Avi Garelick

The Idea of Karaism: A Provocation to Rabbinical Judaism


Read afterthoughts to this piece from Rico Altman Merino.

Karaism emerged in the 8th and 9th centuries in Baghdad as a conglomeration of Jewish anti-Rabbinite groups. From the 10th to the 12th century, the Karaite community flourished, economically and culturally, throughout the Muslim world, and above all in Israel. In these years it was both a demographic and an ideological threat to the hegemony of Rabbinism over Judaism, and the literature of both sects reflects this rivalry. But maybe you have been told about the Karaites before. Maybe there are certain things which you already know.

That is: Karaites hang fringes on their walls. They sit in the cold and dark on the sabbath day. And they wear phylacteries on the bridge of their nose; many have perished through the consequent impairment of their vision. What fools! But above all, the Karaites, having repudiated our traditions, think it sufficient to open up the Bible, as though it were a car manual, and derive their practice through its literal meaning!

Behold and beware those who have rejected the wisdom of tradition, our myths intone—thereby deflating such a wayward impulse. Behold the wilderness beyond Rabbinical authority! Yet these myths conceal, and even transmit, a provocation to contemporary Judaism. Karaism does to the doctrine police what the other great heresies, Christianity and Reform Judaism, cannot do, because they reject the law outright. Karaism, in contrast, remains closely bound to the law, while still posing a threat to the tradition.

To elucidate Karaism’s peculiar and provocative relation to law, it is helpful to distinguish two basic modes of reading an authoritative text. The first entails identification with the circumstances in which the text was written, and requires the assumption that the text as it stands is pertinent to your life. You would read, for instance, a course syllabus in this way. It was written for its term; its instructions anticipate their context and therefore your actions should correspond in a direct way to its specifications.

The second mode of reading is one of distance. The text speaks to and from a context radically distinct from yours. However, it is still your authoritative text; you demand of it that from its distance it address you as well. Though its instructions bind you, you must answer to the exigencies of your own situation. This doubling of address and of reply produces at least two possible sources of conflict between its imperative and your response: between the original idiom and later comprehension, and between ancient instruction and a new context for action. The second mode of reading is an enterprise of ventriloquism designed to mediate these contradictions.

Karaites and Rabbis alike find themselves in this latter situation, bound to a text written for the people of ancient Israel; and so both are engaged in this second mode of reading. Rabbis, for their part, respond to the strangeness of the written Torah by diffusing its authority across subsequent generations: each successive crop of scholars must answer to each of those that came before it. The previous generations had a closer relationship to revealed truth, and serve as intercessors between the present and the original imperative. However, this technique for mitigating the strangeness of scripture also multiplies it: the interpreter now must answer to a bewildering litany of strangenesses, each alien to the rest.

Karaism rejects this cacophony and boldly begins again. Whereas the Rabbis entangle the law in a proliferation of textual strangeness and exegetical responsibilities, the Karaites cut away this invasive growth and tackle the strangeness of scripture directly and openly. In constructing an unmediated, transparent relationship between scripture and the present, they repair the Rabbinical severance of law from scripture. Karaism can even be defined this way: as life animated directly by a scriptural hermeneutic of law. But what exactly this directness entails is not yet clear. And moreover, it is obvious that unmediated access to scriptural authority entails political and social complications: the authority of individual reason must be tempered by a commitment to a practicable communal law. How, exactly, do these many valences of social and individual interpretation overlap? To present a provocation to contemporary Judaism, it will be necessary to make the figure of Karaism appear more precisely.

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What is meant by “directness”? The Karaites are not, as they are sometimes reputed to be, naive enough to believe in the integrity of an uncompromisingly literal reading of scripture. It is true that Karaite exegetes often write in terms of a literal understanding, but what is meant by this designation is more accurately a plain understanding. Rabbinic exegesis has an equivalent category of interpretation, called peshat, which is an attempt to read scripture in a manner unmediated by homiletical or legal interests. In peshat, one is meant to read scripture as a cohesive literary unit, with a consequent emphasis on grammatical and thematic coherence.

