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In Israel, Karaites Keep Their Faith — and Distance from Mainstream Jews

September 15, 2003
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They have been branded as one of the worst enemies of the Jewish people.

They have attacked the authority of the rabbis and claimed the Talmud is full of falsehoods, and were allied with some of the cruelest adversaries of the Jews, including the Russian czars and Nazi leaders.

Yet today the Karaites — members of a Jewish offshoot that denies the talmudic-rabbinic tradition — are flourishing in Israel. In fact, some members suggest that the community is experiencing a rare high point in its 1,300-year history.

Mainly concentrated in the cities of Ashdod and Ramla, Israel’s Karaite community is about 30,000 strong. There are about 5,000 Karaites elsewhere in the world, mainly in the United States.

The Karaite sect first appeared in the eighth century, breaking with mainstream Judaism by declaring that Talmudic oral law was a rabbinic invention with no legal authority. Maintaining that the Bible was the sole source of religious law, the Karaites adopted a number of practices that kept them apart from mainstream Jews.

For instance, they embraced such an extreme vision regarding the biblical prohibition of marriages between relatives that they ended up almost condemning their own communities to extinction, nearly disappearing during the Middle Ages.

By 1932, only 12,000 Karaites remained worldwide. A report in 1970 said only 7,000 lived in Israel, the bulk of them in Ramla.

Over the centuries, the Karaites developed a religious tradition of their own consisting of doctrines not found in the Bible.

In Israel today, they have an imposing synagogue and cultural community center in Ashdod that adheres to their particular traditions.

The synagogue’s interior looks much like a mosque, and Karaites remove their shoes before entering the prayer hall, which is an empty space with no seating.

In Israel, the Karaite community has been able to grow thanks to the relaxation of an ancient Karaite law that prohibited “mixed” marriages with Jews, whom they call “rabbinic Jews.”

“I myself allow marriages with rabbinical Jews, but only after checking that there are no incestuous cases in their families,” says Rabbi Haim Levi, the white-bearded man at the head of the Karaite Court of Justice.

Karaites also do not don tefillin or post mezuzahs on their doorposts. They do celebrate Chanukah because, they say, the festival was established after the biblical period.

“We say that it is not possible that the Almighty gave a written law and another oral law, which partially contradicts the former one,” Levi says.

Karaite women do not immerse themselves in mikvahs, as required by Jewish law, instead using showers as a means of spiritual purification after menstruation.

The group also has a different calendar, so the Karaite Yom Kippur does not always match the fast day observed by world Jewry.

Some Karaite interpretations of the Bible are more lax than those of rabbinic Judaism, but other interpretations lead to more strict practices than in rabbinic Judaism, such as those concerning Sabbath observance.

“On the day of rest we don’t leave home, we don’t practice sexual intercourse and, on the eve of Shabbat, we disconnect the refrigerator,” Levi says.

Jews and Karaites have not always gotten along. Each community sees itself as the true carrier of the Jewish tradition and the other as an aberration, and religious differences between the two historically have been treated as an internal Jewish issue.

Enmity between the two communities has increased over the last two centuries.

In Russia, the czars granted the Karaites exemption from military service and gave them equal rights due other citizens, while the Jews were denied those privileges. The Karaites claimed that since they did not follow the Talmud, they were “by nature” different from other Jews.

The Nazis also accepted this argument, and SS troops received clear orders to spare the Karaites from the Holocaust.

But in 1948, Karaites — who had flourished in the Middle Ages under Muslim rule — suffered the same persecution in Arab countries as local Jews, and the Karaites fleeing Arab countries were welcomed by Israel’s young government.

From the early days of the state, however, Israeli rabbinic authorities have kept a distance from the Karaite sect. Rules were set in place that legislated that Karaite butchers had to advertise on their storefronts that their meat was “kosher for Karaites,” and Karaite courts of justice were not recognized by successive Israeli governments.

When a “mixed marriage” takes place between a Karaite and a mainstream Jew, says Prof. Yacov Geler of Bar-Ilan University, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate insists that the Karaite discontinue his or her traditions as a condition of marriage.

“There are some cases of Karaites who fall in love with a Jewish partner, but the rabbinical courts demand that the former abandon their customs,” Geler says. “The Karaites do not favor this type of marriage, and the Jews do even less.”

“Enlightened people don’t hate us, but the rest don’t like us very much,” Levi observes.

Despite their status in Israel, the Karaite community is growing in the Jewish state.

Yet many are lax in their observance of Karaite tradition.

“Most of our community is secular; just a few are orthodox observers,” says Jack Levi, 58, a supermarket manager who describes himself as sonewhat observant.

His son Mark, 16, was recently chosen to be the chazan, or cantor, in at the Karaite synagogue in Ashdod.

Mark studies in an Israeli public school because there is no Karaite school in town. He says he does not hide his religion from his peers and as a consequence does not always have an easy time of it.

“Those who have never heard about us don’t bother about it,” Mark says. “But the reaction of other people is sometimes negative. There are rumors about us.”

Avraham Kefeli, 31, made aliyah four years ago from Ukraine. He has written a book of folklore from his religion, which was published by the Ukranian government. He says the Karaites received special status in Ukraine because the government believed the community there dated back to the period before Jesus’ crucifixion; thus, they were exempt from collective guilt for his death.

Kefeli was raised in a small town of 300 Karaites. He married a woman from his community, and the couple has two children.

Though the Karaites are relatively few, Kefeli says he wants to pass on the tradition to the next generation.

“I want my daughter and son to marry Karaites too, with God’s help,” he says.

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