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The Karaite Schism

Updated on January 22, 2013

Over the years I have been accused countless times of belonging to what mainstream Judaism considers a heretic sect.  From being called “Aher” or 'the other', to having my knuckles rapped with a yardstick by the Rabbis that taught me for having dissenting opinions and contrary beliefs.  It’s not easy to accept being outside the mainstream and being punished for being so.  But that has been the history of the relationship between Karaites and Rabbanites for over a millennia now.  The former punished by the latter for holding heretical beliefs.  And I thought long and hard about that history and the long held accusation that we were heretics and therefore labeled for an eternity.  What is a heretic?  By definition it is one who espouses unorthordox religious doctrines.  A misbeliever, religious outcast who holds beliefs in conflict with traditional religious dogma.  Upon reflection it became clear to me that we were not the heretics at all.  By definition it was Rabbinical Judaism that was guilty of that role.  And that is the irony of the situation for when we examine the schism between Karaite and Rabbanite Judaism, there has always been promulgated this major assumption that Karaites were the sect which broke away from mainstream Judaism but this misinformed concept just happens to be the one widely expounded by Rabbinical Judaism.  Of course we’d be the heretics as they rewrote the history because to admit the truth would necessitate that they also admit the lie.

In the Beginning

 Since the role of the Kahana is to ‘restore’ then it is my family responsibility to correct this falsehood if possible by providing you, the reader with enough information to draw your own conclusions.    That after all is the primary premise of Anan ben David’s teachings.  ‘To draw truths from reading for yourself.’  But in order that you are informed, it necessitates that you understand where it all began.  Everything has a beginning, even the schism.  After the return from Persian exile in the fifth century BC the power structure in Judea lay in the hands of the priesthood.  It was an uneasy balance since for the first time, the powers that be recognized we could not live in isolation from the rest of the world but must strive for a careful balance between self-rule and being a satrap for much greater powers that dictated laws on the scale of world empires.  But under this theocracy there was a growing undercurrent for religious and political democracy as the youth of subsequent generations dreamt of freedom and independence outside Empirical governance.  But as long as at the head of the nation stood the high-priest, a descendant of the family of Zadok there would be no monarchy that was the symbol of an independent kingdom.  For all intents, the family of the high priest now represented the nobility of the nation and exerted control over both the secular and religious lives of the people but because they weren’t kings themselves they could swear allegiance to their Persian and subsequent Seleukid masters without fear of abandoning God.

Growing Dissent

 This relationship of a subservient Judean province would never satisfy those restless for independence and dreaming of a Kingdom of God where His was the chosen nation to the exclusion of all others; that element in society wishing to obtain power for themselves and therefore accusing the priestly ruling class of ignoring the needs of the common people. They were agitators, activists, rebels and worst of all from an educated class that were opposed to hereditary recognition since that would exclude themselves from ever holding power.    Whereas the high priesthood preserved the ancient laws, customs and observances, not permitting modification with changing times, their detractors claimed them to be out of touch with the political environment of the world as a whole, willingly bending their knees to foreign kings that were pagans and therefore the enemies of God.  These adversaries found the priests to be easy targets amongst the youth and hotheads of a nation by showing that the governing class had allied themselves with the Syrian-Greeks and were adopting some of the disgusting habits of the Greek culture.  This latter accusation didn’t need to be anything more than demonstrating that the priests were making daily sacrifices on behalf of the Empire.  As paradoxical and nonsensical as it would be to be accused of both remaining static and unchanging, as well as guilty of adopting foreign culture at the same time, nonetheless these were the charges leveled against them by this new radical class of Judean society and like so many other ridiculous claims made by those wishing to change societies, the more unfounded and absurd the claim, the more accepted it becomes by the masses.  Not unlike the Nazi claims of Jews of being both the leaders and perpetrators of Communism but at the same time heading up all the financial banks and industries of the world thereby being the evil controlling financial industrialists keeping the people in poverty.  When one thinks about it these claims are mutually exclusive but to the ignorant masses it was the fuel that ignited the holocaust.

Rise of the Pharisees

 With the victory by the Maccabees over the Seleukids, the government passed from the hands of the select priestly families to the Asmoneans, a lesser Aaronic family, and therefore much to the chagrin of the priestly detractors that had hope for a wholesale change.  Considering these others had comprised a large portion of the Hasidim, allies to the Asmoneans, they felt they were entitled to share in that power if not assume it completely.   But the Maccabees had their own agenda and not only did they assume the high priesthood they declared themselves to be Kings, which was totally unacceptable by everyone.  Especially when as Kings they swore allegiance back to the Seleukid Empire they had won their independence against.  When the sharing of power failed to occur with the radical educated class,  these rebels renamed themselves the Perushim (Pharisees), or what we would understand at the ‘separated’ since they considered themselves to be separate from the rest of the world, separate from the Asmoneans whom they now considered enemies,  and desirous to enhance that separation by severing all ties to the Empire.  These Pharisees were now against any power being centralized within the priesthood and were determined to end this arrangement which was dictated in the Torah.  Key amongst the Pharisees beliefs was that personal purity and sanctity amongst the people outranked that of the priesthood. A concept totally in defiance to the rules passed down by God to Moses.   They began claiming that there existed an oral set of laws that overruled much of the Torah which had only concentrated on the Priestly requirements.  This oral set of laws was the one intended for the common people.  For example, no longer were the laws of purity and food only stringently required for the priests to follow, as these were initially imposed in order to free the people of the burden to do so, but  now they must be performed by the common people.  In essence, the Pharisees expanded the laws, or essentially rewrote themselves into the laws so that they could claim a role in the governance of what had been a theocracy and ‘bring power to the people.’  Of course this really wasn’t about power to the people but about power to the rabbis as they would tell the people what was best for them. 

