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Karaite History: Chapter 7

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


Welcome back to this exploration of Karaite history from its beginning, which I hope that it is now evident from the first six Chapters most likely originated around the time that Alexander Jannai was King over Israel at the end of the second century BCE. Now that is not to claim that Karaism was identical to being a Zadokite but instead an offshoot that developed its own identity over the next two hundred years as it confronted the dawn of Rabbanism. The House of Shammai was not Karaite either, although it obviously contributed to its belief structure and ancient Karaites did pay honour to Shammai. By the time the Rabbanites had set up their school in Tiberias, Karaism was already a force to be reckoned with. But the question that remains is what gave that final push over the edge where Karaism could no longer tolerate its Rabbanite brethren, and the answer is quite simple, the Talmud’s intolerant view of women.

The Jerusalem Talmud

The Jerusalem Talmud

The Resistance

As we discussed the betrayal of Hillel II in the last chapter, with what was tantamount to his conversion to Christianity, it was evident to those that were Karaite that other than being Jews, they bore little else in common when it came to beliefs. It was a time when Constantine the Great was already promulgating the first decrees against Judaism, and rather than take a strong stance against the Emperor’s edicts, this Hillel was still promoting closer ties with his friend the Bishop and letting the school in Tiberias fall into a state of irremediable decay. The so called ‘Mishnah’ which was to be a fence of protection surrounding the sacred books of the Law, was instead given pre-eminence above the Law, providing even more ammunition to those opposed to Judaism by pointing out they didn’t even follow their own teachings as given to them by God. While Hillel II was revising the Jewish calendar, fixing the Holy Days to occur relatively at the same time of the Christian Holy Days, which he believed was the more correct system of calculation, as President of the Sanhedrin, he didn’t even look to take a vote of the council, instead sending out an edict to all synagogues that this is the way it was going to be from then on.

What he did not account for was the multitude of Jews that would oppose this decision, refusing to recognize the Sanhedrin’s right to supersede the explicit directions in the Torah for establishing the new moon and festivals. They refused to depart from the letter of the Law. But was that enough to be open revolt and declare themselves to be an entirely different sect from the Rabbanites. They were obviously large enough in numbers in the various towns and villages to keep the festivals and observe the beginning of the year and the months without regard to the opposition that would be raised by the Rabbanites. But there had to be something more to push them over that proverbial edge. Some will point to this time of resistance around 360 CE as the birthing of the Karaites but the fact that they were already in sufficient numbers to openly oppose the Rabbanites and the Sanhedrin meant they were organized and had their own houses of worship to sustain them. And the calendar practices that they followed then are identical to the ones adhered to now by Karaites. Certainly they opposed the Mishnah, which in the Jerusalem Talmud had only four orders: Zeraim (Seeds), Moid (Feasts), Nashim (Women), and Nezikin (Injuries) and a few chapters entitled Niddah (Impurity), as compared to the Babylonian Talmud which was introduced later with its six chapters, yet there had to be more to create a rift so deep that even two thousand years later it can’t be repaired. I personally believe the revolt was led by the Karate women. Those descendants of Eve that said in Karaite lore that God chose a rib not because woman was less than a full man but as an indication that she would always be standing there alongside man as his equal and his partner. It was a metaphor and could have just as easily been a hip bone. If that was the case we would say in our own vernacular that men and women were joined at the hip, indicating they were inseparable and always together as equals. It just happened that God used a rib as his metaphor.

The Order Nashim (Women)

It was not only the calendar which aroused the angst and resistance of the early Karaites but I believe first and foremost it was the entire attitude of the Rabbanites towards women in general as indicated in the Order of Nashim in the Talmud as well as the reference to Niddah, which although the title would suggest the numerous impurities in the world ranging from food, or disease but sadly, that was not the case. As far as the Rabbis in Israel were concerned, the only impurity was women in their menstrual period and they decided they were the authoritarian group most qualified to write about it. Karaites, on the other hand, have always held women in the highest respect and regard. The Babylonian Talmud did attempt to obscure the Rabbinical disgust for women by expanding the 6th order to include all those other matters, such as daily hygiene, disease, etc, but it still cannot hide the fact that those writing the initial Talmud only saw one impurity in the world they lived in and that was women and their normal physiological cycle.

Women have always had equal status to men in Karaism. When the Torah commanded that the entire nation come to hear the Torah read at the public reading on Sukkot every seventh year, Karaites point out that it explicitly mentioned that both men and women were required to come and learn the Torah. This meant that women have an equal obligation to keep the commandments and study the Tanach. Yes, there are some laws that apply specifically to men (such as circumcision) just as there are some laws that apply specifically to women (such as laws regarding menstruation) but these were all contained in the Torah and didn’t require a bunch of old men to use this as an opportunity to denigrate women and say how impure they were. As evidence of women having equal standing and participation in prayer services and as spiritual leaders one merely has to look to 10th century Spain, where the leader of the prominent and powerful Karaite community was a woman referred to as "The Teacher" [al-Mualema]. Until the latter half of the 20th Century, the Rabbanites had never had a woman in any sort of religious leadership role.

