Karaites at the GA

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Our homepage this week features an article about the Karaites, a sect of Judaism that rejected the authority of the Talmud and served as a significant foil for the rabbis of the early Middle Ages.

It makes sense, therefore, that this article is in our Medieval History section. That is, it made sense until last week, when I met a representative of the Karaite Jewish University at the UJC General Assembly. The man (an affable gentleman whose name I’m forgetting) had a booth at the “Marketplace of Jewish Ideas,” where he handed out flyers for the “University” and a 48-page informational book called “As It Is Written: A Brief Case for Karaism.”

The material is fascinating, as is the KJU website and the website for their umbrella organization, Karaite Jews of America, which includes a FAQ with ritual tidbits like this literalist reading of kashrut:

The Issue with Milk and meat is very Simple, In the torah Abraham Cooked meat and Milk and offered them to the angel; From here we know that milk and meat are not prohibited.

But perhaps most fascinating is the fact that representatives of American Karaism were at the GA at all. It wouldn’t have been at all obvious to me that the GA would allow the Karaites to have a booth. Nothing is more “mainstream” or “establishment” than the GA, and back in the day, the Karaites were the ultimate “other.”

Sure, they’re not terribly threatening now, but in the 10th century the Karaites were exponentially more of a threat to Rabbinic Judaism than Jews for Jesus could ever be. In many ways, the Karaites were the prototypical Jewish heresy.

But this may be the point: this isn’t the 10th century and heresy isn’t something Jews speak about much today. The Karaites can be granted a presence at the GA because they’re not considered threatening, and aside from their small numbers, this may be attributable to the fact that they’re, fundamentally, a religious organization. As their literature says: “Karaites deny the supreme authority of the Talmud and other Rabbinic sources, as we view them as man-made additions to the word of Hashem.”

A lot of topics are discussed at the GA, but I can tell you, “the word of Hashem” is not one of them. Theology is largely a non-issue for the UJC bunch. And apparently, so are the Karaites.

Posted on November 21, 2006

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2 thoughts on “Karaites at the GA

  1. arielbeery@gmail.com

    Great point. I was very happy to see the Karaites represented. It is a bit of a myth within the Jewish community that the Karaites disappeared – in fact, as you point out, they were a very strong force at times, and that is the reason they were so strongly fought by the rabbinic establishment.

    I kinda feel Conservative Judaism could do well to learn from them.

  2. KJU_Student_Dean

    I write to reply to Daniel Septimus blog on Karaites at the GA. I write as one of the founders of Karaite Jewish University to comment on your post. The fact is that Karaite Judaism has continually existed from the middle ages until this day. Today, the largest demographic base within Karaite Judaism is represented by former Egyptian Jews who were expelled from Egypt, largely due to actions of a few Karaite Jews who spied on behalf of Israel. One of them, Dr. Marzouk, was honored posthumously by the Israeli Government with a stamp. There are 12 Karaite Synagogues in Israel in 11 communities with Ashdod, Ramle and Beersheva being amongst the largest. We send our son’s and daughters into the army to defend Israel and at our core base are strong zionists. We view ourselves as the most authentic and faithful remnant of Judaism that is capable of being observed today. Today, Karaite Judaism has a small, but growing number, of former Rabbinnic Jews who are electing to become Karaite Jews.

    Your treatment on Karaite Kashrut of meat and milk is an oversimplification. Hakham Nehemia Gordon gives a detailed treatment on the subject that can be heard at: http://www.karaite-korner.org/audio/biblical_kosher_low.mp3

    As to the GA allowing Karaite Jews at their meeting, I would like to point out that it has allowed Reform Jews, Humanist Jews, Reconstructionist Jews, Renewal Jews, etc. all of whose movements do not accept that the Torah was divinely authored.

    It was reported to me by Shawn Lichaa, the Dean of Academics of KJU, that we were generally well received. There were a few minor problems like one group who thought we were affiliated with Jews for Jesus and another who sought to have us don tefillin, which we view as a metaphor.

    In all it was a very positive experience for us and we will be back at the next GA in Nashville, TN with the help of God.

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