Early this month, a small group of Karaites gathered in America’s only Karaite synagogue, located in Daly, North California, to induct fourteen non-Jews garnered from the four corners of earth into their dying organization. Is this a sign of revival or the last convulsion of a dying man? Probably the latter! Once a major threat to Torah-true Judaism, the Karaites now number about 30,000 worldwide and are probably headed for extinction.
ANAN INVENTS A NEW SECT
When did this sect begin? Most Rishonim agree that it began in the generation before Rav Saadyah Gaon, during the early years of Muslim conquest. The Reish Galusa had passed away in about 4520/760, leaving behind his two closest relatives, Anan ben David and the younger Yoshiyahu. Although Anan was fi rst in line for succession, because of his lack of yiras Shamayim and brazenness, Geonim and communal leaders selected the younger Yoshiyahu to be next Reish Galusa and their decision was sanctioned by the caliph of Baghdad.
Furious at his rejection, Anan ben David had his followers proclaim him Reish Galusa. The Baghdad caliph, King Al Mansur, regarded this as an act of rebellion and hurled Anan into prison. Fortunately for Anan, one of his fellow jailbirds was a person ideally suited to getting him off the hook – the major Muslim scholar and judicial expert of the time, Abu Chanifa. What was he doing behind lock and key?
King Al Mansur had offered Abu Chanifa the position of chief state justice and he had declined the offer, arguing that he regarded himself unfi t for the position.
“You are lying,” the king shouted. “Everyone knows that you are one of the most brilliant men in my kingdom! How can you turn down my offer?”
“If I am lying,” replied Abu Chanifa, “my refusal to be chief judge is doubly correct, for how can you appoint a liar to such an exalted post?”
Furious at Abu Chanifa’s brazen reply, the king threw the scholar into jail and he rotted there until his death. However, this historical quirk enabled Anan to get the best legal council, free of charge, and he certainly needed it, as the caliph had ordered Anan to be executed on the coming Friday unless he came up with a good excuse for his insubordination.
“I’ll tell you what to do,” the wily Abu Chanifa advised Anan. “Your crime is your attempt to usurp the leadership of the Jewish community. What you must do is start a new religious sect. Interpret your Torah’s laws in a new way that confl icts with the rabbis. Then, during your trial, tell the caliph that you were not being insubordinate by setting yourself up as Reish Galusa because you and your followers belong to a totally different sect.”
This would not have been unusual at this time when new sects and religions were springing up like mushrooms. Even Islam was in the process of splitting into its two main groups, the Sunnis, who follow an oral tradition that slightly mellows the Koran’s fanatical ravings, and the Shiites, who follow nothing but the madness of the written Koran.
Following this advice, Anan created a new sect comprised of “every evil, rebellious person who remained from the cult of Tzadok and Baisus” (Raavad), which the caliph acknowledged as a separate group. This action breathed new life into a philosophy that had fi rst sprung up in the days of the Mikdash Sheini when the Tzedukim (Sadducees) denied the Oral Torah, claiming that the sole guide to a Jew’s life is the Written Torah. Thus, Anan’s Sefer HaMitzvos, in which he lays out the laws of his new creed, borrowed Tzeduki ideas, such as burning no lights in one’s home on Shabbos and always celebrating Shavuos on a Sunday.
As the Raavad states, “He wrote books, established talmidim, and invented evil laws and statutes with which one cannot live. Since after Churban HaBayis, the Tzedukim had diminished until Anan came and strengthened them” (Sefer HaKabbalah). Anan also invented strange new rules for deriving laws from the Torah, such as creating gezeirah shavahs (a method of deducing Torah laws through the comparison of words in different contexts only based on received tradition) from single letters, even proving that Jews are supposed to fast for seventy days from the 13th of Nissan until the 23rd of Sivan, eating or drinking nothing during daylight hours. As he told his followers, “Leave the way of the Mishnah and Talmud and I will make you a Talmud of my own” (Rav Natronai Gaon).
These personal innovations of his caused later generations of Tzedukim to reject his system in disgust, as they preferred to rely more on the written text. For example, Binyamin the Gaondi instructed every individual to understand the Torah according to his own understanding, to the extent that a brother could contradict a brother, a son his father, and a disciple his teacher, and no one could object, “Why are you contradicting me?” Nevertheless, even he drew heavily on Talmudic teachings.
Officially, Karaites tried to derive everything from the plain pshat of the Torah’s verses, a task they eventually realized is virtually impossible, as most verses can be understood in many different ways. As a Karaite, Yaakov the Corsican said in the time of Rav Saadyah Gaon, “No two Karaites have the same opinion; every Karaite has a different opinion.”
Because of this problem, many of them, in particular Egyptian Karaites, developed a collection of customs known as “Sevel HaYerushah,” de facto ending up with their own “Oral Torah” largely based on a plain reading of the texts.
