The Karaites: A Medieval Jewish Sect

The Karaites, biblical fundamentalists, challenged the authority of rabbinic Judaism.

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Reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

As in the west, so in the east, the Jewish community entered the Middle Ages well equipped with spiritual authority and institu­tional organizations sanctioned by ancient texts and traditions. The central [rabbinic] current of Judaism continued to maintain and cultivate this heritage, but Judaism had other facets as well. New forces began to question the social institutions and fundamental dogmas of the rabbinical tradition. 

The Muslim conquest led to the emergence of two such forces, having more than one trait in common: Karaism and activist messianism. The Karaite "heresy" was to have a long history. Even today there are about seven thousand Karaites living in Israel, where they maintain their separateness by only marrying within their community. But it was only during the Middle Ages that they actually constituted an alternative to rabbinical Judaism.

 History of the Karaites

The Karaites are first mentioned in written sources in the late eighth century. They themselves claim to be descendants of dissident sects of the First Temple period, and the rabbinical tradition traces them back to opposition trends of the Second Temple period. Although no direct affiliation to any particular sect in ancient times has been proven, they could have borrowed some of their customs and forms of organization from certain Jewish sects in Persia. 

karaite shul

Karaite synagogue

The beginnings of Karaite activity are associated with the figure of Anan ben David--a learned and aristocratic man, probably belonging to a family of exilarchs, the leaders of Babylonian Jewry. His immediate followers were a small group of intellectuals who formulated the sect's tenets and preached them in Jewish centers throughout the caliphate, including Palestine. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Karaite communities were protected by eminent members of the sect who had reached influential positions in the ruler's court. Led by a nasi (prince) claiming Davidic lineage, the Karaites attracted many scholars of distinction in biblical exegesis, law, Hebrew lexicography, and philosophy.

The Karaite Challenge: Approaches and Customs

The best part of the Karaite intellectual effort was directed at proving the errors of the Rabbanites. Their critical acuteness and thorough knowledge of rabbinical doctrines ensured the high level of their polemics. And their religious attack was accompanied by bitter social criticism of the Jewish leadership, the exilarchs, the geonim (heads of the academies), and the dignitaries which surrounded them.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University