The Jews who take off their shoes for shul

After 500 years, the ancient Karaite sect is starting to accept converts, reports Sina Cohen


A ceremony seldom seen: taking the biblical pledge of Ruth, ‘Your people shall be my people’, at a Karaite conversion

A ceremony seldom seen: taking the biblical pledge of Ruth, ‘Your people shall be my people’, at a Karaite conversion

In August a rare event will take place in Daly City, California: after a year of intense study, some 20 people from across the world - including Russia, Australia and the UK - will swear fealty to Karaite Judaism.

It will be only the third known conversion ceremony since 1465 performed by the Karaites, the ancient sect that differs from Orthodoxy in not recognising the divine authority of the Oral Law. The Karaite Council of Sages in Israel decreed a change in their conversion policy only 17 years ago, enabling non-Jews and other Jews to embrace Karaite Judaism. The first ceremony took place in 2007.

Karaites are "followers of the Scripture (derived from the Hebrew "to read") and use p'shat, plain meaning,to interpret the Tanach, the Bible, as opposed to the varying forms of interpretation found within the mainstream rabbinic branch of Judaism. Karaites recognise only Tanach as divinely given, and while they do not outright reject the talmudic traditions of the rabbis, they consider them as commentary and not divinely inspired. Karaites, for their part, consider themselves to be followers of Judaism in its truest and purest manifestation.

Israel is now home to most of the world's 50,000 Karaite Jews, who have been separated from mainstream Judaism for centuries. Most came from Egypt and Syria following the 1956 and 1967 wars. They are fully recognised as Jews by the state of Israel, serve in the Israeli military and are integrated into Israeli life, with at least 11 active synagogues across the country.

"The oldest synagogue in Jerusalem is the [12th century] Karaite synagogue in the Old City," Nehemia Gordon, an active Karaite in Jerusalem, proudly exclaims. "The first known Bible commentaries are Karaite commentaries, and the early Masoretes [Torah scribes and scholars] were Karaites. We like to say Moses was the first Karaite."

Jerusalem-based Gordon grew up in an Orthodox home, the son of a Chicago rabbi. After concluding that Talmud was the word of man and not another revealed Torah, he was drawn to Karaite Judaism. He helped the movement by launching a website, karaite-korner.org. "We're Jews first and Karaites second," Gordon stresses. "Within Judaism, we accept the Karaite approach as opposed to the Orthodox, Conservative or Reform approach."

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, when Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi, proclaimed that Karaites are Jews lechol davar ("for all purposes") and other Jews may marry them. The Chief Rabbi of Netanya, David Hayim Chelouche, who has written a great deal about Karaites, says. "We accept them as Jews and every one of them who wishes to come back [to mainstream Judaism] we accept back." But while accepting Karaites as Jews, Orthodoxy does not accept the legitimacy of their position on the Oral Law.

Karaites view many aspects of rabbinic law as contradictory to the Torah. "There are three main concepts that Karaite practice is based on," explains Hacham Moshe Firrouz of the Karaite synagogue in Beersheba, Israel: "The written word of the Bible, logical interpretation, and tradition."

Some of their practices raise eyebrows among rabbinic Jews, to say the least. For example, Karaites do not wear tefillin. They read the biblical passage from which commandment is derived metaphorically and consider the wearing of tefillin to be an "over-literalisation" on the part of the rabbis.

Karaites also have no problem eating milk and meat together (granted that both the milk and the meat are kosher), as they reason that the passage that commands Jews "not to boil a kid in its mother's milk" is an explicit violation against a specific pagan fertility ritual practised by the Canaanites, rather than a law encoding dietary practice.

But there are many prevalent misconceptions about the group: contrary to belief, they do not hang tzitzit on walls or sit in total darkness on Shabbat.

Enter the Karaite synagogue in Beersheba and you might easily mistake it for a traditional synagogue, were it not for for the inconspicuous shoe-lined compartments in the small anteroom outside the sanctuary. As worshippers enter, they remove their shoes, wash their hands and proceed to the sanctuary where they bow towards the ark: the sanctuary contains beautiful carpets, with only a few chairs at the back (reserved for the elderly). Just like many synagogues, the women proceed to the balcony while men remain on the ground level.

Members of the community can take advice from a hacham (someone especially learned), but it is not binding. According to Firrouz, "Rabbinic Judaism has taken the responsibility away from the individual and given it to the rabbis. But you can't say on Judgment Day that the rabbi told me this or that - the responsibility is on the individual. Every person's decisions are on his head and that's why each person should read and try to understand the Torah."

Karaites in Israel enjoy a relatively undisturbed presence among their rabbinic neighbours. "In some ways, we have more rights than the Conservative or Reform movements," notes Gordon. "Karaite marriages are recognised by the state of Israel, whereas Conservative or Reform marriages are not. The marriages aren't recognised by the rabbinate, but we don't really care. They are recognised by the state."

So if the Karaites are actually the descendants of an unbroken chain of true scriptural observance since Sinai, why are their numbers so much lower than those of rabbinic Jews? "How many followers you have has nothing to with how right you are," says Firrouz. By that logic,"you might come to the conclusion that the Chinese are the real chosen people of the world."

Sina Cohen recently graduated from Royal Holloway, London where he was president of the Jewish society

Last updated: 9:52am, June 23 2011