Why Karaism: Debating Dan Ross Part 1
In the old days it was not unusual for a Karaite scholar to sit across from a Rabbanite clergy and debate the essential differences between our two sects. Those days are sadly gone becuase with our dwinding population, there is no longer a concern that as Karaites we will persuade the mass of Jews to switch their theological allegiance to our view. That being the case, the Rabbis are no longer that concerned that we represent a threat to their coveted authority and therefore they no longer believe there's a need for direct debate. Essentially its a form of contempt but that is nothing new from those that have always held us in low regard. But that's fine since there are enough recent literary discussions regarding their views of Karaism that I can take my proper place in my third great grandfather's shoes and challenge them through the utilisation of their own media releases. Dan Ross's Acts of Faith which is subtitled "A Journey To the Fringes of Jewish Identity" provides you with the author's attitude before opening the book cover. Already labelled as a fringe of Jewish identity, the implication is already implanted in the reader's mind. What else do we associate with 'the Fringe?' There's lunatic fringe, societal fringe, the paranormal Fringe television series, outsider's fringe, religious fringe, being on the fringe, in fact almost all have negative connotations except for one which is fringe benefits. But even then it is an implication that the benefits are outside the so-called norm.
The True Heretics
Ross begins his chapter with the comment that Karaites benefitted in World War II from the Nazi obsession of who was a Jew and who wasn't. The implication is that somehow all Karaites escaped the death camp because the Nazis were confused by our origins. Yes, there were many that survived the persecution because the Nazi Home Office was persuaded that Karaites were all of Tartar origins and therefore did not meet their definition of who was a Jew. But at the same time, many of the death squads never bothered to try and sift through the Jews in the communities they were assigned to cleanse. It was too much of a bureaucratic nightmare and when it became time to round the people up and shift them out it was done with big nets that didn't descriminate. Those in my family taken from their homes in Vienna and sent to die at Thereisenstadt certainly didn't have an identity card that said "we are Karaite." It didn't matter. And when Dr. Rikhail Iosefova Goldenthal refused to leave off her medical administrations to the Jews in Odesssa being abused by the Nazi occupiers, it was far more expedient to kill her than keep sending her warnings to stop. So yes, there were some stories of leniency in Romania, the Ukraine, etc. that meant that even the Final Solution would never have been final since there would have been survival of some Karaites but to suggest that somehow in general we were left completely untouched by the Nazi oppression and death camps is a complete falsehood.
Ross makes it clear that he sees the Karaites as something outside Judaism, not part of it. He says we practice a truncated form of Judaism, rejecting the Talmud and other rabbinical writings. That we all claimed to be from Tartar tribes who adopted a Jewish like religion and we all spoke a Tartar dialect. Yes, the genes for blonde hair and blue eyes run in my family. Three of my four children have blonde hair and blue eyes, but that does not make myself or them any less descendants of Semitic stock than any other Jew. Tartar dialect, no, but Arabic spoken in the family, yes but not since the passing of Jakob Goldenthal in 1867. What would have been more accurate was to suggest that Karaites were probably more likely to adopt the dialect of the land in which they lived and use it more commonly than Yiddush or Hebrew in every day life. And not only did we adopt the local language but often the local dress code as well, appearing more like the general population than the Ashkenazi Jews that surrounded us. Did that make us Tartar? No, that made us in many ways more progressive even though the accusation was that our practices were archaic and that we as a people were trapped in a time warp. To infer that our Judaism was truncated also suggests that in some way it is incomplete. And rejected the Talmud and rabbinical writings implies that somehow we turned away from something that is right or unquestionable. How about expressing it more correctly in that we only follow what was given to us by God and we are unwilling to accept the writings of men that have often twisted or corrupted the original words. What we have been accused of rejecting is nothing more than a commentary and implying that by doing so we have rejected part of the religion is not only false and misleading but displays an arrogance that is the hallmark of Rabbanite Judaism.
Ross qualifies his non-Jew statement by saying that this was the claim made by the Karaites themselves but most non-Karaite scholars knew they were Jews but just happened to be heretics. Once again we are being labelled with the term 'heretic'. How is it that disagreeing with Rabbanite interpretations makes us heretics? Logic would say that those that have insisted there is a need to interpret and twist the words of the Torah to suit their own end would be the heretics. A heretic is one that rejects the original word and sees a need to interpret it in a different way. That being the case, then the Rabbanites are actually the heretics. Rather than having endured this accusation for a thousand years, my Karaite brethren and ancestors failed to reverse the accusation and call a spade a spade. We were the orthodoxy, they were the heretics and we permitted them to brand us incorrectly.
At the time Ross wrote his Chapter he said there were about ten thousand Karaites living in Israel. He could not give exact numbers because Karaite Law forbids their being counted in a census. Funny that, I thought that was Tanach Law. That God instructed his prophets to condemn any King in Israel that tried to take a census. That he forbade Jews from doing so as no man was to know the actual count of the Children of Israel. They were to be like the stars in the heavens; innumerable. Thus, an ordination from God is now being accused of being a Karaite Law as if we were in the wrong. Very peculiar.
Ross then states that Karaite status under Israeli law is ambiguous. That they are considered Jews but have their own rabbis, chief rabbinate, national council, kosher slaughterers, mohels, and religious courts. And then makes the statement that they are not legally permitted to marry other Jews. I fail to see the ambiguous part. Having our own religious structures and religious services should not implay in any way that our status as Jews is doubtful. The Rabbanite orthodoxy, conservative and reform movements all have their own councils, teachers and practices and no one is accusing any of them of being of an ambiguous status. And as far as I understand it, the illegality of Karaites marrying a Rabbanite Jew is imposed by the Rabbanite orthodox courts insisting that a Karaite must abandon his/her centuries old faith and become a Rabbanite in order to marry. Ambiguous? Sounds prejudicial and smacking of religious intolerance. There is nothing ambiguous about it. In fact it is all very obvious.
The ground work is now laid for this debate. Over the next few articles I will challenge statements made by Dan Ross in his book. Hopefully it will invite comments from both sides. The hiatus is over. It is time for Karaites to rechallenge the old accusations and let the world know that we are a presence and we do not intend to fade away.