Pharisees Become the Rabbanites

Once the temple was destroyed the Pharisees laid claim to being the only governing body in Israel and immediately rejected all the traditions that had been preserved as priestly rights.  One must look upon this event and wonder just how much of the Temple’s destruction was being orchestrated by the Pharisee Rabbis.  After all, as long as the Temple existed the priests would still hold the majority of the power and the hearts and the allegiance of the majority of the people.  Examining the historical records and seeing where the support came for such rebels as Simon ben Gioras and John of Gischala, the two men ultimately responsible for the Temple’s destruction by using it as a fortress to fight the Romans, the fingers do point at these Pharasaic leaders.  Destroying the Temple gave them the opportunity to remove the seat of power from Jerusalem and centre it at Jamniah under their own leader Rabbi Jonathan ben Zakkai, whom just happened to sneak himself out of Jerusalem in a coffin before its final destruction.  One must wonder what his role in the entire revolt had been before he made the decision to flee for his life.

This new Rabbanite school in Jamniah did not sit well with everyone, and the school of Shammai still clung to the old traditions feeling that to abandon them would be a betrayal of the Torah.  But the school of Hillel was quick to disagree, not only emphasizing the great victory of the Pharisees but began to establish an entire new systemization of laws.  It was not entirely unexpected when a descendant of Hillel, then claimed the title of being Prince of Israel.  The Pharisees had attained what they had wanted from the beginning; power.    The school of Hillel zealously rewrote the laws to exclude and eliminate any of the traditions that had been exclusive to the Sadducees and even rewrote some of the scriptural texts to remove the original priestly functions.  Fortunately, those that refused to abandon the Sadducean ways, preserved these as the Zadokites and Boethians, and eventually as part of Karaite traditions. 

The Talmud Changed the Original Laws

Fortunately some texts explaining early traditions still exist, such as Philo of Alexandria’s commentaries. Philo living in the first century while the Temple still existed provides us with an insight into how Judaism used to be before the Pharisees and their descendants the Rabbanites changed them. For example, the first day of the seventh month called Tishrei, was the Day of Trumpets, as trumpets are to be blown that day at the offering of the sacrifices. Their sounding is a commemoration of the giving of the Law. Yom Teruah was a day to make loud noises or praises. This can be done by the blowing of any instrument even the human voice. There was never any previous custom of referring to the first day of Tishrei as the New Year and making it sacred in that respect. Considering it was the seventh month, it could hardly be the New Year and since most cultures view the end of winter and start of spring as being the start of the year, choosing the start of autumn by the Rabbis to call the New Year hardly makes any sense at all. So why do it? Well if we accept the story handed down in by my relatives it has to do with the fall of the Temple on the 9th of Av, a month and a half earlier. With the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis were given a new life, power and authority that they couldn't achieve with a strong priesthood. So after a month of mourning the loss of the Temple they wanted to celebrate their new beginning. So in essence, not the celebratio of a New Year but the celebration of a New Beginning, the dawn of the age of Rabbis. Essentially, they created a holy day for self glorification.

The list of laws that Philo expounds is exhaustive but in almost each case it is in line with Karaite laws and traditions. Since Philo predates the Talmud, then it can only be assumed that the Talmud has not interpreted the old traditions but actually invented new ones. One has to ask then, why if these old laws and requirements were known did those writing the Talmud purposely alter the belief and traditional structure. The common Rabbinical excuse is that after the destruction of the Temple, the old laws were lost and there was a cultural amnesia that took hold requiring the Rabbis to reinterpret the entire body of Halachah (Laws). It is even said that Philo’s works had been lost and unavailable until discovered by Azariah dei Rossi at the end of the sixteenth century. One might be willing to grant them this excuse if it wasn’t for the fact that the Karaite scholar Kirkisani makes reference to the works of the Alexandrine and how they were eagerly studied in the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries. One can safely assume that Philo’s works were always available but purposely avoided by the Rabbanites because if they were to be made publicly known then the general Jewish population would recognize that they had been deceived into following new traditions that were in conflict with those given to the people by Moses. So it was never the Karaites that were the heretics but instead the Rabbanites that altered, transformed, obliterated, and purposely forgot the old traditions in order to cement their rise to power.


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      9 years ago

      Well said! The Rabbanites are the real heretics. I also like how you stressed the role of the Maccabees who usurped the Throne of David and which eventually produced King Herod, probably the worst of all kings in Israel's history, which in turn created the conditions for the destruction of the Temple and the 2,000-year exile. Of course, I would go back a bit further and point to the construction of the Second Temple which should never have been built at all because there was no Ark, no Isarelite nation of 12 Tribes, and no priesthood, hence there was no reason to build a Temple and resume sacrifices. The Second Temple was an abomination which later led to the moral destruction of the Jews.


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