THE KUZARI’S OPINION
Some Rishonim state that the Karaite cult began not in the days of the Geonim but in the days of Bayis Sheini, when King Yanai killed all the chachamim. For example, Rav Yehudah HaLevi writes in the Kuzari:
“After them were Yehudah ben Tabai, Shimon ben Shetach, and their colleagues. In his day, the cult of the Kara’im originated as a result of what Yanai did to the chachamim. Yanai was a kohen and there was a suspicion that his mother was a challal [a woman to whom a kohen is forbidden to be married]. One of the chachamim hinted at this by saying, ‘King Yanai, the crown [of royalty] is enough for you. Leave the crown of kehunah for the seed of Aharon.’
“Then Yanai’s friends advised him to persecute the chachamim, degrade them, exile them, and kill them. However, he asked his friend, ‘If I destroy the chachamim, who will teach us Torah?’ To this he answered, ‘Behold, the Written Torah is rolled up and rests in the corner; whoever wants to learn can come and learn.’”
The Gemara says that at this moment Yanai was infl uenced by heresy, as he should have answered, “But how will the Oral Torah be perpetuated?”
When Yanai discovered that it was impossible to understand Torah without the chachamim, he brought back Shimon ben Shetach and most of his talmidim from Alexandria. However, in the meantime, the Karaites had sprung up. As the Kuzari continues:
“The Karaites who had taken root at that time were people who rejected the Oral Torah and argued against it with arguments like those you fi nd in Karaites of our time.
One should distinguish between them and the Tzedukim and Baisusim, who are people who deny the World to Come, and they are the minim that we pray for their destruction in the Shemoneh Esrei. Concerning Yeshu and his companions, they are the apostates who joined the cult that immerses in the Jordan. But the Karaites acknowledged the roots of the Torah, only they argued about the branches. It is possible that this caused damage to the roots, but this was through ignorance and not with intent” (Kuzari, Ma’amar 3, Chap. 65).
As the centuries rolled on, the Karaites increased their numbers and spread from country to country, resulting in the proliferation of controversy. Their greatest opponent was Rav Saadyah Gaon, who weakened, but could not destroy, the growing movement that reached its so-called Golden Age between the tenth and eleventh centuries. During this time, they produced hundreds of books, most of them lost except for tiny scraps in the Cairo Genizah. During this Golden Age, large numbers of Karaites penetrated Spain, where prominent Jews, including Rav Todros HaLevi, drove them out with royal support.
When the Rambam arrived in Egypt, he discovered that Karaite customs were beginning to infi ltrate the Torah community. He fought so successfully against them that many of the Karaites returned to true Torah beliefs.
In Hilchos Mamrim (3), the Rambam gives a ruling that may have contributed to Middle Eastern Karaites not totally drifting away from the Torah. He writes that although the Karaites’ beliefs are absolute apikorsus, there is a mitigating factor: “Someone who does not acknowledge the Oral Torah … is included among the apikorsim. … When is this said? When a person denied the Oral Torah with his intellect and through things that seem [logical] to him and went after his weak mind and the desires of his heart and was the fi rst to deny the Oral Torah, and all who strayed after him.
“But the sons of these who strayed and their grandsons whose fathers drove them away and were born among the heretics and they raised them according to their opinion, these are like a baby who was captured by them and they raised him. … Therefore, it is fi tting to return them in repentance and to draw them with words of peace until they return to the strength of the Torah.”
The Radva”z writes that the Rambam is being melamed z’chus on the Karaites of his day. (However the Radva”z adds that the Karaites of his own day are to be considered full-fl edged heretics.)
Following this ruling, some authorities advocated teaching Karaites Torah in order to enlighten them with the truth. Other authorities forbade it.
A NEW NATION
During the nineteenth century, an Eastern European Karaite, Avraham Firkovich, widened the difference between Karaites and the Jewish people further by claiming that Karaites had lived there since before the Churban HaBayis and were thus not guilty of killing the founder of the Russian religion. In his fi ght to gain the Karaites equal rights, Firkovich fooled the czar into believing they had been in Russia for millennia by forging ancient Crimean tombstone inscriptions to make it appear as if they marked the burial sites of Jews from the Ten Lost Tribes. This ploy saved Karaites from Nazi persecution during World War II.
The large Karaite population in Egypt still remained attached to the Jewish people to such an extent that one of them, Moshe Marzouk, participated in the Lavon Affair of 5714/1954, a bizarre Israeli plot to disrupt Egyptian society by exploding incendiary devices in public buildings.
Despite the strong objections of chareidim and the Israeli Rabbinate, Israel imported the Egyptian Karaites in the 5710s/1950s and their 20,000 members. Living in Ramle, Ashdod, and Beersheva, they constitute the largest Karaite community in the world. Another 10,000 of them migrated to the United States, resulting in a total population of over 30,000. Most Karaites are not particularly observant and it is probable that they will gradually assimilate into their host societies. In Israel, for example, marriage between nonobservant Israelis and Karaites is on the rise. Thus ends a centuries-old battle started by the foolish vanity of one man.