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Karaites and History

Updated on July 17, 2011

Understanding History

History and representation of the past are two entirely different concepts.   History is a cold, calculated examination that is often viewed through prejudiced lenses and most often written by individuals or organizations that have no personal connection with the subject matter at hand.   Whereas representation of the past by those personally involved is a concept that involves not only historical details but also the traditions, representing equally both the highs and lows of a people as they develop the structures that bound them into a distinct and unique entity.  History is always constructed whereas representation of the past is a unique and extremely personal view of the events and the subsequent effects.   In other words there is a natural flow in historical representation that has a distinct personal flavor.  It is this latter statement which leads to detractors both within and without the Karaite communities who read my books, blogs and hubs and try to argue that the comments I make are not historically accurate.   And in that regard, they are not incorrect, they are merely confused regarding the very different concepts of history and representation of the past.  I learned long ago to question the history as written about my people as for the most part it has been written by those that stood outside the Karaite communities and wrote their details based on assigned tasks, governmental directives, and/or religious polemics.  In fact a very jaundiced view in regard to Karaites and unfortunately some within the community have accepted these reports as being accurate historical documentation. What I do care about and place greater emphasis upon are the effects, specifically the effects of how certain events interplayed, altered, and in some cases ended the lives of the individuals that made the history; more accurately in that regard to the effects as they directly affected individuals within my own family.   That’s a very difficult concept for many students of history that try to examine a culture or people as a whole ignoring the fact that very often history is made by individuals that have run countercurrent to the mainstream within the population and not by the population itself.  Those historians that try to apply blanket statements ignore the dynamics that occur within a society that shape it, and these are far more significant and of importance than the external pressures which are merely considerations that must be analyzed, integrated and responded to.  Ultimately the historical change comes from within.  Those events reported on my website at are pertinent not only to the development of the Kahana-Goldenthal family but to communities which we engaged as well and therefore those that try to discredit the stories as not being historical fail to understand the true meaning of history.  You, me and everyone else that exist today are the products of history.  For us to exist means that our ancestors made history even though it may not have been to a degree or level that historians deemed significant but as a representation of the past, particularly those individuals that preceded us and made our existence possible we are a historical outcome. 

It is human nature that we construct our pasts in an attempt to provide ourselves with self-explanation.  The why and how we have come to be and the where and when we are expected to arrive at our final destination.  As a whole, Karaites tend to appreciate this statement knowing that our own existence is due to accumulated experiences within our past.   This is a very different attitude from that proposed by Rabbinic Judaism.   Postbiblical history within rabbinic texts is practically a non-entity.  By denying historical development of their ideas, the rabbinical authors can deny their own influences on the literary record and convince their followers that all material stemmed from ancient authorship and therefore rabbinic law and theology was a seamless flow from the bible itself.  It is this approach to historical denial that lends itself to the great dividing point between Karaites and Rabbanites, ie. being the Talmud.  Whereas a Karaite points to the Talmud and sees it as a historical development, written and manufactured by the Rabbis over time, the Rabbanites deny this and claim it was not a historical development but a body of laws that was already in existence at the beginning as an oral extension of the Torah.  This thinking has resulted in a failure of rabbinical teaching to view historical development as a necessary and essential requirement in the progress and characterization of a people and in many ways held Judaism back for a long time from modernization, a necessity in a dynamically changing world.  To quote the Rabbanites great scholar Maimonides from his Commentary to the Mishnah, he commented on Sanhedrin 10:1 that ‘the study of history is a waste of time.’  This attitude which pervaded Rabbinical Judaism meant that even though Jews were living in European villages under an entirely different set of circumstances, they were still being programmed to behave and worship as if they were still residing in Judea, a thousand miles away and a thousand years earlier.  As a result, they thought and behaved as if time and progress had stopped, ignoring any cultural historical developments that would have kept them more aligned with their non-Jewish neighbors who had made social advancements during that same time period.  This attitude was poles apart from the Karaite perspective which saw history as a constant progression requiring a constant review of how our ancient beliefs could be preserved and still acted upon even though society as a whole was in dynamic flux.  Though the beliefs and adherence to the laws could not be altered, how these were to be conducted was entirely open to review and progressive influences.  As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Karaite history was one of cause and effect which provided tremendous flexibility when plotting a course through the civilizations in which we inhabited.  Hence the ability for Karaite redactors to rewrite scripture in the common languages of the society inhabited so that followers could more easily understand the biblical teachings.  Seeing scripture in Arabic or Tartar, etc., was common practice throughout the Karaite communities, whereas the insistence on studying and reading in Hebrew by Rabbanite followers meant that full comprehension may have been impossible by some of the people that lacked a fluency in the ancient language.

It is ironic that in spite of this major difference in historical comprehension that the Rabbanites would refer to the Karaites being locked in the past unable to adjust their Sadducean and Zadokite beliefs, while they were a proactive modernistic society.  The reality was that the Rabbanite population had to exist in virtual isolation from the parent culture in which it lived for fear of assimilation or weakening of its teachings and values whereas the Karaite populations were far more successful in interphasing with the parent cultures because the belief and value systems were able to co-exist and reside side by side with these foreign cultures without fear of absorption.  The reduction in Karaite numbers over time was more a result of the practices of Rabbanite Judaism in an adversarial manner towards Karaism than the absorption into other cultures.  Because Karaites were always the minority population within Judaism it was always reliant on marrying rabbinic Jews in order to continue, but the prohibition by rabbis for a Karaite to marry a Rabbanite meant that a Karaite first had to convert to rabbinical Judaism if the marriage was to take place.  This religious intolerance was a further indication of the failure of Rabbanite Judaism to accept the outcome of historical development through progressive and dynamic forces, instead attempting to lock the framework of their practices entirely in the past.

Therefore the approach to history by these two cultures is of utmost importance when understanding the development of Karaite history.   Since this historical perspective is integral to not only the past of Karaism but also its future, I will focus on this in a series of hubs to follow so that the readers can better understand Karaite uniqueness and why the so few of us that make up the remnant of our culture will so valiantly strive to hold on to our beliefs and customs in the face of the overwhelming Rabbanite culture.  I invite you to read the forthcoming articles and recognize that the message I’m delivering is not about our past but our future.  A future that I consider very bright as the ‘Or Ha-Oylum’ or ‘Light Unto the World.’


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