Both the Rabbis and the Karaites are interested in and capable of this kind of reading, but only the Karaites imagine it to be the basic articulation of law. Rabbinite law matured long before the fully developed idea of a peshat hermeneutic. A Rabbinical legal reading of scripture deliberately decontextualizes and degrammaticizes passages and even individual words, manipulating them as raw material for the production of law. They justify this method by the axiom of scripture’s fundamental incompleteness—even incoherence—without the penumbra of orally transmitted knowledge which surrounds it. According to the Rabbis, a bipartite Torah was imparted to the people at the revelation at Sinai, consisting in the written Torah and the oral Torah, neither of which could stand alone. Karaism rejects this axiom as an insult to the integrity of scripture.

To illustrate the differences between Karaitic and Rabbinic legal reasoning, I will compare their expositions of a single scriptural verse: “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” The Rabbis elaborate this verse into its legal form by two techniques. The first is an exegetical method, though not at all directed towards the plain meaning of scripture. They begin their exegesis by observing that the verse occurs three times in the Torah. Scripture, according to the Rabbis, contains no redundant words. Thus, outside of the single apparent sense, the Rabbinic system feels compelled to derive added, arcane meanings: each of the three instances must be meant to impart three separate interdictions. It is forbidden not only to cook the kid in its mother’s milk, but also to eat the result; it is also forbidden to derive benefit from the result, for example by sale. The Talmud includes several competing arguments, but, tellingly, each arrives at this same triad. The verse is also extended from the particular to the general to apply to any kind of domestic meat and milk, instead of only of a kid and in the milk of its mother particularly. The Rabbis consider all of these prohibitions to be conveyed by the Torah itself.

The Rabbis also employ a second mode of legislation, wholly external to scriptural exegesis. By the force of their own authority, they derive two further conditions, without scriptural support, prohibiting the consumption of meat and milk together even when cooked separately, and stipulating a waiting period between the consumption of meat and the consumption of dairy.

Karaism, of course, rejects these last directives, whose authority is exclusively Rabbinic and without support in scriptural exegesis. But much of the Rabbis’ textual work is rejected as well. According to Elijah Basyatchi, a 15th-century Karaite legalist, there is no reason for three recurrences of an identical verse to engender separate legal rulings: for whatever reason, scripture simply repeats the same law in three different contexts. However, Basyatchi also does not limit the verse to its literal meaning. He applies a principle which extends laws regarding the particular to the general as well, and rules that there is a law against the boiling of the young of any species in the milk of its mother. He then suggests, through other scriptural uses of the word ‘boil,’ that any kind of cooking is similarly forbidden. Then, through a parallel to the implications of ‘you shall not slaughter,’ he concludes that one must also not eat such a culinary product. Basyatchi maintains, however, not merely that the prohibition is restricted to animals of the same species, but that it applies only to the meat and milk of an actual parent-child pair. The logic of this prohibition, he argues, is to be found in the ethical root of another scriptural prohibition: “You shall not slaughter a mother and its young on the same day.”

The point of this exercise was not to demonstrate an obsessive denial of pleasure on the part of the Rabbis, nor a relative laxity in the Karaites. Karaitic law is often more restrictive of human impulses than Rabbinic. What’s crucial is the difference in attitudes towards scripture as a source of law. For a Rabbinic legalist, scripture must be in a sense decoded in order to become law. Thus the development of a code of law depends completely on the arbitration of expert knowledge, which can look at a verse (or even a phrase or a word) and assign it to a point of law over and against its apparent meaning. For a Karaite legalist, understanding scripture is understanding law. The scripture itself is already a code of law: expert knowledge may be useful in the processes of analogy and extension, but the actual interpretation and development of law should be rationally accessible.

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This emphasis on rational access is an epistemological presupposition of Karaism. However, to what extent this rationalism is compatible with the temporal continuity or social coherence of a religious community, is subject to question. These questions are raised by Avraham ibn Ezra in his polemic against the Karaites. Ibn Ezra was a peshat interpreter of scripture who rejected the search for esoteric mystical meanings within it. He was in regular correspondence with several Karaites and sometimes took their advice on a point of interpretation. This polemic is of additional interest because of ibn Ezra’s close proximity to the phenomenon he excoriates.

