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Why Karaism: The Essential Talmud

Updated on September 28, 2009

Bet you never thought you’d hear myself as a Karaite use the adjective essential in describing the Talmud. But I don’t do so in praise of the Talmud but only in recognition that even for Karaites it was an essential literary document. Without the Talmud we would not be differentiating ourselves from our Rabbanite brethren. Without the Talmud we would not have had our wakeup call that something had gone seriously wrong with our religion and it was up to us to restore it to the word of God. Without the Talmud we would not have recognized that we had failed to safeguard the sacred duty that YHWH had entrusted to us to bring his instructions and laws to the world. So as you can see, even for a Karaite, the Talmud was essential.

It was only after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD that Talmudic law came into being. Even the fact that the Rabbanites refer to it as Law is contrary to the fact that there already was an existing written Law and that was the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. Without the priesthood and without a Temple as a centralized focus of the Jewish court system both Judea and Babylonia, wrestled with Jewish law in its interpretation and administration as the rabbis of each locality vied for supremacy. In other words, each community tried to outdo, or out law the other in order to show they were more observant.


Karaism Versus Rabbanism

There is a tale in the Talmud found in the tractate Baba Meziah which for all intents and purposes sums up the religious battle between Karaism and Rabbinic Judaism. . In this story Rav Eliezer, who can be considered a champion of upholding the old traditions much in the manner of the Karaites that followed much later, said, "a well-lined cistern that doesn't lose a drop," in reference to himself.  In other words he was stating that one well learned in the Torah will not let it be changed or altered even one iota.  Engaged in a legal disputation with his colleagues he defended that the Torah was complete and didn’t require any addition and certainly didn’t require a hypothetical Oral Tradition that the others claimed rivalled the Torah in scope and breadth. Rav Eliezer exclaimed, "He brought all the reasons in the world!" indicating that God’s word was complete and irrefutable.  What he found was the majority of rabbis would not accept his view, determined to write the Talmud. Rav Eliezer then shouted, "If the law is as I hold it to be, let this tree prove it," and suddenly the tree uprooted itself a walked a considerable distance before replanting itself in the ground.  The rabbis refused to except the sign from God claiming, "Proof cannot be brought from a tree." Rav Eliezer was not about to have the word and signs of God ignored and he commanded, "Let these waters determine it," and suddenly the waters began to flow backwards.  His colleagues shook their heads and laughed that waters cannot determine the law. Growing irate, Rav Eliezer asked the walls of the study house to show their disapproval of his colleagues. The walls began to tremble threatening to collapse on the assembly of rabbis, at which point the spokesman for the majority, Rabbi Joshua, admonished the walls saying, "when rabbis are engaged in legal discussion what right have you to interfere!" In respect for Rabbi Joshua the walls did not collapse upon the assembly but they didn’t  return to their upright position either clearly demonstrating that Rav Eliezer was the true spokesperson for God.  Rav Eliezer could not believe that the other rabbis still refused to accept the word of the Lord as complete and immutable so he cried out: "Let Heaven decide."  Above the assembly a voice was heard descending from Heaven saying: "Why do you dispute with Rav Eliezer; the law is always as he says it to be."  At that point Rabbi Joshua rose from his chair and proclaimed, "It is not in Heaven! The Law was given to us at Sinai and we no longer give heed to heavenly voices, for in that Law it is stated:  One follows the majority."  Then turning to Rav Eliezer he pronounced, “God's truth, divine law, is not determined by miracles or heavenly voices, but by the collegium of rabbis, men learned in the law, committed to the law and expert in its application to the life of the pious community.”  At that point Rav Eliezer knew that the rabbis had turned away from God’s holy word, thinking that they were a law unto themselves and not even heaven could turn them from their desire to write their own laws.  And hence the accusation by Karaites that the Rabbanites no longer follow the precepts and word of God.  By their own admission they considered themselves superior and therefore entitled to interpret the Law as they saw fit.

