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The Origins of Karaite Judaism

By Shlomo Phillips © July 03, 2016 (latest update: July 27,2016)

         Judaism, the only biblically recognized religion, began at Mount Sinai when HaShem revealed His Torah to Moshe Rabbeinu. According to Karaism this was the origin of their sect because, they maintain, Karaism is the original form of Judaism revealed in the Torah. As a sect they began later of course, but as Jews they date to same point.

Karaites reject what they view as the Talmudic additions of the Rabbinate. They see the rabbis as elevating their Talmud above HaShem's Written Torah. Karaism relies solely on the authority of Torah as revealed through Moshe Rabbeinu; most also accept the rest of the Tanach or Hebrew Bible. Since the events at Mount Sinai are the origin of our holy religion, Karaism places their origin to circa 2480 HH (1280 BCE).

Both sects are the result of gradual developments within the community of Jews. Both sects believe they are continuing the original movement of Moshe Rabbeinu, and both may be considered correct when the historic evolution of Judaism is considered. Truth is, no one today practices our religion as was done back then. Judaism is not a static derech (way).

Neither of the sects are biblical literalists. Karaites seek to understand the Torah as people of the time period would have. Sometimes they interpret according to the literal words, such as with their Shabbat halacha, and sometimes they see the Scriptures more as metaphor, as with their views on tefillin and mezuzot. Likewise, the Rabbinate are sometimes literalists, as exampled by their wearing of tefillin and the placement of mezuzot, considered symbolic by Karaism, and sometimes they to view Scripture as metaphor, such as with their teachings regarding the separation of meat and dairy, which the Written Torah does not require, but may refer to with Talmudic interpretation. Both sects make many such interpretive determinations. Sometimes they agree, often they do not.

Such differences of interpretation led to the formation of the various Jewish sects and movements that arose during the centuries sandwiching the BCE and CE periods. The Sadducees (and their possible philosophical connection with later Karaism) is dated to this explosive period, as is Rabbinic Judaism and the many other historic Jewish sects like the Zealots, the Essene Brotherhood, etc.

"Karaism appears to have arisen from the confluence of various Jewish groups in Mesopotamia that rejected the Talmudic tradition as an innovation. Some suggest that the major impetus for the formation of Karaism was a reaction to the rise of Islam, which recognized Judaism as a fellow monotheistic faith, but claimed that it detracted from this Monotheism by deferring to rabbinical authority.

In the ninth century, Anan ben David and his followers absorbed sects, such the Isawites (followers of Abu Isa al-Isfahani), Yudghanites, and the remnants of the pre-Talmudic Sadducees and Boethusians. Anan led a polemic with the rabbinical establishment and later non-Ananist sects emerged, like the Ukbarites.

The dispute of the rabbinate Gaon Saadiah and the Karaites helped to consolidate the split between them.

Abraham Geiger posited a connection between the Karaites and the Sadducees based on comparison between Karaite and Sadducee Halacha...." (Source: New World Encylopedia, emphasis mine).
The Karaites and Pharisees (Rabbinic Jews) are still around. During the "Golden Age of Karaism" -- between the tenth and eleventh centuries C.E. -- according to historian Salo Wittmayer Baron, the number of Jews affiliating with Karaism was as high as 10 percent of world Jewry. Others argue that during this period nearly 40% of all Jews were Karaite. Regardless of percentages, this is no longer the case. Today the sect is very small. In Israel the Karaites are mainly concentrated in the cities of Ashdod and Ramla and number about 30,000. There are about 5,000 living elsewhere in the world, including around 2,000 in the United States. The sect is making a gradual come back however. On August 1, 2007, the Karaites converted their first new members in 500 years.

For many today Karaism is more of a Jewish methodology than an established faction, although there certainly are existing Karaite authorities. Karaites are the Bnei Mikra, the "Followers of Scripture." Today any Jew who accepts only the Tanach as inspired and authoritative may be referred to as a Karaite. Therefor the number of "Karaites" in the US is probably much higher than stated above. Although there are distinctive Karaite beliefs as will be discussed elsewhere, in practice, Karaism today is not hierarchical.

