Skip to main content
Updated date:

Karaite History: Chapter 1

Author:

Dr. Allen E. Goldenthal is the author of the Kahana Chronicles series of books available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions

Once A God

Once A God

It is Time

It has been several years since I have written an article on HubPages and for that, I sincerely apologize to all my readers. It certainly wasn't as a result of laziness, as I have been very busy writing my novels within the Kahana Chronicles series. Whereas most of my HubPage articles detail the world in which my family has lived, the novels are detailed accounts of their lives. And the two are quite compatible in providing a composite history of their world over time. A history very different from what you may have been taught in school, because that is for the most part the teachings of propaganda. Those stories that both governmental and religious leaders want you to believe since it benefits them by legitimizing their authority and discourages you from seeking the truth for yourself. That being the case, I recommend you read my book, Once A God, the historical account of the man we know as Moses. He was not a myth, he was not a legend but a flesh and blood person with all the weaknesses and failings that any other man has. He was haughty and egotistical, rebellious and arrogant, but most of all he was a true prince of Egypt and his historical account does exist but the powers that be were always afraid that if you read his true biography, you would be less likely to believe in miracles and discouraged from seeing the hand of God in everything he did. Personally, I believe the exact opposite is true. When you read the story of how a man, who was once worshipped as a god himself, came to the realization that he was nothing more than a servant to the one true God, then I believe you will admire him far more than the version you are only permitted to see in the Old Testament.

Nevertheless, that is not what this article is about. Instead, as the title suggests, it will be a history lesson about the Karaites and in its revelation, it will show you a snapshot of the lives my ancestral family's lives as they migrated from Iraq, into the Black Sea regions and finally settled in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. In this series of articles, it will also show you how easy it was for family members to transition from Karaite Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism and back again, because even though there was a marked schism, the divide was never so huge that one could not make a leap across the chasm when necessary. It is their actual history that is now my prime motivator for my next bit of writing because there have been so many inaccurate posts on the internet. True, there has been an awakening in Karaite beliefs and now there are many that will call themselves Karaite, either because they attended courses or they simply chose to believe in the philosophy without undertaking all the actual steps to become a Karaite. I have the luxury of claiming my heritage without sacrifice, but to these others, they must understand that there is a price to pay and that price includes abandoning all your former beliefs. You cannot use the title of Karaite as an adjective to describe your mixed beliefs as in Karaite Nazoreans, or Karaite Rabbis, etc. Those that promote such mixed beliefs simply are not Karaite and those that profess such beliefs are guilty of cultural appropriation which I find insulting.

So what better way to separate the chaff from the fodder, than to provide you with the actual history of my people. To understand what motivated them and forced them to remain separate from what eventually became mainstream Judaism. If you can picture yourself reliving their history, practicing as they did, surviving the persecutions from their own brethren and the rest of the world as they did, then perhaps then you are entitled to call yourself Karaite. So let's begin the lessons. I will attempt to provide at least one lesson a week until there's nothing left for me to say about where we came from and how we came to be. But those that know me know that I will probably never be at a loss for words. After all, to be a Karaite, you must know first, what is a Karaite!

In The Beginning

Almost all Jewish historians when writing their books on Jewish history will provide perhaps a chapter, or an appendix, or maybe only a sentence or two when it comes to the subject of Karaite Jews. Until the eighteenth century, Karaites weren't even known to exist to the Western world and even in those Jewish communities where they were present, most mainstream Jews didn't even realize that they were different, thinking they were merely small communities that preferred to pray together in their own houses of worship and didn't sit in a common meal with other Jews. Since the Rabbinic Jewish world was already fragmented into Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and those in turn were also subdivided, into smaller subgroups, one more group on the fringe really wasn't going to be noticed. But all that changed when a Dutch Theologian, James Trigland recognized that there was something very different about the practices among this one particular group and as he wrote his thesis, he quickly realized they practiced a Judaism that he considered far more archaic from the rest of the Jewish community. His breakthrough research was included in the Thesaurus of Sacred Oriental Antiquities which most people have never seen, let alone read, the Latin being a bit of a stumbling block for most researchers.