Talmud Meant Isolationism


The first thing they did was forget that God had instructed us to bring the Torah to the world and in so doing be a light unto the world (Or Haoylum).  Instead they commanded, "Build a fence to the Torah."  Because paganism was widespread throughout the Roman Empire with visible symbols and images of gods, everywhere one looked in the city and country, the rabbis adopted a policy of seclusion rather than take up the challenge of ‘Or Haoylum’.   Surrounded by these manifestations of paganism, the rabbis felt Judaism was in danger of contamination and by developing Talmudic law they felt they had forged a mighty fence to protect the religious purity of Jewish life.  In so doing, Talmudic law declared all idolatry, its symbols, and their sites where they were located and all activities associated with it, out of bounds for a Jew. Even the broken wood or metal that had ever been part of an idol was forbidden. A grove where an idol was situated was not to be entered.  The wine employed in idolatrous offerings was not to be used. Even a drop of it falling into another liquid would render it unfit for normal consumption.  This led to the discouragement of painting and sculpture in classic Judaism as the Rabbis felt this would avoid any possibility of a Jew painting something pagan even by accident.  In their efforts to isolate the Jewish community they instead suppressed and practically destroyed any artistic development in the Jewish culture.  What the Rabbis considered a great victory through Talmudic law was in reality the policy isolationism which led to rampant anti-Semitism.  As they celebrated their victory over being absorbed into the foreign cultures, made only possible as they will tell you through the Talmud they fail to give recognition to the facts.  It was not the Talmud that preserved the Jewish people, because if that was true then there would be no Felashim in Ethiopia, or Samaritans in Samaria, or Karaites throughout the Black Sea regions and Egypt, or the Bene Israel in India, or for that fact the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng.  All of us communities that had no Talmud but survived solely on strength of will and our belief in God’s word alone as expressed in the Torah.   What did this fence built by the Talmud achieve in accomplishing?  It achieved a reaction on those that could not understand its reasoning and in response the world decided that if these Jews wished to be isolated then they would help them with their desire by locking them away in ghettos and treating them like pariahs.  That which is unknown to the majority population is feared and detested.  Historically that has always been the case and these rabbis lacked the foresight to understand human nature, blaming the persecutions on the evil of other societies but failing to appreciate that it would not have happened had they had enough confidence that the people could still preserve their faith while intermingling with outside populations.  Unlike the Karaite populations which had enough confidence in their religious beliefs to freely move through Turkish, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian and Egyptian societies without the fear of abandoning the Torah, the Rabbanites did not consider their own followers to be strong enough to resist the attraction of the outside world. 

Thank God For Women

Perhaps their fear was based on what they considered the allure of Gentile woman. They certainly spend a lot of time discussing women in the Talmud and not necessarily in a positive manner. Many of the rabbis in the Talmud were concerned with the power of the sexual attractions of men and women. As they commented, "No one is immune to the ravages of an illicit attraction." And in reference to why woman have this undesirable effect on men they stated, "There is only one real cause of jealousy among women—sex appeal." They vie with each other for the title of supreme temptress luring men to their downfall. The Talmud also is condescending in regards to womankind's love for finery and personal adornment. "A woman is concerned principally with her appearance," it is written. In describing what motivates a woman it recorded, "And the greatest pleasure a man can give his wife is to clothe her in fine garments." How sad that a group of supposedly learned men would sit around discussing all things negative about women. But considering that the woman of foreign nations always had an appeal much like Delilah over Samson, they thought the only way to combat this sexual attraction was to ingrain it into the minds of the young boys they taught from the time they could read the Talmud. The lesson was women were evil and that is summed up in the following Talmudic quote, "God endowed a woman with keener judgment than man"; "women are compassionate"; women are "querulous and garrulous"; women have an affinity for the occult and they go in "for witchcraft." Teach young boys that women are nothing but witches and you can exert some control over their wandering eyes. None of this is from the Torah. God gave us examples of great women that he wanted us to remember and cherish. Miriam who was a leader of the Hebrew slaves during the exodus from Egypt in her own right. And Deborah who proved herself to be both a great and wise judge over the Israelite nation in the early days of its entering into Canaan. Even non-Jewish women like the woman that aided the Israelite spies that entered her city during the conquest, receiving both tribute and honour for her assistance. Ruth, the Moabite woman that eventually had a descendant named David who became king of Israel. The Queen of Sheba that won over Solomon’s heart and bore him a son Menelik who took the Jewish religion back to Ethiopia where it has remained even until this day. The Torah praised and impressed upon us how women, even those not of the Jewish people were to be respected and appreciated whereas the Talmud is filled with nothing but disparaging comments for them. Witches? Fortunately in Karaism we can appreciate the magic that women possess and recognize it for the good it has brought mankind.


