Laying down the (Oral) law

Few people know that Karaites still exist, let alone that there is a community of 20,000 to 25,000 living in Israel today.

karaites 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
karaites 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a synagogue in a quiet area of Beersheba, a noticeboard encourages congregants to visit a Web site where they can become more involved in the community, an unexceptional sight in any shul. In the same room, framed biblical verses grace the walls. If not for the inconspicuous shoe-lined cubbyholes underneath the benches that line the small anteroom outside the sanctuary, one might easily mistake this for a traditional synagogue. As worshipers enter, they bow towards the ark, remove their shoes, wash their hands and proceed to the sanctuary, which contains beautiful carpets, but only a few chairs at the back (reserved for the elderly).
Shavuot 5767 Supplement
As in many synagogues, the women proceed to the balcony while men remain on the ground level. But as the hazan stands near the bima and leads the congregation, it becomes clear that to the vast majority of the world's Jews, at least, this is no ordinary house of worship. It is, rather, one of a handful of the world's active Karaite synagogues. Israel is now home to most of the world's Karaite Jews, who have been estranged from mainstream Judaism for centuries. Although most people concede that it is difficult to say exactly how many Karaites there are today, estimates put the population in Israel at approximately 20,000 to 25,000, accounting for the overwhelming majority of the approximately 30,000 Karaites in the world. Despite the fact that many people today might believe the terms "Karaite" and "Jew" to be mutually exclusive, they are not, and that is just one of the many prevalent misconceptions about the group. (Others are that they hang their tzitzit on walls, wear tefillin between their eyes and sit in total darkness on Shabbat.) Asked directly whether Karaites are Jews, Nehemia Gordon, an active Karaite in Jerusalem, declares "Absolutely. We're Jews first and Karaites second." If Gordon seems eager to clear up misconceptions, it is likely because he is constantly called on to do so. Frequently confused with the Samaritans, who still bring sacrifices on Mount Gezirim and who have a different Bible from the one that Karaites and rabbinic Jews use, Karaites consider themselves Jews and are considered by the Israel Rabbinate to be Jews as well. "There's a lot of confusion because of the Karaites in Eastern Europe. They became 'cultural Karaites' and rejected Judaism - and say that they're not Jews," explains Gordon. The great majority of Karaites come from Egypt, however, and Gordon asserts that "within Judaism, we accept the Karaite approach as opposed to the Orthodox or Conservative or Reform approach. But I must emphasize that we're first and foremost Jews," he repeats. Rabbi David Chayim Chelouche, the chief rabbi of Netanya, agrees. "A Karaite is a Jew," says Chelouche, who has written a great deal about the Karaites. "We accept them as Jews and every one of them who wishes to come back [to mainstream Judaism] we accept back. (There was once a question about whether Karaites needed to undergo a token circumcision in order to switch to rabbinic Judaism, but the rabbinate agrees today that it is not necessary.) He cautions, however, that the acceptance of Karaites as Jews should not be confused with acceptance of their practice of excluding the Oral Law. "A person cannot make his own Torah," he says. Although the Karaites accept all 24 books of the Bible as holy, they staunchly reject the divinity of the Oral Law (recorded in the Talmud) as well as the authority of the rabbis, and view many aspects of rabbinic Halacha as contradictory to the pshat, or plain meaning, of the Torah. "There are three main concepts that Karaite practice is based on," explains Rabbi Moshe Firrouz of the Karaite synagogue in Beersheba. "There is the written word of the Bible, logical interpretation, and tradition." Firrouz stresses that one is not allowed to make any sort of rule that contradicts the Torah, and if one gives an explanation for one of the passages, that explanation should not contradict any other part of the Torah either. Such interpretive methods allow for certain practices that raise eyebrows amongst rabbinic Jews, to say the least. For example, Karaites don't wear tefillin. They read the biblical passage from which that commandment is derived metaphorically and consider the wearing of tefillin to be an "over-literalization" on the part of the rabbis. Karaites also have no problem eating milk and meat together (granted that both the milk and the meat are kosher), as they reason that the passage that commands Jews "not to boil a kid in its mother's milk" is an explicit violation against a specific pagan fertility ritual practiced by the Canaanites, rather than a law encoding dietary practice. Personal interpretation however, does not mean that one need not consult with others who are more learned. In fact, both Gordon and Firrouz believe one should consult with as many people as possible where there is a question of uncertainty. One can take the advice of a hacham (an especially learned member of the community), but that advice is not binding and the hacham has to be able to prove his view from the Torah. Although it may seem that this burdens the individual with a great deal of responsibility, Firrouz says that "God doesn't want you to be Einstein, he wants you to open up the Torah and do what he commanded." According to his view, "Rabbinic Judaism has taken the responsibility away from the individual and given it to the rabbis. But you can't say on Judgment Day that the rabbi told me this or that - the