I know someone who claims to be Jewish but a Karaite. The person was saying things about Judaism which didn’t seem right to me and the discussion became a little sensitive so I changed the subject. But I was wondering what you can tell me about Karaism and its relationship to mainstream Judaism.
For reasons I’ll elaborate on shortly, there is no uniform belief and practice among Karaites, so my discussion can only be about Karaism in general since it varies from group to group and even from individual to individual within groups.
Karaism is generally accepted as originating around 700CE or later, but its main position found expression in earlier groups, from which it derived its inspiration, such as the Sadducees (Tzadukim) and Boethusians (Baytusim) which are mentioned in the Talmud and emerged toward the end of the Second Temple period.
While all of these groups claimed to believe in the Jewish G‑d and the Torah, they have always been considered by mainstream observant Judaism to be heretical because they reject the Divine origin of the Oral Law.
It is because Karaism accepts only the written form of the Torah, claiming to derive understanding and interpretations of the beliefs and laws of the Torah from verses alone, that it gets its name based on the Hebrew-Aramaic term for a Torah verse: mikra or k’ra – hence Karaim or Karaites, those who follow verses only.
Throughout the Middle-Ages, there were a significant number of Karaites in communities spread throughout the Middle East and some of Eastern Europe. In modern times their numbers have diminished drastically and very few of these remaining descendants are “practicing” Karaites. There are small groups of people who do not descend from Karaites but have embraced, and are attempting to renew, Karaism in order to legitimize modern-day rejection of the Talmud.
Traditional Judaism has always refuted the claims of the Karaites with many logical and scriptural proofs. Some notable examples are the works of Rav Sa’adya Gaon, Ra’avad and Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi in The Kuzari (see part 3 for a detailed discussion). The following are but a few of their arguments:
Karaites reject the uniform, authoritative Oral Torah explanations of the Written Torah which traditional Judaism traces back to the knowledge G‑d revealed to Moses at Sinai. Yet the Torah verses alone are so succinct and often obtuse that one could not possibly know with certainly what the Torah means or requires in any given verse. So without the Divinely-revealed, supplementary elucidations of the Oral Torah, the Karaites’ understanding of the Torah is necessarily superficial, inadequate and subjective.
In fact, the Karaites claim that each person has the liberty to interpret and practice the Torah according to his own understanding. The result is that rather than attaining objective Divine Will, they arrive at subjective human interpretations with no uniformity. Through this individualized and subjective approach, the immutable teachings of the Torah change according to time period, location, community, individual and even stage in life.
In addition, since Karaites reject the Oral Torah, thereby rendering their understanding and observance of the Torah to subjectivism and non-uniformity, they undermine and make irrelevant the Torah’s system of rewards and punishments. A Torah with no fixed meaning or application could not promise reward for upholding, or warn of punishment for abrogating, beliefs and practices that have as many correct interpretations as interpreters. As such, there can be no accountability or culpability.
A third major problem with Karaism is that without the Divinely-revealed Oral Torah to complement the terse and skeletal Written Torah, observance itself is a non-starter. There is no mitzvah in the Torah that can be practiced according to its sparsely-worded description in the Torah. Take tefillin for example, about which all that’s written is “these words shall be bound upon your arm and be a sign between your eyes” (Deut. 6:8). Only some of what’s missing in the command includes details involving what words, how to write them, what to write them on, how to bind them, with what, what shape, what color, what material, where on the arm or between the eyes, who wears them and when. All of this and more is detailed in the Oral Torah, without which the mitzva could not possibly be kept.
Conveniently enough, Karaism claims that this, as certain other cryptic commands, are only metaphorical. But there are many other mitzvot which are just as cryptic, such as shechita or other kosher laws, which the Karaites do keep. The Torah doesn’t say explicitly how an animal must be killed in order to render it fit for consumption and that only a Jew may do so, or what and where the forbidden parts of the animal are and that even a non-Jew may remove them. Yet, in these cases as in others, Karaites practice according to the dictates of the oral tradition. Since, as in these cases, it’s impossible to know what to do without the Oral Torah, the same should be with all laws. The Karaites should either use no Oral Law whatsoever, or since they rely on it in some cases, they should do so for every law in the Torah, all of which are equally opaque.
Karaite scholars have attempted to defend Karaism against the criticisms leveled by mainstream Judaism and even to claim that Karaism is actually the authentic, original Judaism in its stead. None of these attempts compare with the erudition of Talmudic scholars, and their arguments are obviously weak and flawed.
Since the observance of some Karaite communities was closer to that of traditional Judaism and they were therefore more closely integrated into the Jewish community at large, some opinions maintain that Karaites are to be considered Jewish. However, since Karaism defines Jewishness through patrilineal descent (and not through the mother) and has different standards for conversion, and also because they may not have kept the laws of divorce properly, there exists some concern whether Karaites are Jewish or not, and even if so, whether it is permitted to marry them.