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    • Kahana profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      If there is a widget that can be inserted then you'll have to let me know how to do so. I am not aware if hubpages has one.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      It would be nice to have a button to email this.

    • Kahana profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Franklin, please read my article on Karaite woman and as well there is a recent article which I include below by Judith Olszowy-Shlanger which clearly demonstrates that the Karaite treatment of woman has been far superior through the ages than what was professed by the Talmudists.

      by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger

      Family law and personal status of women are important aspects of both the daily life and the halakhah of Karaite communities. Karaite legal sources often deal with rules pertaining to betrothal, marriage, divorce, ritual purity and incest. Crucial to the identity and the continuity of Karaite community, these issues had considerable impact on the relationships between Karaites and mainstream Rabbanite Jews. In consequence, they were subjected to sustained polemical discussions and modifications during the emergence and the “golden age” of the movement, between the eighth and the twelfth centuries, in Babylonia, Egypt and Palestine.


      Often defined as a separatist “sect,” Karaism in fact originated as a distinctive religious and intellectual movement inside Judaism itself. It was initiated in eighth-century Babylonia, and medieval Jewish and Arab sources link its origins with a member of the family of Jewish exilarchs, Anan ben David. Some scholars have argued that there exists a direct link between medieval Karaites and some Second Temple Jewish sects, but at present there is no sufficient evidence to ascertain continuity or a direct influence reaching from antiquity. While the movement was first established in Iraq and Persia, some followers of Karaism migrated towards the Mediterranean by the end of the ninth century. By the tenth and eleventh centuries, well established Karaite communities existed in Egypt, North Africa and Spain, and also in Palestine where, from the tenth century, Jerusalem became the most influential intellectual center and the seat of the Karaite academy of learning. Simultaneously, Karaite communities spread into Byzantium, reaching Crimea, and later, in the fourteenth century, Lithuania. Today, the most important Karaite community is in Israel, its religious center located in Ramle. This community is composed mainly of Egyptian and Iraqi Karaites. European Karaites still dwell in Lithuania, as well as in Russia, Poland, Western Europe and USA.

      From the outset, the most essential aspect of Karaite doctrines has concerned the sources and authority of law. According to the principle most clearly formulated by Jacob al-Qirqisani (ninth century) under the partial influence of the Muslim Mu‘tazila school, the binding authority of Karaite laws and customs derives from one of three legal principles: the Bible (both the Pentateuch and the Prophets and Hagiographa) (al-nass), the analogy (al-qiyas) and the consensus of the nation as a whole (al-ijma‘) (Kitab al-Anwar II. 18:1). The latter is often identified with “tradition” (naqal) and “inheritance” (wiratha). While the Bible is considered to be of divine origin, the analogy and the consensus (tradition) are of human making. The laws based on any of these principles are equally binding, but their theoretical status is different, in that the laws derived by analogy or consensus cannot overrule or stand in contradiction with the biblical text. This theoretical approach to the sources of halakhah implies that the Karaites rejected the divine origin attributed to the Talmud and the authority of its sages. This does not mean that the Karaites do not observe non-biblical laws and customs; in fact many binding Karaite rules, and notably those concerning women (e.g. the marriage contract, ketubbah) are not mentioned in the Bible, and are clearly identical to the Rabbanite practices recorded in talmudic and gaonic literature. At the same time, the Karaites rejected the post-biblical teachings which seem to be in contradiction to the word of the Bible. The bible itself was interpreted literally, with particular attention to the nuances of the Hebrew language. This interpretation could be highly personal, as every adult (male) Karaite has a duty to study the Bible individually, without relying on any “canonical” corpus of commentaries or authorities. Such freedom was already posited in an apocryphal dictum attributed to Anan ben David: “Search well in the Bible, and do not rely on my opinion”. It requires thorough knowledge of the language of the Bible and its grammar, and also leads inevitably to a multiplicity of interpretations.