But to appreciate just how different the Karaite view of women was and is, one must first examine what the Rabbanites have written in their Jerusalem Talmud concerning women. When one actually reads and understands what these old decrepit men are saying, then you will completely understand why as Karaites, we cannot tolerate their teachings which they claim to be the true words of the Almighty God. One merely has to look at the chapters in this 3rd order of the Jerusalem Talmud to see exactly what the attitude towards women were. It is clearly one of contempt and a clear indication that a woman was considered subservient to man. The first tractate considered the Levirite marriage, the practice that the widow of a man must marry his brother if she had no children by her husband. If she wanted to inherit, then she had no choice in the matter. The second tractate was supposed to be the writing of the marriage contract, in other words, what would be her dowry in order to seal the marriage. The third tractate concerned honoring vows and in this one sided view of how marriage works it only concerns itself with men making vows as if women could never be trusted. The fourth tractate concerned Nazarites, who were men that made a vow to never cut their hair like Samson. It makes mention of how these men thought themselves beauteous and therefore may have been included as some distorted thinking of a woman’s vanity. The fifth tractate dealt only with her infidelity, real or suspected, and at no time was the man considered to be capable of infidelity. The woman was always the guilty party. The next tractate provided the details on how easy a man could divorce his wife and expel her from his house. All it took was a letter. While the 7th tractate on espousal was a guideline basically of how parents could sign away their daughter’s future when only a young child for a cheap price. As little as a prutah they mention which would be about a penny’s worth.

But rather than take my word for it, let’s look at the exact wording used by the Rabbis when they wrote these heinous and terrible tracts to subjugate women.


Tractate Niddah (Impurities)

Although Niddah was almost entirely about a woman’s menstrual period, these purveyors of righteousness do provide us with a few good laughs a well. We can imagine this group of rabbis, sitting around the table, drinking their wine and spewing out absolute trash as they decide how the Jewish population should behave. Here’s just a few of the gems they came up with and why as a Karaite, I find it hard to look these religious teachers in the eye and not start laughing.

In Niddah 17a “Rav Hisda ruled: A man is forbidden to perform his marital duty in the daytime, for it is said, ‘And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ (Leviticus 19:18). But what is the proof? Abaye replied: He might observe something repulsive in her, and she would thereby become loathsome to him.” In other words, only make love to your wife in the dark in case she’s ugly and you become repulsed by her. Furthermore, keep her face covered up at all times in order to have a happy sex life.

Gittin 70a

“Three things enfeeble a man’s body, namely, to eat standing, to drink standing, and to have marital intercourse in a standing position.” This is again a suggestion that you should have sex but don't ever try to enjoy it. The audacity of these lecherous old men to preach how a couple should behave in the privacy of their bedroom was beyond reproach.

Niddah 13b

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“It was taught at the school of Rabbi Ishmael, ‘Thou shall not commit adultery’ implies, Thou shall not practice masturbation either with hand or with foot.” I have no idea how one does it with their feet. At some sometime I would like one of these Rabbis to demonstrate because I believe most of them only experienced sexual activity in their minds, far from reality. I just can't picture it.

But what did these so-called wise men really think of woman. For that I will pull a story from the Babylonian Talmud written as tractate Berakhot 51b, where the Palestinian sage Ulla explained his refusal to allow Yalta, a prominent Jewish woman in the Babylonian community, to participate in sharing the cup of benediction that concludes the recitation of grace after a meal on the grounds that the blessing did not apply to her. Why would he not let her share in God’s grace? Because of her passive role in reproduction. His statement, attributed to Rabbi Johanan, that “the fruit of a woman’s body is blessed only from the fruit of a man’s body.” How he knew she was passive probably was an interesting story in itself that should have been pursued, but it certainly was his way of indicating that a woman’s role in the procreation process is secondary.

Tractate 1: Yevamot (The Levirite Marriage)

Yevamot 2a: The levirite marriage is described in the Torah and at the time Moses wrote it down as a way of ensuring a man’s legacy was not lost from Israel while at the same time ensuring that the widow was taken care of and not abandoned. In this way any children she bore by the brother would be considered as the heirs of the dead husband and would obtain their full inheritance as well as the wife would hold on to all the possessions she had obtained through her first husband. It was designed with the care of the widow foremost and ensuring that what would or should have been her husbands fair share remains in his name and descendants that will bear his name. The law was about compassion, consideration, of gestures of good will, and protection of the parties involved. But by the times the Rabbis had distorted it, compassion certainly wasn’t a word that suited it any longer.