responsibility is on the individual. Every person's decisions are on his head and that's why each person should read and try to understand the Torah." Firrouz says he has "no desire to start a fight with our rabbinate brothers" but readily cites many qualms with what he sees as rabbinic contraventions of the written law in the Bible on everything from Shabbat to the laws of nidda (family purity). NONE OF these issues is new, however. The debate between the rabbis and the Karaites stretches back at least as far as the ninth or 10th century when the Karaites began to distinguish themselves as a group, says Prof. Daniel J. Lasker, chair of the Goldstein-Goren Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University. Although Lasker maintains that despite various theories, "the exact origins of the Karaites remain a mystery." Karaites believe themselves to be the descendents of those who have remained the "true practitioners" of the law handed down to Moses at Sinai 3,500 years ago. The word "Karaite" itself comes from the Hebrew phrase bnei mikra ("followers of the scripture"). During the ninth and 10th centuries, Karaite and rabbinic Jews did not discriminate among one another sharply and they even married with one another freely, says Lasker. As time moved on, however, they did make a point of distinguishing themselves from one another in certain ways, perhaps the most interesting example being that of cholent. While Karaites believe that all food must be prepared before Shabbat begins and that no enjoyment may be derived from fires during the sabbath, the rabbis hold that it is possible to continue heating food under certain conditions. To emphasize the point that the Karaites are mistaken, it is especially prescribed in the Shulhan Aruch that one should eat cholent (which slow cooks until Shabbat lunch) on Shabbat. Says Gordon, "it says in the Shulhan Aruch that someone who doesn't eat cholent is suspected of being a Karaite." Those distinctions aside, says Lasker, "there was no real antagonism between the two groups until European Karaites renounced their Judaism in the 19th and 20th centuries and were not considered Jews by the czars or the Nazis." After the establishment of the State of Israel, many Karaites, most notably from Egypt, moved to Israel, settling in Ramle, Beersheba, Jerusalem, Ashdod and other areas. Today in Israel, Karaites enjoy a relatively undisturbed presence among their rabbinic neighbors. "In some ways, we have more rights than the Conservative or Reform movements," notes Gordon. "Karaite marriages are recognized by the State of Israel, whereas Conservative or Reform marriages are not. The marriages aren't recognized by the rabbinate, but we don't really care. They are recognized by the state." "There is a de-facto understanding that Karaite marriages and divorces are recognized," confirms Lasker, but he suggests that their situation is still slightly precarious due to the fact that any perception that they are trying to lure rabbinic Jews to Karaite beliefs is likely to be met with hostility. "Encouraging rabbinic Jews to become Karaites would not go over well with the rabbinic establishment here," he says. Although neither Gordon or Firrouz actively tries to attract rabbinic Jews to Karaism, they do encourage those who are interested to seek out information for themselves. They both cite the Karaite motto, "search well in the scripture and do not rely on anyone else's opinion," meaning that each individual has a responsibility to study scripture themselves and try to understand what the scripture wants him or her to do. Firrouz, who works in the computer science department at Ben-Gurion University, maintains a Web site in Hebrew,, which he claims has over 780 members and which receives thousands of hits per month. It contains everything on discussion forums on Karaite practices to a singles' corner. He lauds the fact that the Internet has made it easier for Karaites to connect with one another and for people to find reliable information about Karaite practices and beliefs. Gordon also maintains an English Web site,, where he provides detailed explanations for Karaite beliefs and links to other resources. Both men agree that the Karaite community is doing well and believe that it has a bright future ahead. "We have more young scholars coming and studying now," says Firrouz "and there is a great deal of interest - my Web site receives hits from Japan to Iran." So why, one might ask, if the Karaites are actually the descendents of an unbroken chain of true scriptural observance since Sinai, are their numbers so much lower those of rabbinic Jews? "How many followers you have has nothing to with how right you are," declares Firrouz. "[If you follow that logic], then you might come to the conclusion that the Chinese are the real chosen people of the world." As for the actual reason that may account for such a discrepancy, "pick your theory of choice" says Prof. Lasker. "Perhaps it was divine providence, or perhaps a case of a breakaway group that wasn't successful at recruiting a lot of people, or, more probably, it was simply a less flexible form of practice that didn't hold as much appeal as rabbinic Judaism. Despite the fact that many people view rabbinic Judaism as less flexible, it is quite flexible," he notes. As an example he cites the rabbinic eruv (fence), which allows people to carry objects on Shabbat within a restricted area as opposed to not at all. However the difference "could also be attributed to geographic and historical reasons," he adds. Whatever the truth may be, for the time being, there may be nothing new for rabbis and Karaites to discuss in the way of theology. Gordon points out that historically, the debate has gone on "ad nauseam," although he adds that while Karaite Jews are aware of