Basically, Trigland's research went unnoticed until Professor Kosegarten of the University of Jena published in 1824 portions of the book written by Aaron, son of Elijah the Karaite called Book Of The Crown Of The Law. Suddenly the western world was aware that there were these communities of Jews that practiced a very different Judaism from what they were accustomed to. More resources became available as fragments of writings from the Firkowitsch manuscripts were brought out of Russia. Whether it was the West's fervent hope that they had found the real lost tribes of Israel, at which point they could suddenly wag a finger at the Rabbinical Jews and call them pretenders, or a genuine interest in discovering what they considered a lost faith, we may never know, but thanks to the efforts of Dr. Julius Furst, who wrote his History of the Karaites in German, many of the original Karaite documents have been preserved albeit in German. Many translations of Furst's book have been made into a variety of languages but the underlying message in all of these that identifies the Karaite community is , "God is the only fountain of authority."

Submission

Submission is a fundamental principle in Karaism, expressed as not submitting or paying homage to any human authority if that authority does not support its decrees by divine revelation. In making such a statement, not only are Karaites saying they will not follow blindly any decree or law made by government that is not aligned to their religious beliefs but they are also saying they will not follow any religious authority either if they consider those decrees to be blind and servile superstition. A clear reference to their opinion of Rabbinic Judaism, where they feel the blind are leading the blind and the people are servile to the rabbis and not to God.

Hence, a Karaite only pays unbounded reverence to the Written Law as revealed in the Old Testament. The Oral Law or Talmud was created by the Rabbis, to serve the Rabbis and to keep their followers under control through the adherence of severe interpretations that make the people totally reliant on the Rabbinical class. As far as the Karaites are concerned, you must only follow God's Law and reject human tradition as it was not ordained by the Almighty. Here we see the divergence between these two branches of Judaism. One adhering only to the ancient set of laws as handed down from God to Moses, the other adhering to the man-made interpretations of those same laws but in so doing have also applied several layers of human needs and fulfilments onto the basic principles. The Rabbanites would like to claim this schism occurred around 749 CE, when Anan ben David, in a contested election to the seat of Exilarch against his cousin, found himself in prison rather than on the throne. But to believe so, would hardly explain how upon his release from prison he already had hundreds if not thousands of followers, a pretty remarkable achievement if he had not already been building upon a pre-existing set of beliefs, much in the same way that Saul of Tarsus did, from his prison cell, but Christianity was already thirty years in the making at the time. For Anan to suddenly erase five hundred years of Talmudic law, simply by repudiating it would hardly explain why there were so many willing to follow his teachings unless this group that refused to adhere to the Talmud already was in existence.

Repudiation of the law, any law, most likely occurs at two times in its history. One time being when those laws are first proposed, and there is sufficient opposition in power to try and stop the successful introduction of such laws, and secondly when those in power and advocating a particular set of laws are suddenly failing and falling from power. Then those with an alternative set of laws can try to impose their own views without much opposition or threat of punishment. Since at the time of Anan’s imprisonment, it is obvious that Rabbinic Judaism was in control and had no fear of losing its grip in power, then the only possibility to identify an origin date for Karaism is when it was the one in power or at least having an equivalent foothold in power. That could only be at that time when Rabbinic Judaism was first beginning to propose its Talmudic rules. This would infer the first century CE, placing the origins squarely at the time of the rivalry between the Sadduccees and Pharisees. Therefore, Karaism may have been the child of the Sadduccees whereas we definitely know that the Rabbanites evolved from Pharasaic Judaism.

