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Karaite History: Chapter 9

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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


Thus far we’ve talked about the When and a bit of the Why the Karaite Sect became established. But clearly it is time to get more into the ‘Who' and the ‘What’ that finally sealed the division between the two main sects of Judaism. The Where or location of these events as affected by the social environment was also pertinent as to the animosities finally coming to a head. What the founders saw as the essential flaws in the Rabbanite view of Judaism has not changed over the centuries and is responsible for the resurgence in Karaite Judaism today. Understanding what promoted those differences of opinions and realizing that Karaism was essential for Jewish survival is pertinent to our history.

The Babylonian Talmud

The Babylonian Talmud

By The Rivers Of Babylon

For the further evolution of Karaism, we look towards Babylonia which was rapidly becoming the center for Jewish life by the fourth century CE. The chief schools for Jewish education were found in Nahardea, Sora and Pumbeditha. Nahardea was a city on the banks of the canal that joined the Tigris and Euphrates rivers just north of Babylon. The school had been there since the time of the exile but it gained its real fame when a Babylonian Jew named Samuel had studied in Tiberias under Judah ha Nasi and then returned to Babylon to teach what he had been taught. It became a center for Rabbanite learning until 258 CE when the city was sacked by an enemy force, as the Sassanids displaced the Parthians, and the school in the ensuing battle was destroyed. Thereafter the school of Sora on the Euphrates gained in status with the loss of Nahardea, building its reputation on the fact that its most successful scholar was Abba Arekka who had also studied under Judah ha Nasi in Tiberias and was considered to be an expert in the Mishnah of the Talmud. Abba Arekka treated the Mishnah as if it was the primary authority and essentially the Law unto itself without need of the Torah. Revising, editing and publishing the Talmud, Abba Arekka released what was to be known as the Babylonian Talmud. With twenty Amora or teachers, the twelve hundred students were given their lessons orally, as if the oral tradition needed to be preserved, even though it had already been published in a written format. But the reputations of Sora was built on one man and when he died, the schools began to die as well until it completely disappeared in the fourth century. Perhaps Arekka should have reconsidered his stance on teaching only by oral transference, because it only mattered what he had to say and with his death no one else could prove exactly what Rabbi Arekka said because they never wrote it all down.

The school of Pumbeditha was also built along the canal joining the great rivers. It was under the guidance of Reb Judah ben Ezekiel, a man known to be a zealot for the Talmud and he ruled the school with an iron hand. As he became older, he immersed himself into the dark mysteries of Genesis, and can be essentially considered the father of kabbalah as he tried to make magical charms out of the letters of certain words from the book. The deeper he delved, the more absurd and ridiculous became his utterances and teachings but the hundreds of youths absorbed every word as if they had meaning because they came to believe that with the mastery of the words came the promise of power. Six of his teachers followed along the same path and one began writing what was to become the Midrash Rabboth. They swelled the writings in the Talmud with the gibberish of their mystical studies and the students flocked even more to the school in order to learn this new craft that essentially bordered on witchcraft. His followers claimed that the rector of Pumbeditha had now become even more respected and more illustrious than the Resh Gelutha, or Head of the Exile, a Davidic descendant that ruled over the community. Early estimates were that the school had grown to thirteen thousand students, eager to absorb the mastery of these mystical powers with which they could rule the world. Their studies had become so absurd that when the people would see a student from Pumbeditha walking on the street, they would say,”Here comes one of them from Pumbeditha, where they learn to drive a camel through the eye of a needle.”

The Mishnah Needs Its Own Commentary

The students were taught that focusing on the Mishnah was no longer an accepted means to understand the Torah. One might learn the Mishnah but on the essence of Jewish causation and spiritual understanding he would be deficient. Therefore, the Mishnah needed to be expounded upon by the Gemara in order to understand what was written it it, in the same manner that once it was said the Mishnah was necessary to explain the Torah. An explanation of an explanation, moving even further from the word of God. The Rabbis had fallen into the rabbit hole and were creating a never ending downward spiral that would change Judaism as it was intended forever. Even though it was often found that the Gemara contained numerous contradictions within itself, at which point the student was told to read the further commentaries, the answers always eluded them. When that failed, the student would be told that all would be clear when Elijah the Prophet returns, so not to worry and don’t ask so many questions. Elusive, evasive but never explaining, the mystery became more important than the actual question. But as the Sassanid Empire which included Babylon sank into a quagmire of barbarism due to the endless battling between its internal warring states, the same heathen practices among the Persians which included astrology, angel-worship, necromancy and even witchcraft were also absorbed into the Rabbanite religious practices due to its strong ties to mysticism that had now taken over their lives.