The Rabbis debated this law and wrote down what they believed God really meant, deciding that there were fifteen categories of women that by marrying the brother would have constituted familial relations and were therefore forbidden to take part in a Levirite marriage as it would be considered incestuous. This exempted her from the marriage but they did not make any decision as to her right to inherit and keep what rightfully belonged to her dead husband. Those that were excluded from the Levirite marriage included the daughter of the son or daughter of the current wife of the brother, or the mother-in-law of the brother, or the brother’s mother-in-law’s mother, or his father-in-law’s mother. The list also included the maternal half sister of the brother, or the sister of his mother, or his wife’s sister. Or if she was the wife of his maternal half brother, and after this brother died or divorced his wife, she married another of his father’s brothers, who was not her relative, and this brother died, then she was exempt from the Levirite marriage. But what the rabbis failed to say in all these cases of exclusion, what was the woman’s status. Would she inherit, or could she keep what her husband or his family had given her. If she lived in the family home as was often the case in those days, was she to be tossed out into the street?

Her only safety net would be to find another husband, but what if she couldn’t? Does that mean she should not be entitled to any of the property that her dead husband would have inherited had he lived? The rabbis failed to give that any consideration even though the biblical story regarding the inheritance by the five daughters of Zelophehad was the fundamental reason behind this arrangement. Moses ordained that the rights of a woman to inherit should be no less than if the man had a son. Should the wife of a man’s son who dies without heirs be treated any different? A Kariate would say no.

Yevamot 6:6 also rules that “If a man took a wife and lived with her for ten years and she bore no child, then he was not permitted to abstain any longer from his duty of propagation.” How he was to do that was clearly outlined in Yevamot 8:5, where the man in this situation must divorce his wife and return her marriage settlement to her. At least they were considerate enought to say that since there was no proof that their infertility was the divorced wife’s fault, then in Yevamot 8:6 the woman may marry again. First they ruin her life and then give her permission to marry again.

In Yevamot 6:6 the Rabbis ruled that “If he divorced her, she is permitted to marry another and the second husband may also live with her but for no more than ten years without offspring.” A childless woman who does not become pregnant during ten years of her second marriage is presumed to be barren and must once again be divorced. But fortunately by the time the Babylonian Talmud was written they softened their stand and in Yevamot 65a wrote that she may marry again only if her third husband already had children from a previous union. This cruelty, condemning a barren woman to die alone and most likely impoverished is shameful and the Karaites call it exactly what it is, ‘intolerable and disgusting!’

But not wishing to offend those in the community that wished only to have a trophy wife, the Rabbis took into consideration this matter and wrote in Rabbah 45:4: Rabbi Huna and Rabbi Jeremiah in the name of Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba said about their choosing to be childless: “So that they might pass the greater parts of their life untrammeled.” Rabbi Huna, Rabbi Idi, and Rabbi Avin in Rabbi Meir’s name in trying to explain further why a man would want his wife to be without child: “So that their husbands might derive pleasure from them, for when a woman is with child she is disfigured and lacks grace.” Obviously this is how they viewed the sight of a pregnant women. It was their right to make her this way, to rid themselves of her if she couldn't get pregnant, but they found it hard to love her disfigurement if they were successful. Their hypocrisy and prejudice is unbelievable.

In Conclusion:

It was not my intent to overwhelm you with the evidence of how the rabbis viewed the status of womanhood but instead to provide you with one of the major reasons that Karaism had no other choice but to break away from what is now considered mainstream Judaism. The problem is that there's just so much that these Rabbis have written that no descent person could abide that it is overwhelming. I’ve only scratched the surface and discussed thus far only one tractate under the Order of Woman in the Talmud. I need to give you, the reader, time to digest what I have written and understand the antipathy that arose between Karaite and Rabbanite as a result of their intolerable attitude. As I began my Talmudic studies at Eitz Chaim, pressured by my teachers to continue on into the Yeshiva, they could not understand how much I began to loathe them for what I was being forced to learn. They would always have an excuse when I challenged them. “Oh, that was then, this is now,” they would say. But why then were we still learning these ancient tractates that went against everything a civilized person should practice if they didn't believe it was still relevant. I didn’t fully understand my ancestral Karaite heritage at that time. I didn’t know why my third great grandfather rebelled against the community in Brody that sent him to Leipzig to study to be a chief Rabbi, only to take their money and enroll himself in the State university to study languages. But it was certainly dawning on me quickly that he had the right idea and made the right decision. We’ve only touched on the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to explore the attitude of the Rabbanites towards women. Yes, they may say they don’t practice these rules any longer, but if not, what does it say about the Talmud? That it was a lie? That it was never the word of God? That Karaism was in the right all along? I think it says all of these and more. If you did not think their attitude towards women could get any worse, then I invite you to return and read the next chapter in about a week. And if you want to read about their worst offender, a man who treated women as nothing more than sexual objects to be toyed with, yet they worship him as their greatest spiritual leader, the true founder of Rabbanite Judaism, then I invite you to read my book, Beneath A Falling Star, available from Amazon, worldwide.

Until we meet again,

Shalom Aleichim

Dr. Allen Goldenthal/Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana

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