The Readers

There is no clearer representation of the division between Karaite and Rabbinical Judaism than in the names of each group. Each wears their name proudly as a badge of honour. If the Karaites originated at a much later date as an offshoot of Rabbinic Judaism, they would have had a name that emphasized their disagreement with the Rabbis, such as ‘The true Faithful’ or ‘The Real Jews’ but they don’t. Instead the name Karaite only implies those that ‘Read’ or those that are ‘Called’. It is actually the name Rabbanites, that tries to go one better, suggesting that they don’t just read but they have the ability to ‘Teach’ because they can interpret what is being said by the law. Therefore the name of the Rabbanites would imply that they are the latter group to evolve from the original Judaism practiced by the Karaites. This rivalry with the Readers is emphasized even more by that eminent Talmudic scholar Rashi who refers to many of his fellow rabbinical scholars as ‘Masters of the Reading’, as if to suggest they are better than the simple readers, or Karaites. Such disdain for the Karaites by Rashi would suggest that he recognizes their older legacy and he feels a need to diminish their stature.

The importance of the difference between one that ‘Reads’ and one that “Teaches’ is huge when placed in its proper context. For example, the law not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk’ to a Karaite is simple to understand. It is a prohibition based on intrinsic moral values, and not designed as a dietary law. As Karaites, we must respect all of God’s creation and recognize all life is sacred. To a ewe or a she-goat, the maternal instincts for their lamb or kid would be no different from a human mother and her child. Their devotion to their offspring must be seen in the beauty of the creation and not reduced to a thing of ugliness and disrespect. Therefore, by not boiling the kid in its mother’s milk, we are respecting life, we are respecting motherhood, and we are respecting YHWH. Whereas the rabbis have interpreted it as nothing more than a prohibition on eating dairy products with meat and waiting so many hours in between for the stomach to clear before the other be eaten. A purely mechanical interpretation with none of the understanding or appreciation of why the law exists. The obvious difference between adhering to God’s written law and the Almighty's true intent as contrasted to the self-serving laws of men are well defined by this one example. Being able to visualize the significance of what you read is far more valuable than spending endless hours on interpretation to satisfy one’s own personal understanding of what they believe is the significance of the law.

Ananites

So, if Anan wasn’t the originator of Karaism, then why were the Karaites often referred to as Ananites. Actually, it was the Rabbanites that referred to them as such but rather than dispute the naming, the Karaites merely showed their respect and reverence they had for the rightful Exilarch by letting themselves be called as such. This is evident in the writings of the Arab historian Ab-ul-Feda, who refers to the Ananites as being distinct from both the Karaites and the Rabbanites. He indicates that the Ananites practiced a Judaism similar to the Karaites but had added Jesus as being one of the Prophets of Israel. The Ananites claimed that Jesus never presented himself to be 'THE' messenger of God, letting others do that instead, and he also made it crystal clear he did not wish to change the law but instead wished to emphasize adherence to the law of Moses. To the Ananites, he was no less a prophet or holy man than any of the others that preceded him. So once again, we have an Arab historian confirming that Karaites were in existence long before Anan came on the scene.

Prayers For Israel: Edited by Jakob Kahana Goldenthal

Prayers For Israel: Edited by Jakob Kahana Goldenthal

In Conclusion:

I hope this first Chapter of Karaite History has satisfied some of your curiousity behind the people that bore this title and heritage before the modern day Karaites have adopted our customs, traditions and faith. It was not easy being a Karaite in a Rabbinic world, especially when being so meant you could be ostracized from both the Jewish and Gentile worlds. I look at my third great grandfather’s siddur that he compiled. As the title implies, there was no need for copious texts for Jews to follow and endure the hardship of spending entire days in the synagogue or Kenessah reading endless sayings and discourses from rabbis that wanted to make themselves heard. Every festival, every holy day, every sabbath and life experiencing moment has been incorporated into that one book, taking a Jew from cradle to grave. It was the last thing he published before his untimely death. In his Sabbath prayers, there is no Savri Moranan Ve Rabotai (explanations designed for the congregation of men) mentioned, there is no blessing over lighting the candles, as these were not Karaite inclusions since God never ordained them. A blessing over the wine, the bread and the Sabbath day, just what YHWH had given us to be blessed, as He intended, and as He wanted us to honor. Nothing more, nothing less. I hope you will come back and read the next Chapter, as I believe you will find the History of the Karaites is both rewarding and entertaining but most of all it is enlightening. May YHWH bless you all.


Dr. Allen Goldenthal

Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana

Related Articles