This Above All: To Thine Own Self Be True

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.

21 Comments

Filed under Aish HaTorah, Alpha Epsilon Pi, JFNA General Assembly, Karaite Rabbanite Relations, New Moon, Secular Karaism, What is Karaite Judaism

21 responses to “This Above All: To Thine Own Self Be True

  1. Zvi

    Perhaps we should look to the Samaritans to draw inspiration to resist the pull of Rabbinism; they surely have their own traditions, but they do not have this constant complex of inferiority that drives one to borrow customs off-and-on from the Rabbanites.

  2. Art Phillips

    Shalom Shaun Your article reminds me of the ten tribes of Israel, they were numerous compared to Judah,and look what happened to them , could the Karaite jews be the next Judah ? I think the karaite jews will be around for a long time,at least their philosiphy is biblical ,as far as their size , does that matter ?

    • Art Phillips

      Shalom shaun t hey had new moon watchers all through Israel, waiting for the new moon to show itself,but today do the karaite jews have lookouts from one end of Israel to the other ,the reason im asking is because there are new moon watching internet sites all through the internet,and every time they sight the new moon its always within the calculated jewish calender

  3. Sha'ul Bentsion

    Shawn: This is probably one of the most important things you’ve written. As a p’shatist Jew who is very fond of the Karaites, I would love nothing more than to see Karaites rid themselves from Rabbinic influence. For two reasons: First because I’m suspicious of many Rabbinic things (the Havdalah you mentioned is a good example), but also because of the things you wrote: One needs to have one’s own identity, otherwise one is at risk of looking like a mere copy. For example: I was never an Orthodox, and neither were any of my friends, but we always preferred going to Orthodox shuls because we always felt that Reform synagogues seemed like bad copies. Why settle for a copy when you have ample access to the original? This is particularly dangerous for those living in large Rabbinic areas. The more well-structured Rabbanite movement can be far too tempting for one not to fall prey of it. I can only hope your words will be taken very seriously, because they deserve nothing short of that. You are absolutely right in your concerns.

  4. Very well stated. In almost every Synagogue I have ever been too I was among the youngest in the room and one of the few with children. I further agree that if we do not make a sufficient departure from Rabbinical thought and adhere to our beliefs we will cease to exist. I also think a better dialogue with with our Rabbinical brethren is important. I took some heat, recently, in a Rabbinical Facebook forum for calling Kabbalah idolatry. While I could certainly have been more diplomatic, it is important for Rabbinical Jews to know our positions on things like that. With that said, a lot of Jews do not understand the difference between Torah and Talmud, or between Judaism and Kabbalah (a belief system foreign to Judaism).

    There are many layers build on Judaism in the Rabbinical practice and many Jews find it either very valuable or very overwhelming to peel back these layers and learn about the differences. We have a valuable role to play in the intra-Jewish conversation. In order to play that role we have to be confident in our own beliefs, practices, and identity.

  5. Ron Hefez

    Amen v Amen…
    Great stuff here guys!!! Keep it coming!!!

  6. Art Phillips

    Shalom Shaun I respect the karaite jews ,and they should do what they believe is right, but the new moon site is called Truth of Yahweh and they have been precise according to there sightings as far as it matching up to the calculated new moon calender,may YHWH be with you always . Shalom

    • Hi Art, I am sure this site is well-intentioned, but the new moon has to be seen in Israel. I don’t know why it is discussing sighting elsewhere.

      And it is entirely possible that the new moon would not have been seen in Israel but would have been seen west of Israel. This does mean we start a new month in Israel. The sighting needs to be in Israel. (as a general rule, if the moon is visible in a certain location, it will be visible everywhere west of that location on the same latitude.)

      • Zvi

        Shawn, more than half of Israeli Qaraites conduct themselves according to a calendar set by the consensus of many Qaraite Hakhamim of the UKJ according to moon sightings in lands other than Israel. So are you not being overly strict in expecting the diaspora Qaraites to start the month only according to moon sightings in Yisra’el?

        • Hi Zvi, I was simply explaining why the rabbanite calendar might match up to the calculations. But to answer your question: No. I don’t think it is overly strict. All religious Jews *know* (for the most part) that the sighting is supposed be in the Land of Israel, even if they don’t follow it.

        • I should also add that I am not speaking about what people should follow. That is a personal decision. I was just explaining the lay of the land – so to speak.

        • BTW, Zvi, Would you mind letting me know which organizations set their holidays by the new moon sighting outside of Israel? Thank you,

      • BTW, I guess I should have made clear that the reason the calculations are correct might be because the observations are being made in places west of the Land of Israel. In those circumstances, the calculation would be “wrong” in the Land of Israel (which the calculations are trying to approximate) but seem correct outside the Land of Israel.

        And thank you, Art and Zvi, for opening my mind to this (and the other comments). I will add this to my things to look into.

  7. Zvi

    Hi Shawn; sorry I am responding here because your response to my second comment has no reply link underneath it.

    I must take issue with your assertion that all religious Qaraite Jews are aware that the moon sightings need to be performed in the Land of Israel since I know enough about the Israeli Qaraites to establish this is factually incorrect. R. Moshe Dabbah, for example, told me this in explicit terms; as far as they are concerned nothing in the Miqra and no logical inference from its Text necessitates setting the calendar according to the sightings in Eres Yisra’el. If at least some UKJ Hakhamim/rabbis had not believed along these lines, their “renegade” calendar that does not follow the historical Qaraite principle we cherish would not have continued to exist.

    • No worries. (God willing one day we will have enough traffic here for me to justify some better commenting platforms.)

      Thank you for your thoughts. Let me think about this and perhaps you can help me think it through as well. I will also post this question to the biblical observance groups on Facebook.

      Have these Karaites ever expressed to you whether there is a textual connection between the Abib and the land of Israel? The Tuv Ta’am clearly states “Ha’Abib Hanimtza B’eretz Yisrael.” Interestingly, the Tuv Ta’am does not expressly state that the new moon must have been seen in Israel.

      And I actually misunderstood your point earlier about whether I was being too harsh. I thought your point was that Karaites in Israel don’t even follow it in Israel, rather than your point being that other communities follow it elsewhere.

      Finally, one fundamental issue in all this is that the Torah presupposes (I guess) that the Jews were entering the Land of Israel. So it is not crazy to think that after entering Israel, it is the new moon in Israel and not elsewhere that matters.

      And I guess, because I misunderstood your point, I was a bit tough.

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  9. My short comment to this issue:

    In Crimea each karaite male who completed the karaite religious school was entitled to use title Ribbi (it is alternative pronunciation of Rabbi, for example sephardim use to same pronunciation), person who got title Ribbi was after short examination and ceremony authorized for ritual slaughter.
    In european karaite texts is possible to find titles – Rav, Ribbi and Rabbi

    Hakham was in Europe the title connected with office of the supreme spiritual leader for a region (for example Crimea and Odessa).

    Rabbanites favour opinions of their Rabbis rather than words of Miqra, this fact is main source of their name, not usage of title Rabbi by their leaders.
    😉

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