After years of relative quiet, rabbis working for Israel’s Ministry of Religion have reopened an old controversy by claiming that Karaites are not truly Jewish, reports The Economist (May 18).
For many centuries Karaites have lived a separate life: this ancient current of Judaism does not accept the Talmud (oral law) or rabbinical traditions, and its followers only recognize the Torah (Hebrew Bible)—thus they have sometimes been dubbed as “Protestant Jews.”
While Karaites in Egypt and other areas of the Arab world always identified themselves as Jews, communities of Karaites living in the Russian Empire in the 19th century developed an understanding of themselves as a separate, Mosaic religion, distinct from Jews (which allowed them to be spared from Nazi persecutions in Russia during the Second World War). Whatever their self-understanding, mainstream Judaism considers Karaites to be heretical.
A declining group around the world, Karaites settled in Israel (primarily immigrants from Egypt) and seem to have enjoyed some sort of revival and growth in recent years: they are reported to number around 30,000 in the country and in 2010 inaugurated a new synagogue in Ashdod. While making up less than 1 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, their presence once again raises the question of Jewish identity.
The Economist reports that rabbis working for the state have started to deem Karaite marriages to be invalid and have requested in some cases the conversion of Karaite women wanting to marry Orthodox Jews. Karaite butchers have also been fined for labeling their meat as kosher. But Israel’s Supreme Court has forced the rabbis to legitimize Karaite marriages again.
However, Karaites do not merely ask for their rights: they are also considering setting up their own institutions in reaction to rabbis who refuse to recognize them as Jews. At a recent seminar a representative of the Karaite community “asked the Israeli state to recognise his Bet Din, or religious court, so that he could license marriages and be paid a salary.” In a different way, beside the definition of Jewish identity, the predicament of the Karaites is similar to some issues faced in Israel by non-Orthodox sections of Judaism and once again raises the question of the role of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate on such issues.