The Resistance

The Talmud as it now stood, published in 506 CE according to Elijah the Levite was to be considered a special science. One would first study the Torah at their junior levels in order to prepare them for the study of the Talmud. That was according to most scholars, the straw that broke the camel’s back, and a group of sober-minded and conscientious Jews united in their opposition to the school of Pumbeditha and although they did not actually call themselves Karaites, their calls to unite and return to the Torah certainly would have labeled them so on principle only.

Five books of Moses, the original Torah, had become thirteen huge volumes in very small print of the original Talmud when it was finally printed in an early edition in Venice. Prior to that every copy had to be hand written and there’s no telling how many volumes that may have been. But no sooner was the Babylonian Talmud published and ordered to be the primary instruction and authority for all teachers and official in the synagogues, then the great opposition finally manifested. The confused mass of writing that composed the Gemara was added to the central text of the Mishnah, thereby removing the Mosaic Law from being the central standard of the faith. When the Rabbis declared it to be complete, perfect and all that was necessary to be a Jew, that was too much for those that held God’s word to be superior to all others. As far as they were concerned, the Rabbis had declared war on the Almighty by regarding their own words to be superior.

18 Books Of The Talmud

18 Books Of The Talmud

Emperor Justinian

As strange as it may seem the one who appears to be most offended by the release of the Babylonian Talmud was the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople, ruling from 527 to 565 CE. His usually tolerant position on the Jews in his Empire was based on the fact that essentially they were to him no different from any other Helenistic society except that their religious practices had their basis in a history prior to the first century CE, thereby not denying the Christian religion or Christ but merely ending the extent of their historical beliefs and learning before his arrival. They merely needed time to expand and correct their education.

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As their services in their synagogues were all held in Greek, their worship and practices could be easily monitored and thus far there was nothing that deemed them to be offensive. But now with the enforcement of the Talmud in all synagogues around the known world, worship and study was to be conducted in Hebrew, which not only troubled the congregations who were not familiar with the languages but the Byzantine authorities as well who could no longer understand what was being said in these houses of worship. When the government did manage to translate the Talmud they found that the Rabbis had engaged in long, vicious, and insulting tirades against Jesus and Christianity. The Jews could be tolerated no longer; the rabbis had openly declared their enmity towards Chistiandom.

The main issue was that the Talmud began to be written when Christianity was still regarded as a threat within the Empire and the Rabbis thought it would be wise to put as much distance between Judaism and the practitioners of this despised infant religion known as Christians, or Nazoreans, or Minians, as possible. By denigrating it and making accusations against its founders they thought they would be securing their own safety within the Empire, never having the foresight to believe that it would one day become the state religion of the Empire. Their miscalculation now garnered them the enmity of the Emperor. The response from the throne was no longer to try and prove the truth behind Jesus and the Gospels with the hope that Jews would see the light, the focus was now on the day of crucifixion, pointing out how the sun was darkened on that day, and the veil of the Holy of Holies was rent, thus declaring that God had abandoned the Jewish people and therefore they were now the enemies of God. They had abandoned the Old Testament as well, replacing it with their own words in the Talmud, and so Christians would now become the protectors and upholders of the Old Testament.

Large numbers of Jews began to flee from the religion of their ancestors, knowing exactly what was about to happen as the persecutions increased in frequency and number. They recognized they had no power or weapons available to resist and since most of them had no interest at all in the Talmud, it was much easier to proclaim that Jesus was the messiah predicted by Isaiah and convert for their own safety. What the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans had not been successful in achieving, the Rabbanites had brought Judaism to the verge of extinction in the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Whereas, they still would remain safe in the Sassanid Empire for the time being, they had no idea that the rise of Islam was about to turn their world upside down in approximately a hundred years.

Adopting the Old Testament as their own, Christians made vigorous and constant use of the Law from God, citing the Prophets and Psalms as proof of their claim to inherit God’s love. Words written long before the appearance of the Mishnah, now being used to disprove all the Jew's later writings The phrase that became popular as Christians confronted these Rabbis was, “ Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?”

In Conclusion

What may have been a difference of opinion which supported the birth of Karaism, stretching from the days of Alexander Jannai, was now a rift created out of urgency. In order to survive the purges and conversion squads sent out by the Emperor, it was critical for those Jews that saw the errors of the Rabbanites to distance themselves immediately from the Talmud. What had begun as an argument over God’s authority was now quickly becoming a fight for survival. The next couple of hundred years would be crucial for the solidification and recognition of Karaite Judaism.

It’s ability to counteract the falsehoods and misguided intentions of the rabbis and their followers was so successful, that by the 10th century, it had become the predominant Jewish religion. How it managed to do so will be the focus of subsequent chapters.

Until next time

Shalom Aleichim

Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana

Dr. Allen Goldenthal

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