      The importance of laws and customs regarding women and their personal status is reflected in Karaite scholarly works and commentaries from the very beginning of the movement. Those aspects in which the Karaites differed from the Rabbanites (such as the permissibility of marriage and the definition of incest) were dealt with in great detail in special sections in early Karaite codes of law, such as the Sefer Mitzvot of Anan ben David (Baghdad, eighth century), the Kitab al-Anwar wal-Maraqib of Jacob al-Qirqisani (Iraq, 937) and the Sefer Mitzvot of Levi ben Yefet (Palestine, early eleventh century). These issues were also mentioned in various works and commentaries by such authors as Benjamin al-Nahawendi (Babylonia, ninth century), Daniel al-Qumisi (Babylonia-Palestine, tenth century), Yefet ben Ali (Babylonia-Palestine, tenth century) and Yusuf al-Basir (Babylonia-Palestine, early eleventh century), and generated a number of dedicated monographs, such as the book on prohibited categories of kinship by Solomon ben David, the Karaite Nasi (Palestine, tenth century), and the Sefer Arayot or Sefer ha-Yashar by Jehoshua ben Jehuda. These two monographs are polemical in nature, and their authors criticized in particular the laws of incest, namely the theory of “chain reaction” or “compounding” (rikkuv), as upheld by earlier Karaite authorities. The topic of incest also received a great deal of attention among later Karaites, for example in Byzantine legal compendia such as Eshkol ha-Kofer by Jehuda Hadassi (twelfth century), Gan Eden by Aharon ben Eliya (fourteenth century), and Aderet Eliyahu by Eliyahu Bashyaci (sixteenth century).

      The laws of betrothal and marriage have received less attention, except for the aforementioned later Byzantine authors who also devoted specific sections of their legal compendia to these topics. Nevertheless, most of the early essential rules can be gleaned and reconstructed from various discussions in major codes of law, such as those of Anan ben David (in his discussions on levirate marriage), Benjamin al-Nahawendi, Jacob al-Qirqisani and Levi ben Yefet. These sources can be complemented by actual legal contracts pertaining to marriage, which have been preserved in the Cairo Genizah (tenth–twelfth centuries) and in the Abraham Firkovitch (1786–1874) collections in Saint Petersburg (mainly from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries).


      In order to contract marriage, the parties must be “marriageable,” that is: the partners must be Jewish, the woman must be unmarried, and the parties should not fall into any of the kinship categories prohibited by Karaite law.

      1. The parties’ religious affiliation

      Marriages with non-Jewish partners are not acceptable for Karaites. Marriages with Rabbanite partners were perfectly legal and commonly practised before the thirteenth century. Medieval Karaism was and saw itself as an integral part of Judaism, and such marriages did not entail any form of “conversion” of any of the parties. Seven marriage contracts involving Karaite and Rabbanite individuals have so far been discovered in the Cairo Genizah. These marriage contracts stipulated the mutual tolerance of those practices in which the Karaites and the Rabbanites differed. These specific stipulations concerned differences in dietary law, such as the Rabbanite husband’s promise not to bring to their house parts of animals authorized by the Rabbanites but forbidden by the Karaite halakhah (the fat tail, the kidneys, the lobe of the liver, the meat of a pregnant animal). Other stipulations concerned the Karaite restrictions on lighting the Sabbath candles and the promise of Rabbani

    • profile image

      Franklin Schmidt 

      6 years ago

      I am sympathetic to Karaism, but on the issue of women, the Talmud is right. The Tanakh says very little, one way or another, on the nature of women.

      As for "Deborah who proved herself to be both a great and wise judge over the Israelite nation", there is only one single sentence in the Tanakh which merely says that she judged, with no indication as to whether she judged well or poorly.


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