What is Karaism?

by Melech ben Ya'aqov

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Aviv (almost ripe) springtime barley, Jerusalem, Israel | © Melech ben Ya'aqov, Karaite Insights
Aviv (almost ripe) springtime barley, Jerusalem, Israel

It seems the unfortunate task of our generation to, given a twisted piece of wreckage, somehow reconstruct the original.

The times we live in are complicated because we as a race have drifted far away from the natural way we were meant to live. We live disconnected from the land and nature, plugged into the news and the internet on the 4th floor of some concrete building, waiting for something to happen but not sure what, unhappy but not sure why.

This is where Karaism comes in. If only one thing only may be said about Karaism it is this: Karaism is an attempt to return to the source; Karaism is an attempt to untwist the wreckage.

Somehow or another, evil has gotten a grip on the world. This evil may express itself as the greedy developer who wants to destroy a beautiful peace of YHWH’s nature. It may be the government official who is more interested in his own financial comfort and self-aggrandizement than he is in the people he is supposed to serve and protect. And it may be the farmer who injects his cows with growth hormones and limits their freedom of movement in order fatten them up for a larger profit. In doing so he not only damages the cows, but also the people who will eventually eat from them.

Beyond this, it may be said that any foreign philosophies, that is to say, any philosophies which deliberately or otherwise are in conflict with the true will of YHWH, the creator of heaven and earth, are by definition iniquitous. In the Karaite view this includes such philosophies as Western Culture, Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity.

So what exactly is Karaism? It is my goal in the remainder of this column to give an overview of some of the basic tenets of the Karaite philosophy.


The Basic Tenets of Karaism

1. The Tanach (24 books of the Hebrew Bible) and only the Tanach have canonical status as the words of YHWH.1

Later writings may contain wisdom; more often than not they contain a mix of Torah wisdom together with unfamiliar philosophies, since the nation was in exile at the time they were written. At any rate, they are the thoughts of man and not those of YHWH. Therefore they are open to question and critical analysis. The only books that we can rely on to be the unquestionable word of YHWH are those of the Tanakh. The Tanakh is the only unadulterated remnant of our glorious ancient culture.

It is fallacy to believe that an “oral law” can properly preserve the laws and culture of ancient Israel, especially given the fact that our ancient culture was repeatedly decimated through a series of wars and exiles (amounting to no less than a series of Holocausts) over a period of hundreds of years, and given the fact that new, foreign cultures arose all around us, influencing our thought, whether we liked it or not. (As the Torah says, “Yehowah will bring you and the king whom you shall appoint over you, to a nation that neither you nor your fathers know, and there you shall worship foreign gods, of wood and stone.” [Deuteronomy 28:36]) This is the beauty of the written word, and this is why people write things down, even simple things like a shopping list: when something is committed to writing, it becomes preserved and more permanent; it cannot be altered or forgotten in the same way as can an “oral tradition”. Even the Rabbis understood this, which is why they committed their “oral law” to writing, beginning with the Mishna in c.200 CE. (So much for their confidence in an oral law.) Indeed, if I want to get an accurate picture of Pharisaic law and society during the second century CE, I read the Mishnah. Likewise, if one wants to understand Israelite law and culture as it was in ancient times, one must read the Tanakh. To assume that an entire ancient culture can be preserved orally for thousands of years would be like assuming that you or I can get an accurate description of Philadelphia during Revolutionary War times by talking to seventh generation Philadelphians. Indeed this would be a small task compared to the task of preserving the laws and culture of ancient Israel : Philadelphia still exists, the United States of America still sits on its land, and the Revolutionary War was less than 250 years ago. By contrast, Israel was all but annihilated a number of times, the nation was exiled from its homeland, its cities, towns and farms were destroyed, and all of this took place more than 2,500 years ago. If I want to find out about ancient Roman culture, shall I stop an Italian on the streets of Florence ? Of course not! What does he know about ancient Rome ? Rather, I will go to the written record, the language, and the archeology of ancient Rome , whatever happens to remain of it. Let’s take a much simpler example: what can I really learn about life in the European shtetl by talking to the average haredi in Mea Shearim? Probably very little: life in 21st century Jerusalem is a completely different reality. And here is a case where the external baggage such as the language (Yiddish) and dress have still been preserved, where there is a concerted attempt to transfer the culture to the next generations, and where the past in question is little more than 100 years removed from the present. Even if I were to go to a Mea Shearim scholar rather than an average person, most of the information he could give me would be based on a written record rather than an oral one. Is it then logical to assume that an entire body of ancient Israelite law and culture was somehow passed along orally for close to a thousand years – without a single trace in writing – until it was suddenly written down in the form of the Mishna, as the Rabbis claim? This is why the myth of a Rabbinical oral law is completely untenable to the thinking human being. It is simply impossible to preserve an ancient culture orally.