the debate, most rabbinic Jews are not. At the very least, he concedes, "we can agree to disagree." Journey to the Promised Land If asked to picture a Karaite, it is not likely one would picture Nehemia Gordon. A tall, ginger-haired man in his 30s who sports casual clothing and the slight remnant of a Chicago accent, he hardly evokes the exoticism associated with the relatively small and oft-misunderstood branch of Jews known as the Karaites. He is, however, a member of the religious council of Universal Karaite Judaism, which represents the interests of the Karaite Community in Israel, as well as a member of the board of directors of the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City, which dates back to the 12th century. Unlike most of Israel's Karaites, however, he was not born into a Karaite family. Born the son of an Orthodox rabbi, Gordon, who holds a master's in biblical studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attended Jewish day schools in Chicago. He claims though, that even at a very young age, he had his doubts about rabbinic Judaism. "I studied the Torah, which is God's book and then I got to the Talmud and it says 'Rabbi Akiva says this' and 'Rabbi Meir' says this. I went to my teachers and I said, 'One is the word of God and one is the word of man; shouldn't we accept the word of God over the word of man?' And they said, 'No, that's horrible. You can't say such a thing - that's what the Karaites say!' And I said, 'Well, who are these Karaites?'" It was that questioning, says Gordon, that led him to further investigation and study and eventually to the conclusion that he himself was a Karaite. "I found that throughout history there have always been Jews who believed only in the Bible and not what the rabbis call 'the oral law' and I realized that I am a Karaite and this has been the path that I've been on ever since." It wasn't an easy path, however. Although Gordon realized that he identified as a Karaite, he wasn't even aware that other Karaites existed in the world. "I thought that perhaps I was the last or the first of a renewal," he says laughing. "My rabbi actually said to me that the Karaites had disappeared from the world, so if [I were to] follow down this path, it [would be] a dead end. And it wasn't until three or four years later that I actually met another Karaite descended from a long family of Karaites." From there, it was not long before his new identity led him to Israel. "It became obvious to me that I belong in America instead of Israel as much as a tiger belongs in the zoo as opposed to the wild," he says, adding that he sees "an inherent connection between worshiping the Jewish God and living in the land." Asked what it is like to be a Karaite Jew living in a Jewish state where the overwhelming majority of people consider themselves to belong to a tradition of rabbinic Judaism, he acknowledges that it can be difficult. "In some respects it's a challenge," he says. "It's a challenge in America to be a Jew and probably in that way it's a challenge to be a Karaite here. The reality is that we're a minority and we're living in a country dominated by Orthodox rabbis." For Karaite families, that can mean awkward moments around Hanukka, which they don't celebrate, as well as occasional inconvenience and even discrimination. Does the community face discrimination? "For sure," answers Gordon. "But it varies. Some people say - 'oh, that's interesting' and it doesn't make a difference and with others... there's discrimination. "One of the problems that arises is with the dates of holidays, he explains. "Sometimes the [Karaite] holidays are one or two days before or after the rabbinic holiday, so that can be a tense situation the first time somebody comes to their boss and says 'I have to take off this Sunday for Shavuot.' In America, it's not such a problem because they [non-Jews] don't know when Shavuot is. But here, people think they know when it is and so there can be a certain amount of discrimination that can go with that. And I know people who have lost their job because of that. But usually people are understanding and say 'OK, we know that you have a different approach and we can respect that.'" The religious freedom of Karaites is also recognized by the State of Israel, so theoretically, someone can be sued for making an employee come into work on such a day. Despite any challenges that he may face in practicing Karaism, however, Gordon maintains that he wouldn't have it any other way. "[Being a Karaite] means that I live my life according the written Torah, the original religion of the people of Israel given to us 3,500 years ago," he concludes. Seven weeks of Sundays Jews generally consider Shavuot to be a harvest holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah. Karaites do not accept the rabbinic theology that states that the Oral Torah (recorded in the Talmud) was handed down at Mount Sinai alongside the written Torah (an important tenet of rabbinic Judaism). Nor do they accept that Shavuot marked the historical date of the giving of the Torah. However, they do celebrate the holiday, albeit with a relatively significant difference in timing. While most Jews will be celebrating the giving of the Torah on May 23 of this year, Karaites will celebrate the holiday on Sunday, May 27. Because they interpret the biblical verse of Leviticus 23:15-16 - which states "And you shall count for you from the morrow after the day of rest [Shabbat]" - to mean the day after Shabbat (Sunday), rather than the day after the first day of Pessah, they always begin counting the Omer on the Sunday that falls during Pessah. Karaites therefore always celebrate Shavuot on a Sunday, rather than the rabbinic custom of celebrating 49 days from the second day of Pessah (or on the 6th of Sivan).