Membership, Community, Diversity

Who were the Karaites?

Around the middle of the eighth century, Anan ben David (c. 762-767) was elected counterexilarch of the Jewish communities in Iraq. Tradition has it that he laid the foundations of a school of thought that would come to be called the Karaites (from the Hebrew “to read, recite scripture”) because of their emphasis on scripture as the sole basis of Judaism. Like latter-day Sadducees, the Karaites rejected centuries of oral tradition as superfluous. Like the Maccabees of old, they proclaimed every individual his own rabbi, capable of interpreting scripture for himself. Benjamin of Nehavand (c. 850) is said to have further developed the thought of Anan during the ninth century. The principal systematizer of Karaite thought was Daniel ben Moshe (c. 900), who led a kind of proto-Zionist movement in Jerusalem. Karaite rejection of Talmudic learning gave rise to preaching a need to return to the Holy Land. Talmud and later oral tradition had, they argued, generally developed as a way of adapting the Law to Jewish communities in exile. Return to the Land would imply a return to the original sources and hence obviate the need for adaptive interpretation. Saadia (882-942), the most famous Gaon of the Iraqi communities, led a vigorous counterattack against the Karaite position, insisting on the need to combine tradition with revelation and reason for a balanced approach. Small groups of intellectual descendants of the original Karaites survived into the twentieth century, but they have had little influence in recent times.


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