Perhaps an allegory is in order.

The year is 5010 CE and the remnant of humanity now lives on Mars – and has, since the War to End All Wars, which some called World War III, took place in the year 2020 CE. Looking towards Earth from Mars, one sees a barren wasteland, a once beautiful green and blue inhabited planet, now fit for habitation only by scorpions and roaches. This remnant of humanity still has a dream: to one day return to Earth and repopulate it, to replant its trees and flowers, to sit by its flowing rivers and feel its rain once again fall on their shoulders. They have heard the stories of these things from their fathers who heard it from their fathers, but know nothing of them first hand, for all they and their fathers know is life on the Red Planet. Indeed, life on Mars has been tough: a red, stormy sky, poisonous methane air, and barren rock-strewn hills and mountains. What is left of humanity has tried their best to preserve earth culture, but it has proved itself a daunting task. This place is so different! There are different realities, different rules, a whole different life. Indeed, Mars has made them all a bit crazy – after all, how can a human stay sane when he has no rivers nor seas, no blue sky and no green grass to comfort him. (As the old Martian saying goes, Koom ooh bomamo treeth rive im Alakoko? Mars historians believe that the proverb was once pronounced, Can a banana tree thrive in Alaska ?) And the stories they tell about Earth have gotten more and more fanciful over the generations: purple rivers flowing with sweet Martian candy – the kind you can get only once a year on Earth day, trees in the shape of red Martian clouds, a spotted creature with a long neck that carries you through the air as you sit on its back.

But one thing still gives the people hope from time to time: just before the last remnant of humanity escaped from Earth in their spaceships, they hastily convened a meeting and decided to take a book with them - a book which described all kinds of plants and trees and animals and cities and machines and people and ideas and laws which were known on earth in the 21st century. Though the original copy has long since disintegrated, those who, over the generations, understood the importance of the book, preserved it diligently from the time that the first humans arrived on Mars, and copied it carefully from generation to generation. Even though the language that the humans now speak on Mars has evolved significantly from the language they spoke when they originally landed on the Red Planet, nonetheless, for those who wish to understand, there is still a common enough ground for many of the words in the book to be comprehensible. Over the generations, different people (humanity being so varied in its nature) have reacted differently to the book. Some people forgot about the book altogether, and simply focused on life on Mars. To them, the dream of ever returning to earth was an unrealistic vision, sheer craziness. “Our life is on Mars, and our life will always be on Mars”, they reasoned. Eventually they forgot about Earth and about the book altogether, focused on their life on Mars, and thus rose to power on Mars. Another group tried to preserve the book by making it relevant to their life on Mars. They made all kinds of additions and innovated new interpretations of the book, all in an attempt to meld the reality of life on Mars with the written text of the book. Eventually they ended up forgetting the original meaning of the book and focused almost exclusively on the additions and new interpretations. Even when they would return to read the text of the book itself, their understanding of it was now seen only through the spectacles of the additions and interpretations they had built around it. Thus, the book diminished in importance and eventually became merely a stepping stone for the laws and ways of life which they had developed on Mars, a prop or a reference book to support their newly developed culture. As a result, they, too, became quite comfortable with Martian culture, and rose quickly to the top of the Martian power structure, to a level just a bit below the first group. Though, unlike the first group, they spoke about returning to earth one day, this talk was now mostly lip service: the fact of the matter is that life was pretty good for them on Mars, and they had no intention of giving it up so quickly. Still a third group, one could call them the die-hard loyalists, decided that they must always remember and understand the book in its original form. They made a solemn swear never to be swayed by their vain and temporary stay on Mars, never to modify or play with the book’s original intent or meaning, but to the best of their ability - in the foreign and wearying atmosphere of this foreign planet – to always work to understand and preserve the original meaning of the book. Doing so, they reasoned, is the only way to stay focused on the mission at hand: to fly away, as soon as the opportunity presents itself, from this horrible, forsaken planet and to return to Earth to sit along its rivers, swim in its seas, smell its sweet air, and restore its long-lost culture. This group decided that, even though they be considered outcasts by their peers, even though they forfeit rising within the Martian power structure, they must stay loyal to their mission and spearhead the return to Earth.