The God of Israel is One God and while His chosen people have always been given to debate, its not until the first century BCE that we find evidence of competing distinctive forms of Judaism. Various sources speak of two main opposing sects: the Sadducees (Zadokites) and the Pharisees (Rabbis). While modern Karaism has doctrinal differences with the Sadducees, both sects rejected the Oral Torah introduced by the Rabbinate. Doctrinally both relied solely on the Written Torah alone. This leads many to conclude that just as the Pharisees became the Rabbinate following the horrific events of 70 CE, so too the Sadducees became the Karaites. According to most Karaite scholars however, while some connections may have existed as mentioned above, a direct lineage is not probable or likely.

The Sadducees were not the only Jews that rejected the Oral Traditions. From the same Second Temple period we also learn of the Boethusians. This group rejected the Oral Torah and based their beliefs on the Written Torah alone as well. What we know of as Karaism arose from the same scripture based convictions, but not necessarily from the same objective sources. Another sect, the Essenes, added several books as revealed in the Dead Sea scrolls, so no connection is to be found there.

According to Josephus (Ant. 13:5-14), King Alexander Jannaeus was once officiating as cohen gadol (high priest) during Sukkot when a group of P'rushim (Pharisees/Rabbis) attacked him with large lemon-like fruit (probably citrons given the timing). Political tensions had been mounting for years. King Jannaeus responded to this insult by forming a deeper alliance with the Tz'dukim (Sadducees) and by having 'thousands of P'rushim' executed. The P'rushim (Pharisees) sought foreign aid from the Romans, but in the end innumerable Jews were executed for treason against the Hasmonean crown.

During this period the Pharisees were more political than religious. They opposed the Hasmonean wars of expansion and the forced conversions of the Idumeans (this position became an issue later concerning the Jewishness of King Herod) which alienated the Pharisees from many of those who were in power among the Jews.

In time the P'rushim demanded that Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus choose between being a political ruler (melech) or the high priest (cohen gadol). He was not qualified to be both by their estimation.

Offended by this demand, Jannaeus sided with the Tz'dukim (Sadducees) and empowered their authority in all matters pertaining to the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple). This move against the P'rushim sparked a riot in the Beit HaMikdash and a brief civil war.

The P'rushim faced persecution from the throne for a time, but king Alexander Jannaeus' days were numbered. He called for a reconciliation between the various factions prior to his death but it was too little too late to restore Jewish unity. We are called to be one people and yet we have remained fragmented ever since.

Here is an example of how the Sadducees, the Boethusians, and Karaites differ in their Torah interpretations from the Rabbinate. Torah says:

Deuteronomy 4:2 Do not add to the word which I command you, nor diminish from it, to observe the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.

When Karaites and like-minded Jews read this, they conclude that it is forbidden to add to the Jewish canon of study and divine authority. This is the clear and simple meaning. The Talmud etc. is excluded due to the "clear meaning" of such Torah passages. Conversely, Rashi, the great Rabbinic commentator, remarks:

Do not add: for instance, by inserting five sections into the tefillin [instead of four], by using five species for the [commandment of] lulav [on Succoth] instead of four], or by attaching five fringes [instead of four]. And so too, וְלֹא תִגְרְעוּ nor diminish [from it i.e., three instead of four].

Karaites do not lay tefillin as Deuteronomy 6:8 commands when read literally, however in places like this verse (Deuteronomy 4:2) they take it literally, while the Rabbinate seem to completely change the clear meaning of the text, "do not add nor subtract."

The difference comes from the acceptance or rejection of rabbinic authority. After the Babylonian exile rabbinic power grew and their followers granted them authority in all matters of the religion and beyond. The Karaites, Sadducees and Boethusians rejected that authority. They saw rabbinic authority as a new threat that was altering the original teachings of Torah and disempowering the Jewish people spiritually. Who is "correct" in this debate is a matter of personal opinion.

