rabbi Steinmetz is invoking Karaites to convince his fellow Rabbanites that they (his fellow Rabbanites, or at least some subsection of them) are fundamentalists and are living an unfulfilled life. According to Rabbi Steinmetz, these Rabbanites have searched for Rabbinic Halakha in the same ways Karaites search for biblical commandments.

Strangely, Rabbi Steinmetz thinks this is a bad thing. Rabbi Steinmetz (and Rabbi Yehuda Amital, whom Rabbi Steinmetz quotes) believes that this means you end up at a point where rabbinic halakha is absurdly detached from reality.

In a published lecture, Rav Yehuda Amital decried the fixation on Halakha in the religious Zionist community. He says that “just as Judaism fights against the Karaite relationship to the written Torah … So too it needs to fight against the Karaism of Halakha. Halakha without an interpretation of reality is a form of Karaism.” Rabbi Amital sees this “Karaite-like” approach as a reason for disaffection in the Orthodox community: “This Karaite approach has brought us to the point that Halakha has turned into, in the eyes of the younger members of our community, an (absurdly detached method) that has no connection to reality … This is why we hear today from young religious people that: ‘the Torah doesn’t connect to us,’ is ‘not something realistic’ and ‘not my thing.’”

I’m not even sure what this really means or why it has anything to do with Karaites. If I were sincere in trying to convince someone of my opinion, I wouldn’t introduce the bogeyman into it. I would not reduce another population to a rhetorical device, and I certainly would not paint (by analogy) another group of people as having no connection to reality. But you do you, Rabbi Steinmetz.

(To be clear, Rabbi Steinmetz approached Karaites with far more dignity than other people have. Heck – he even quotes H. Yefet Ben ‘Ali. That’s some cool stuff.)

Will the Real Fundamentalists Please Stand Up:

Rabbi Steinmetz considers Karaites to be fundamentalists.

But there is another element at play as well; to borrow a term from the contemporary study of religion, the Karaites were fundamentalists. They were returning to the biblical text in search of authentic religion.

First, get it right. Karaites *are* not *were* [Fill in the Blank]. We are still here.

Second, I don’t know really know why Karaites are any more fundamentalist for turning to the Torah than Rabbanites are for turning to the Oral Law. But this is a good time for me to roll out a few new slogans.

I like that one a lot, but it is missing a call to action.

That’s better. But seriously every donation counts.

Rabbi Steinmetz Misses the Fundamental Nuance of Karaite Judaism

Here is what Rabbi Steinmetz wrote about Karaites

Because they rejected the rabbinic tradition, Karaite practices diverged in significant ways. They were more lenient than rabbinic Judaism in some ways: no tefillin, no prohibition of mixing milk and meat, no shofar, no mikvah. But in many ways their practices were far more extreme. They did not use any fire on Shabbat, did not have sexual relations on Shabbat, didn’t eat anything fermented, including wine and yogurt, on Pesach, and early Karaites did not eat meat in mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Most significantly, the Karaites rejected the precalculated calendar of the rabbinic community. Instead, new moons were declared by visual observation, and early Karaites declared leap years based on observing whether the barley crop had nearly reached maturity before the month of Nissan. This meant that Karaites often observed holidays on different days than Rabbanites.

I could comment every word of this – but it wouldn’t accomplish anything. Instead, I’d just want to add that the fundamental principle of Karaite Judaism is to search the scripture well and not rely on anyone’s opinion. But Rabbi Steinmetz doesn’t mention this because he needs to paint Karaites as either too permissive (MILK AND MEAT!!!) or too extreme (NO YOGURT ON PESACH!!!). He doesn’t want you to focus on the fundamental truth about karaism: that each and every Karaite has the responsibility to interpret the commandments for herself. (Yes, I said herself, because women have that power too! How is that for fundamentalism?!)

Okay, at the risk of not accomplishing anything:

  1. I taught about tefillin here and wrote about it here.
  2. I wrote about milk and meat here – but I should note that in Sefer Appiryon and Royal Attire, you can see more views on milk and meat.
  3. I taught about the shofar here and also wrote about it here and here.
  4. Definitely spoke about the mikvah here.
  5. Fires on shabbat were mentioned here and are the focal point of this karaite song (be sure to listen to the recordings).
  6. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about sex on shabbat – oh, wait, I did here.
  7. Fermented foods on Pesach are discussed here (but please note that this is just one opinion on the matter).
  8. I don’t think I’ve talked about refraining from meat – but yeah, many early karaites did that.
  9. Karaites definitely followed a different calendrical system from the Rabbanites. See here,  and here.


A Plea and an Invitation:
Dear Rabbanites, please do not reduce Karaites to a rhetorical device in your intra-Rabbanite debates and struggles. If you’d like to talk to an actual Karaite, you can reach me at shawn@abluethread.com.



Filed under Abib, ibn Ezra, Israel Maghribi, Karaite Fact Cards, Mikveh, Milk and Meat, New Moon, Royal Attire, Shabbat Candles, Tefillin, Yisrael HaMa'aravi

5 Responses to Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz has a Fundamental Problem

  1. Keren De Torno

    Denial is called that, because it IS that! All the Judaic Sects that have spun off of Torah and developed their own versions of tribal “accommodation and revisions” based on manmade laws, are now far removed from TORAH LAW.

    Man wants what he wants, when he wants it! We are called Hebrews because we wrestle with that which our Hebrew G-D has given us in covenant to be HIS CHOSEN PEOPLE. SET APART from ALL Others.

    So, no matter what laws it is that has been modified, or reinterpreted or even newly created based on needs of mankind (like new holidays), or are rendered by sages and adopted for use in another law book they write and then adopt, it is all still REMOVED from TORAH.
    IS that not the same that Christianity has done, but on a much broader basis?!

    Once you take that ONE STEP away from the TORAH foundations we made and accepted in our covenant with Our Hebrew G-D, you are now in unholy territory.

  2. David Schonberg

    I think it is a mistake today to use the term Karaite together with a differing form of person, ‘Rabbinite’.. as if to minimise the vast chasm, historically and ideologically.. and halachically, between Karaites and what are not Rabbinites.. but are simply Jews.

  3. Ana Lopes

    Hi, Shawn!
    Let’s see the positive side of all these things: if Karaites are bothering so much the Rabbanites, maybe it’s because there are more Rabbanites becoming interested in Karaism.

  4. Llen

    What if Karaism stopped defining itself as “alternative Judaism”, stopped playing defense, went on the offense, and stopped using the terms “Karaites” and Karaism” altogether, and instead simply asserted itself as Judaism, normative Judaism at that?
    What if we started matter-of-factly denying Rabbinic Judaism is Judaism at all and started referring to it as Talmudism or the Talmudic religion and its adherents as Talmudists?

    Just asking, what if?

    I am a Jew. I know that Yeshua is the Messiah but I do not conflate my faith with christianity. I see a difference between Torah-observant Yeshua and the non-observant christian ideal. In fact, I reject the term “Messianic Jew” (and am unaffiliated) precisely because of so much confusion. I do not practice christianity. Nor do I practice Talmudism (often itself non-observant). I practice normative Judaism; that is, I am Israel, Judah, a willing, conscientious member of the Covenant, and try hard to obey Torah to best of my understanding and ability.

    Yet I am cast out, rejected as a Jew and despised. I can reject just as well. Does it matter? Neither has any real authority to define the other. It’s only a matter of whether we let each other play in each’s own little playhouse.

    So, I am a Jew anyway. I do my thing. They do theirs. You do yours. In the end, it is H” Himself, blessed be He, Who alone is Judge.

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