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Karaite History: Chapter 10


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

The Divide

In the previous chapters it was shown how the turning point in Karaite history revolved around the release of the Talmud. The Emperor Justinian as a result of its release had gone from a protector of his Jewish communities in the Byzantine Empire to an antagonist. But it would be foolish to think that the Talmud did not have opposition among the Jewish communities either. No sooner was it published and said to have divine authority to be read in both schools and synagogues, than the opposition began as they recognized it failed to pay homage to the Law of Moses but instead attempted to supersede it. It was not even so much the Mishnah that riled them but the Gemara, which was a large collection of rambling, inconsistent and often contradictory statements that identified the Mishnah of the Talmud as the central text and not the Torah. It was presented to the Jewish public as being complete, perfect and conclusive. Two schools of thought arose from the enforcement of the Talmud, either it was deeply spiritual or deeply repulsive and there was no in-between. Those of us that are Karaite, obviously belong to the latter group.

The Emperor Justinian

The Emperor Justinian

The Emperor Justinian

The greatest resistance arose in those synagogues of the Greek speaking Jews that thrived in Egypt and Europe, which was practically everyone west of the Tigris and Euphrates. It became even more complicated when the Emperor Justinian ordained that the Mishnah was to be prohibited, as it neither agreed with the Holy Scriptures, nor did it originate from the prophets. He ordered that Jews could only read from the sacred books and not from the books of men. He went even further, commanding that there would be capital punishment for an Jew who denied the Resurrection or the Last Judgement, or failed to believe in angels as God’s servants. The Emperor did so in an attempt to keep Judaism pure as he explained, referring to the Talmudists as ‘blasphemous atheists’. Though there is no mention of Karaites as a distinct sect anywhere in the Byzantine records, the fact that the Emperor was confident that there was a large portion of the Jewish community in the sixth century that would reject the Talmud and the community clearly defined as Rabbanites, meant that there he had an awareness of this opposition group although it was not named.

The Khazars

Actually, it is not until two centuries later, in the middle of the eight century that the name Karaite surfaces. It is used in connection with the Khazars, a nomadic Tartar tribe that were ferocious warriors and had converted to Judaism. It was written that they lived in the land of Togarmah, north of the Caucasus mountains, where the Turkomans lived. Since their exposure of Judaism was Karaite in nature, then their reference to Karaites would imply that there must have been a significantly large population there that could have had such a tremendous influence to convert an entire warrior nation. In the chronicles written by the Russian historian Karamsin, he writes that the Khazars are in possession of the Sea Azof and they also appear with the Petchnigans, or tribes of Patzinak, on the western shores of the Black Sea. They dwell along the Volga River, which they call the Atel, and have conquered lands all the way to the North Sea. So large was their empire that the Caspian Sea was referred to as the Sea of Khazar. In a book written much later, in fact two centuries after the disappearance of the Khazar Empire, it is written that their King Bulan was in discussion with Rabbi Isaac of Sangar regarding his choice to become a Karaite or a Rabbanite. Being a Rabbanite written book, the ending of course was that he chose to be a Rabbanite, but this obviously was an attempt to discredit the Karaite faith which was very strong in the region in the 11th century. From the dating of King Bulan, it would suggest that Rabbi Isaac must have had his meeting with the King around 740 CE. Since the King was already aware of the Karaites, then the argument that Anan ibn David in Babylonia originated the Karaite religion could not be true because he didn’t profess his view of Judaism until around 769 CE. Clearly the mission by Rabbi Isaac of Sanger was not so much one to expose the King to Judaism but to persuade he and his people against following the Karaite faith.

If we assume that it would have taken several hundred years for the Karaites to have influenced the Khazars to adopt their religion, their language, as well as change their morals, habits, etc., then it was not only impossible for Rabbi Isaac to have converted them but neither could Anan have done so either. Their transformation would have occurred about the same time that Justinian was enforcing his edicts against the Talmudic Jews.

Karaites In Crimea

It is an interesting fact that following the Crimean War in the 19th Century, tracings were made of some of the most ancient gravestones in the burial grounds of Djufut Kale. Written in Hebrew, one of them bore the distinct date of the 702nd year of Captivity, while others had similar datings. These tracings are preserved in the Museum of St. Petersburg. Since the Captivity was most commonly applied to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, when the Babylonians captured the city, was this an indication that a portion of the population had fled to the Crimea and were living there at the time of this gravestone, which would have been the 2nd Century CE. Though not officially Karaites, this community would have been strictly adherents to the Torah, with no exposure to the Pharisees or the Rabbanites that followed them. Even in the Sefer Khazarim, which tells the story of Rabbi Isaac of Sangar, the rabbi makes certain that he pays homage to the Priests and Levites, as if they were still performing their services, as if not wishing to offend the King. The reality may have been that the Priestly functions may have been performed exactly as had been done in the days of the first Temple. But Rabbi Isaac tries to play a mind game with the King, asking “What do you think of these priests, living off the bread of the Lord, never having to seek an actual livelihood, living a life of leisure while everyone else contributes to their welfare?” The Rabbi is actually denigrating the priesthood, but making it appear to be a harmless question.

But the king’s response probably surprises the malicious intent of the Rabbi, by answering, “Surely this is the highest degree of perfection a man can obtain, nothing surpassing it, except for the excellence of angels. Those that receive this right also expect to have the gift of prophecy, especially now that the Divine Presence is within them.” The King then says, “But pray, let me know what you have to tell me about the Karaites, for I see them very diligent in the their worship, more so than the Rabbanites.” The rest of the story explains how Rabbi Isaac changed the King’s viewpoints but clearly until that point it is proof that not only was Karaism alive and well in the lands of the Khazars but it would appear that a functioning priesthood was as well.

The Khazar Empire

The Khazar Empire

In Conclusion

This appears to be a good and logical point to end this chapter. The discourse between King and Rabbi makes a clear distinction between Karaites and Rabbanites and I believe I should leave that to the next chapter because although the Rabbanites choose to believe them made an effective argument as to why their feel their brand of Judaism is superior, they actually make the contrasting argument by not even recognizing what was said, choosing to ignore all the challenging statements by King Bulan.

Until the next Chapter

Have a Happy and Healthy Passover

Chag Sameach

Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana

Dr. Allen Goldenthal

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