Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The gedolim face the Karaite threat

From the Jewish Encyclopedia:

During the first centuries of the existence of the sect, Karaism was widely extended among the Jews, and could boast of making many converts among the followers of the parent religion, gathering them in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Babylonia, and Persia. Several circumstances contributed to its success. Firstly, sectarianism was then rife in the East in consequence of the great changes brought about by Islam, and numbers of the adherents of different confessions throughout the califate eagerly accepted any new departures. In the second place, Anan's proclamation of the unrestricted study of the Bible as the only source of religion was most attractive, not only to the members of earlier anti-rabbinic sects, which had by no means been uprooted, but also to the more liberal elements within traditional Judaism that were dissatisfied with the stagnation shown in the methods of the Babylonian academies. In the third place, the directors of the academies (the Geonim), who were at that time out of touch with science and all secular matters, were too short-sighted to recognize the dangers threatening traditional Judaism on the part of the new sect, and believed that by simply ignoring it they could destroy it. They were, moreover, incapable of engaging in religious polemics with their adversaries, as they were familiar only with weapons which the latter refused to recognize, namely, arguments taken exclusively from the traditional writings, and did not distinguish critically between halakic and haggadic and mystical elements in rabbinical literature. Hence none of the attacks on traditional Judaism, not even those that were unfounded, were properly refuted, nor was the true state of affairs explained.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Yisroel said...

" ...did not distinguish critically between halakic and haggadic and mystical elements in rabbinical literature"

Of all the statements in that article, none of which had sources to support them, I find this to be the most suspect. The Geonim made very clear distinctions, and gave far less weight to aggada than later authorities do. If you really want I can try to look up some sources on this.

October 25, 2006 9:14 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Yisroel,

Thanks for your comment. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the article. When I read the paragraph I quoted, it struck me as very similar to the situation in certain strata of Judaism. If you do have access to sources, please post them here as I am fairly interested in this topic. I am aware of distinctions made by Rabbinic authorities later, but not during the Gaonic period, except for maybe Saadia. It would be also interesting to know whether there is any evidence supporting the claims of the article. Perhaps S. can shed some light? At one point he wrote a series of articles on Karaites.

A couple of things about the article. It is the unedited copy of the Jewish Encyclopedia, printed in 1906. Here and here is some info about the authors.

Interestingly enough, there is a comment on that article criticizing it for being unfair to Karaites.

October 26, 2006 7:27 AM  
Blogger dbs said...

I guess that Chazal had the last laugh, though.

The Karites had ritual, but lacked the intellectual side of the religion. Also, since they didn't expound, they were locked into a far less flexible situation. They couldn't adapt to changes the way that rabbinical Judaism could.

It is a bit similar to the Sunni Moslem's success over the Sha'i. The Sunni have far more man-given ability to expound Islamic law and dogma. The Sha'i are far less flexible, and accound for only about 10% of Moslems.

October 26, 2006 9:19 AM  
Anonymous Yisroel said...

"When I read the paragraph I quoted, it struck me as very similar to the situation in certain strata of Judaism."

Yes, that's precisely why I was skeptical of the claims made, considering their source.

October 26, 2006 11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dbs: "The Karites had ritual, but lacked the intellectual side of the religion. Also, since they didn't expound, they were locked into a far less flexible situation. They couldn't adapt to changes the way that rabbinical Judaism could."

I don't quite agree with this assessment.
Karaism was always known until the 16th century by the high output and volume of its hermeneutical writings. That Karaites maintained the Tanakh must be expounded only by the text's plain meaning, an insistence which is merely a testament to an entirely different approach to the hermeneutics issue, isn't evidence of intellectual paucity in the Karaite movement.
However, they still managed to arrive at some erroneous interpretations, two of which had dire demographical consequences to them -- one being adopting `Anan ben David's ridiculous exegesis of Genesis 2:24 positing that the relatives of a spouse were not permitted to marry the kin of the other spouse to the fourth degree. Thus permissible marriages were restricted to a ludicrous degree and caused a problem in the Karaite community until the 19th or 20th century. The Karaites also wouldn't receive medical aid due to their erroneous out-of-context interpretation of "I YHWH am thy healer (Exodus 15:26)."

November 12, 2006 7:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now I'd like to comment on the article itself.

"During the first centuries of the existence of the sect, Karaism was widely extended among the Jews, and could boast of making many converts among the followers of the parent religion, gathering them in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Babylonia, and Persia."

1) Of course it's unfair to bill the then mainstream Judaism as "the parent religion", thereby implying Karaism is a breakaway religion in its own right.
2) Karaism initially spread also to Spain.

"Anan's proclamation of the unrestricted study of the Bible as the only source of religion was most attractive, not only to the members of earlier anti-rabbinic sects, which had by no means been uprooted, but also to the more liberal elements within traditional Judaism that were dissatisfied with the stagnation shown in the methods of the Babylonian academies."

Rabbinite propaganda combined unwittingly with Karaite lore to promote the now-debunked myth of `Anan ben David being the founder of Karaism. In actuality, 'Anan used the same Rabbinic hermeneutical methods to expound on the Tanakh even as he rejected the Rabbinic literature of his day. His followers were the Ananites and by no means the Karaites or all Karaites.

I've managed to cull a pretty fact-based and rather error-free mini-biography of `Anan which sets the record straight on several issues pertaining to Karaism:

http://www.bookrags.com/biography/anan-ben-david/

November 12, 2006 7:27 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Anonymous,

Thanks for your comments. I think you're right in the statement that most people associate Anan as the founder of Karaism. One of the things that I am curious about is the extent of the rejection of the Oral Law as Divine prior to his rise.

November 13, 2006 7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

e-kvetcher, welcome.

A Karaite community already existed in Egypt by 641 CE. This is borne out by the now extinct community formerly possessing a legal document stamped by the palm of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, the first Muslim governor of Egypt, in which the name Karaite (as in scripturalists) was mentioned. (Cited in "Al-Tahdhib", No. 38, 5 Sept. 1902, p. 158; "Ash-Shubban Al-Qarra'in", 4, 2 June 1937, p. 8; and Mourad El-Kodsi, "The Karaite Jews of Egypt", 1987)

The existence of Karaites already during the reign of Theodosios I (398 CE) in Persia is attested to in Sefer Zekher Saddiqim (Chufut-Qale, 1838) and other sources.

Clearly there has always been a contingent in Torah-observant Israel, be it the majority or the minority, who rejected any source of divine law other than the Tanakh. The non-Rabbinic element in Jewry was apparently widespread among the uneducated underclasses. That the Essenes soldiered on until the 9th century at least is proven by the finding of the Damascus Document among the Cairo Geniza papers. The Sadducees also lingered at least up until the 7th century as proven by the surviving quotes from the Sadducee tome Sefer Tzadoq included in both Rabbinic and Karaite sources.

The problem is we'll probably never be able to make a rough estimate in numerical terms just how many Jews denied Rabbinic authority at any given era during the 690 years preceding `Anan's advent.

November 16, 2006 8:31 PM  

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