Karaism: An Intro­duc­tion to the Old­est Sur­viv­ing Alter­na­tive Judaism

January 5, 2022

Karaite Judaism emerged in the ninth cen­tu­ry in the Islam­ic Mid­dle East as an alter­na­tive to the rab­binic Judaism of the Jew­ish major­i­ty. Karaites reject the under­ly­ing assump­tion of rab­binic Judaism, name­ly, that Jew­ish prac­tice is to be based on two divine­ly revealed Torahs, a writ­ten one, embod­ied in the Five Books of Moses, and an oral one, even­tu­al­ly writ­ten down in rab­binic lit­er­a­ture. Karaites accept as author­i­ta­tive only the Writ­ten Torah, as they under­stand it, and their form of Judaism there­fore dif­fers great­ly from that of most Jews. Despite its per­ma­nent minor­i­ty sta­tus, Karaism has been an inte­gral part of the Jew­ish peo­ple con­tin­u­ous­ly for twelve cen­turies. It has con­tributed great­ly to Jew­ish cul­tur­al achieve­ments, while pro­vid­ing a pow­er­ful intel­lec­tu­al chal­lenge to the major­i­ty form of Judaism.

This book is the first to present a com­pre­hen­sive overview of the entire sto­ry of Karaite Judaism: its unclear ori­gins; a Gold­en Age of Karaism in the Land of Israel; migra­tions through the cen­turies; Karaites in the Holo­caust; unique Jew­ish reli­gious prac­tices, beliefs, and phi­los­o­phy; bib­li­cal exe­ge­sis and lit­er­ary accom­plish­ments; polemics and his­to­ri­og­ra­phy; and the present-day revival of the Karaite com­mu­ni­ty in the State of Israel.

Discussion Questions

Exam­in­ing a group that rejects the foun­da­tion­al premise of rab­binic Judaism — the Oral Torah— this book offers a valu­able win­dow into Jew­ish diver­si­ty. It pro­vides an acces­si­ble account of Karaism from its ori­gins to the present time, includ­ing his­to­ry, schol­ar­ship, beliefs, and prac­tices. The book is a trea­sure trove of infor­ma­tion about a group that all Jews should bet­ter under­stand, but its sig­nif­i­cance does not stop there. By explor­ing the rela­tion­ship between Karaites and oth­er Jews in a vari­ety of his­tor­i­cal con­texts (includ­ing those in which the threat of per­se­cu­tion led Karaites to aban­don Jew­ish iden­ti­ty), this study of the old­est sur­viv­ing alter­na­tive Judaism” can also con­tribute to rich­er per­spec­tives on oth­er forms of Jew­ish diversity.