Were I ever to convert to Judaism, I might become a Karaite. Sometimes falsely charged with being heretical, Karaites rightly insist that they are Jews. In Israel, where most of them live, they are so regarded. Their marriages are accepted as valid by the state, while those of Conservative and Reform rabbis are not.
Of all the branches of Judaism that exist today, the Karaites strike me as by far the most faithful to the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. Bravely independent, they scoff at that Supreme Fiction, the Oral Law, and its lumbering, egregious vehicles the Mishnah and the Talmud. They feel no need to assume the huge burden of allegorical interpretation generated by rabbinical sciolism, often conducted in covert imitation of Christian hermeneutics, that has been imposed on Jewish life.
Karaites staunchly reject the authority of the rabbis, and view many aspects of rabbinic Halacha as contradictory to the plain meaning of the Torah. When interpreting the Tanakh, Karaites strive to adhere to the plain meaning (p'shat) of the text. This approach stands in stark contrast to rabbinical Judaism, which employs a fourfold menu of p'shat, remez ("implication" or "clue"), drash ("deep interpretation," based on breaking down individual words) and sod ("secret," the deeper meaning of the text, drawing on the Kabbalah). As I have shown in an earlier posting, this baroque exegetical quartet stems from a similar Christian foursome invented some centuries earlier.
Eventually, in the course of the nineteenth century, most Christian exegetes had sense enough to discard this nonsense. The Karaites, however, were way ahead of them, as they had never accepted these devices in the first place.
Such interpretive complexities long served to enhance the mystique of the rabbis. The Karaites thought differently,. Instead of relying on a rabbi, one should read and interpret Scripture for oneself. How refreshing!
Of course some people are more learned than others, and there is no reason for not talking to them about Scripture. We are, after all, social beings. In fact, Karaite authorities recommend that one should consult with as many people as possible where there is a question of uncertainty. [Today, the Internet makes that practice much easier than heretofore.] One can take the advice of a hacham (an especially learned member of the community), but that advice is not binding and the hacham has to be able to prove his or her view from the Torah.
"There are three main concepts that Karaite practice is based on," explains Rabbi Moshe Firrouz of the Karaite synagogue in Beersheba. "There is the written word of the Bible, logical interpretation, and tradition."
Firrouz stresses that one is not allowed to make any sort of rule that contradicts the Torah, and if one gives an explanation for one of the passages, that explanation must not contradict any other part of the Torah.
Such interpretive methods foster practices that raise eyebrows among rabbinic Jews. For example, Karaites decline to wear tefillin. They read the biblical passage from which that commandment is derived metaphorically, and consider the wearing of tefillin to be an "over-literalization" on the part of the rabbis. Karaites also have no problem eating milk and meat together (as long as both the milk and the meat are kosher), for they reason that the passage that commands Jews "not to boil a kid in its mother's milk" is an explicit prohibition against a pagan fertility ritual practiced by the Canaanites,and not a law encoding a universally applicable dietary practice.
Historically, Karaites flourished especially during the classical age of Islam, when it is estimated that about ten percent of Jews belonged to this group. Their actually origins are disputed, but clearly they split off not long after 200 CE, when rabbinic Judaism began its career of reshaping Judaism. Regrettably, there are but few Karaites in the world today--at most, 30,000. (They are not to be confused with the Samaritans, who have a different Bible from the one Karaites and rabbinic Jews use.)
The Israeli Karaite scholar Nehemia Gordon maintains an English-language Web site, www.karaite-korner.com, where he provides detailed explanations for Karaite beliefs and links to other resources.
So why, one may ask, if the Karaites actually descend from an unbroken chain of true scriptural observance established in early times, are their numbers so much lower those of rabbinic Jews?
"How many followers you have has nothing to with how right you are," declares Rabbi Firrouz. "[If you follow that logic], then you might come to the conclusion that the Chinese are the real chosen people of the world." [as in fact they may be--WRD]
The question remains: how is it that rabbinic Judaism, with all of its absurdities and accretions, triumphed, while the right-thinking Karaites were left behind? All I can say is that the ways of the Lord are inscrutable.
Come to think of it, though, I doubt that I could become a Karaite. There are still those two pesky verses in Leviticus 18 and 20, the second of which calls for my death.