With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE all of the parties had to reform themselves. For the Sadducees this was especially difficult since their authority was directly related to and revealed through the Temple. The Rabbinate had been utilizing a series of local meeting places or synagogues (Greek) in addition to the Temple for a hundred year or so and thus the transition was easier for them. We find little written about the Sadducees in the post 70 CE period. As a ruling class, they ceased to exist. Some records about the Essene continuation do exist, but it appears to me that the sect was fundamentally altered from its original state and existed in name only.

With the rise of the Nicolaitan Church the records become uncertain, but we do know that non-Rabbinic Jewish sects continued to exist. In the seventh Century the rise of Islam substantially impacted the Christian and Jewish world. Since Muslims regarded the Jews as the People of the Book, they were granted special protections and opportunities by the growing caliphate. The Muslims were much more favorably disposed towards the Jews than were the Christians. Rabbinic Judaism prospered during this period and the authority of the rabbis as the leaders and representatives of the Jewish people was solidified. This was especially the case for those Jews who had remained in Babylon (Iraq). Their Babylonian Talmud gradually come to overshadow the Torah in importance. It was said that one can not understand the Torah without the Talmud, and so it became the central focus of Rabbinic Jewish education, not the Torah.

Not all Jews accepted the Babylonian (nor Jerusalem) Talmud however. Many Jews, especially in the East, rejected the Talmud and refused to embrace the rabbis as their leaders. This brought them into conflict with the Islamic rulers who were backing and becoming wealthy from the rabbis. Resistance groups, led by people such as Abu Isa al-Isfahani, openly rebelled. The authority of the Rabbis seemed unstoppable however.

By this point most Jews believed the rabbis were the continuation of the authority of Moshe, and they regarded all opposition to rabbinic authority as both heretical and potentially disastrous to the people. To people like the Karaites, it appeared that Rabbinic Judaism had successfully usurped the Torah-only traditions of their ancestors. Still many non-Rabbinics stood firm in their practice.

The Karaite Korner website describes how the original Torah-based Judaism was replaced by Talmudic Judaism. Modern Karaism may be dated to these events:

Then in the 8th century a last glimmer of hope appeared in the form of a shrewd leader named Anan ben David. Anan organized various non-Talmudic groups and lobbied the Caliphate to establish a second Exilarchate for those who refused to live according to the Talmud's man-made laws. The Muslims granted Anan and his followers the religious freedom to practice Judaism in the way of their ancestors. Anan himself was not a Karaite; although Anan rejected the Talmud he used similar irrational methods of interpreting Scripture as the Rabbis, such as intentionally taking words out of context. Anan's followers became known as Ananites and this group continued to exist down until the 10th century. On the other hand, those Jews who continued to practice the Tanach-based religion of their ancestors became known as Bnei Mikra ("Followers of Scripture") which was also abbreviated as Karaim ("Scripturalists"), in English "Karaites". This name derived from the old Hebrew word for the Hebrew Bible: Mikra, Kara. The name Karaim, meaning "Scripturalists", distinguished these Jews from the camp of the Rabbis who called themselves Rabaniyin ("Followers of the Rabbis") or Talmudiyin ("Followers of the Talmud").

Neither Karaism nor Rabbinic Judaism then is the original form of the religion. But then, Judaism has always been a living, changing organism. During the Exodus the Mishkan (Tent of Meeting) was the place where God dwelt and was to be worshipped. Once the Temple was constructed that became His Home and those wishing to sacrifice had to go there. After the Second Temple was destroyed God's Presence remained with His people throughout the Diaspora. His people have survived. Am Y'israel Chai!

Here is another good source of information on Karaism.

Sources considered:
Origins of Qaraism
The Karaite Jews of America
Karaite Korner
World Alliance of Qaraim

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