If we find two meanings to a verse, and one accords with the words of the ancients—who were all righteous people—we will rely on their truth without doubt. Woe that we should be mixed around with the Sadducees [i.e. the Karaites], who claim that the ancients undermined scripture and its grammatical particularities! To the contrary, those before us were of truth, all of their words were of truth, and the God of truth leads his servant on the path of truth.
The underlying logic of ibn Ezra’s pronouncement is that the authentic mode of access to divine will is through the authority of a tradition of human stewardship. His concluding stanza subtly draws together the ideas of divine truth and human tradition: the image of God leading his servant to truth by way of a path is meant to evoke the path of transmission through history by way of people before us who were righteous, and therefore deserving of God’s truth. A rupture with the “ancients,” especially one that censures their “undermining” of scripture, actually undermines the surest means of understanding God’s will. He supplements this defense with an attack on the Karaite method:
They who reject the religion and its defenders—they will lean either to the left or to the right. Each will interpret scripture according to his own will, even as to the statutes and the laws. […] And how will they support the Law according to their knowledge? When every moment it is upended and flipped from one side to another according to their fickle cares? For there will not be found in the Torah any commandment that is fully explained.
Undue reliance on scripture alone, he claims, results in an unstable reliance on oneself and one’s “fickle cares” rather than on God. Thus the formulation: “It is God alone that I fear; I will not show favor to the Torah.”

Ibn Ezra asserts that Karaite scripturalism implies historical discontinuity—“fickleness”—and social incoherence—“each… according to his own will.” How could a religion in which everyone is free to set their own practice according to their own understanding be a reflection of truth?

Ibn Ezra’s charge of Karaism’s individualism does accord with the self-characterization of some modern Karaites, but his contemporary Karaites would have seen such a characterization as slander. Karaism insists on the supremacy of reason, but it does not speak the language of radical individualism. Al Kirkisani, a Karaite scholar of the 10th century, instructs reliance on the wisdom of sages, who have a better grasp of reason than laypeople. Basyatchi thinks it preferable to achieve an understanding of the rational underpinnings behind the law, but only after conforming to it by accepting tradition; refusing to do so would be like refusing to eat bread before learning to bake. That is, while Karaites do believe in the importance and possibility of individual interpretation of scripture, they recognize the importance of tradition and social coherence as well.

The law, though accessible to individual rationality, remains a social object. It’s true that certain voices within Karaism called for conduct founded purely on scripture, but the Karaite development of law codes was no accident. Such codes were generally in intimate dialogue with tradition, often featuring the kind of imaginative scriptural reasoning we might characterize as far-fetched or Rabbinic. Though the idea of a religious law code, an elaboration on revealed divine truth, might seem inimical to the whole project of Karaism, the perennial appearance of such codes actually illuminates an essential tendency of the project. While Karaism disputes Rabbinism with regard to the proper source of law, its law remains social rather than individual.

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Karaism was provocative even in its caricatured form, but the provocation remained vague. After the above considerations, however, it can perhaps become more useful. The work of anti-Karaite rhetoric has been to construct false frontiers of debate. The idea of a cartoonishly simple and direct scriptural hermeneutic promotes an easily falsifiable sense that Rabbinic interpretation is fundamentally more sophisticated. The charge of individualistic social corrosion fails to address the real depth of Karaite tradition and social ties. Both of these shoddy claims against Karaism only approximate the kind of critique that could be made.

The first step that should be taken in revitalizing this polemic is in understanding that the questions that the polemic is meant to satisfy are ultimately questions about the Rabbinic tradition itself. That is, when you offer sham answers to questions about the Karaites, you also fail to answer real questions about the legitimacy of the Rabbinic tradition. The idea of Karaism should be used to shed light on Rabbinism as its counterpart: this is where the Rabbinic response should begin.

It seems to me that Karaism is most useful in that it offers us the opportunity to disseminate and explain a basic premise of Rabbinic law that should not go unexamined: the dissociation between scripture and code of conduct. Initiates to Judaism are left without an explanation for something that should be presented as a lynchpin of the system. Its justification is that both the projects of interpretation of scripture and the development of law have freedom of movement because of their dissociation.

Interpretation can be allowed the creative license of literary work without needing to shape itself to the effects it might have on real world practice. Famously enigmatic and profoundly original, midrashic literature is defined by the Rabbinic mining of scripture as the raw material for their own language. Because scripture is seen as a radically distant arcane text, it becomes freer as a poetic word-mine, wherein images and idioms can be decontextualized and redeployed with impunity.

Meanwhile, law becomes answerable to real world local concerns instead of to the immovability of scripture. The real power of the idea of the dual law lies in the premise that God’s will is embedded in the people as much as in the words of scripture. The idea of law as a human, dialectical system is not a cause for embarrassment. It is in many respects the only reasonable response to divine silence. The most compelling response to Karaism lies in this idea that religious truth can emerge from a non-divine, multivocal source.