Forget a Karaite Tipping Point, today I wonder whether Karaite Judaism will even survive another generation.
A rabbi affiliated with the Aish HaTorah movement once helped crystallize my thoughts on Jewish identity and continuity. He was speaking at a gathering of undergraduate brothers from Alpha Epsilon Pi, where I was the Director of Jewish Programming. The rabbi asked us how we would respond if one of our future daughters were to be teased for having red hair. Even though the attendees were (mostly) between 18-22 years old, we intuitively knew what to do. We’d tell her how her red hair made her unique. We’d find strong, red-headed role models. We’d make sure she knew that her red hair was beautiful. As the rabbi explained, “The answer is not to dye her hair.”
I could relate well to the Rabbi’s story. When I was a child, the Karaite Jews of America was observing its holidays – as Karaites did historically – in accordance with the new moon sightings in Israel. As a result, our holidays did not always coincide with the pre-calculated Rabbanite calendar. One of my most vivid childhood memories comes from elementary school, when I was explaining to my friends and teachers why I would be at school on “Yom Kippur” and how my (i.e., the Karaite/biblical) Yom Kippur fell on a different day. It was a formative part of my Jewish identity.
I even recall how on one Yom Kippur, members of the community were asked whether we should observe the holidays according to the pre-calculated Rabbanite calendar, because they were easier to plan for, or continue to follow the new moon calendar. Most of the discussion was in Arabic. Some of it was in English. But I only remember the words of one of the teenagers: “What’s the point of even being Karaite if you’re not going to follow it correctly.”
I think about those words often, because I believe that Karaite Judaism will never survive, and indeed there is no point for it to survive, if it is not – well – Karaite. And in truth, the issue of Karaism’s assimilation into Rabbanism repeats itself throughout much of Karaite Jewish history and is a contentious topic on many of the Karaite-related Facebook groups today.
I was reminded of this issue recently when I was at the 2012 Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Baltimore, MD. A young woman came up to the Karaite Jews of America booth and opened a conversation with me by explaining how interested she was in Karaite Judaism. She even had discussed certain Karaite practices with her parents. Then I mentioned how certain Karaite religious leaders use the term “Rabbi” when describing themselves. Her response was simple and beautiful: “Why would Karaites call themselves Rabbis?” As neutral as the title “Rabbi” sounds, it plainly denotes an adherence to the Rabbinic tradition. She was clearly disappointed.
I guess it’s a lesson that needs relearning throughout my life. When it comes to the survival of Karaite Judaism, the answer is not to dye our blue threads white.