In case it is not already obvious, the first group represents the hilonim (secular Jews), the second group represents the Rabbanites, and the third group represents the Karaites.

If there ever was something resembling an oral law from First Temple period times, it was lost long ago in the great upheavals that our nation faced. If Rabbinical oral law preserves any of this ancient law and culture, it would be like finding a needle in a haystack, and then once finding the needle, realizing that it is bent and must be un-twisted. The only reliable remnant of our glorious ancient heritage is the Tanakh, and if our stated goal is to restore the laws and culture of our eternal nation, then it is to the Tanakh and to the Tanakh alone that we must turn (while at the same time praying for the return of prophecy), and all later interpretations and “innovations” must be rejected.

1. Of course certain books, the כתובים, do not claim to be prophetic. Nonetheless these books are considered important as they give us insight into the language, culture and wisdom of ancient Israel . Likewise, it is the opinion of this author that, hypothetically, if other authentic books of prophecy or writings from this period were to be discovered, then they too should receive a status on par with the books of the Tanach.

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This Article Has 11 Comments

John, Prescott
Comments on the above Article
Karen D. Taylor, Dallas, Texas
Shalom, I would LOVE to find someone who is like the "third group." A very good allegory to describe what has happened to the Word of YHWH. Can you refer me to a Karaite Teacher?
oral tradition
Alex, Wilmington
As a student of anthropology I'm forced to disagree with you. Cultures have preserved oral traditions for thousands of years.
Analogy made
Tirtzah, Cincinnati, Ohio
Your "Analogy" really opened my eyes a great deal...Todah rabbah
This is so refreshing!
Rachel, Wetumpka
My family and I have been on the Karaite path for about two years now. We are still very new to it and have had many struggles but we always turn to the Tanakh and try to draw our conclusions from there. As stated in the above article being a Karaite means pretty much that you're an outcast and as an outcast you get VERY lonely. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to find a Karaite website that I can agree with so far. And that has connections for you to find other Karaite friends. Thank you!
Origin of Karaites
Joanne Daniel, Blackstone
What is derivation of "Karaite". Is it from "qara', "to call out, preach, proclaim"?
Hebrew Bible
Remsen Beitel, Tulsa, Oklahoma
In your article on the Basic Tenets of Karaism you say that the Tanach contains only 24 Canonical Books. I have always believed that the Jewish Bible contains 39 Books: The Pentateuch (5-Books); Historical Books (12-Books); the Writings (5-Books); and the Prophets (17-Books). Can you please tell me which of the above Books you consider not to be canonical? Thank you!
Mission of Karaism
Thomas Eastham, Louisville, KY
I think it's a beautiful thing you're doing. Rabbinic Judaism is nothing less than a spiritual disease, without which the world would be far better off.
Task at Hand
Allen (Avrom Aryeh-Zuk Kahana), Hastings
I believe we have a task ahead of us my friend. A Rabbinical student recently said to me, why don't you Karaites have any self promotion? I replied we did, I even write copious numbers of articles but who knows about us to read them. Certainly not rabbinical Jews, most who haven't even heard of the name Karaites. I've just released a book, "Shadows of Trinity." In it there is a lot of Karaite history and teachings as one of my ancestors Yakov Kahana has to deal with events stirred up by the Rabbinites in Prague. Most will read it as a curious gothic novel, but some will realise that it is a treatise on Karaism as well. The more we educate, the more we will restore our position in the world. Best Regards
I've found the article wonderful and quite logical. I always was keeping similar views and was feeling nutsy not articulating the holy name of our true god YHWH. thanks Leon
Noahide principles
Nathan Frazee, Janesville, Iowa
Is there a Karaite understanding of a Noahide? If so, how and what should I do? Thanks