Karaite Converts

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

(Rabbi Rothstein will be co-chairing a Yom Iyun on the Teachings of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein at Lincoln Square Synagogue, Sunday April 29, 9:30am-12:30pm. Keynote address by Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman. Speakers include Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein and Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein.)

5 Iyyar: R. Uzziel on Rejecting and Accepting Karaite Converts

[Click for the audio version].

It’s not easy to remember the tension, bitterness, and challenge of schisms of the past. For more than two hundred years, starting around 900 CE, Karaites were a flourishing alternative to what is called Rabbinic Judaism in English (there are still Karaites today, about 30,000 in Israel and smaller communities elsewhere, including Turkey). During that “Golden Age” of Karaism, important Torah scholars had to spend much time and energy refuting Karaite claims, because ordinary Jews were not clear on who was right.

Karaites Cannot Join the Jewish People

That time left an halachic imprint reflected in two of R. Uzziel’s responsa—Shu”t Mishpetei Uzziel 2; Yoreh De’ah 63-4, the latter of which is dated 5 Iyyar 5709, the first anniversary of the declaration of the State of Israel. He dealt with the tradition that developed, to refuse to accept Karaite converts into (or back into) Judaism.

The rabbis of Istanbul wrote to R. Uzziel on the seventh of Adar 5709 (1949), to find out if he agreed that the establishment of the State of Israel created room to accept Karaites who wished to rejoin the nation. R. Uzziel does not quote their question at any length, but my impression is that they wondered whether the establishment of the State means this is the time of kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles, such that we no longer need to exclude Karaites.

During an exile with no end in sight, we had to reject the Karaites to protect ourselves from one of the many dangers surrounding us. Now that we’re in a stronger position, perhaps we can, from strength, be open to those who would like to join us.

Nothing’s Changed

In his first response, R. Uzziel ignores that element. He tells them this has been dealt with many times before, including by him (in a responsum not included in my Bar-Ilan). He sees no new information that would change the answer given many times before, and accepted by the Jewish people as a whole, so much so that he sees no reason to review the reasons for the decision (which is that these people caused so much damage to the Jews and Judaism that we should not be willing to let them rejoin us).

He adds that there’s also been no meaningful change in how the Karaites act that might have led us to change our attitude, that might have spurred us to welcome them into (or back into) the Jewish people. True, Kaftor va-Ferach (early 14th century, Provence and Israel) already agreed that the Karaites were no worse than they had been—by which I think he meant they were no longer an active threat or attractive alternative to our version of keeping the Torah—but they had also not acted in any way that would change our attitude about their conversion.

He did note that individual Karaites (he, like many sources, calls them Tzedukim, Sadducees, which conflates two different groups) were finding ways to join (either by a formal conversion or just by acting like other Jews and claiming to be Jewish, it sounds like), but he objects to that and thinks we should be stringent about it (should, it sounds like, refuse to accept even individuals and reject or expel them if we discover they have successfully entered a Jewish community).

Examples of Rabbinic Refusal to Accept Karaites

R. Uzziel shares a few stories from different times in history when influential Karaites asked to convert. In one such story, told by Maharshal in Yam shel Shelomo to Kiddushin, the rabbi who was going to perform the conversion for a Karaite passed away suddenly. Sedei Chemed (who grew up in Yerushalayim but later had to move to Turkey and Crimea) told stories of Karaites who offered to donate large sums of money to charitable causes if allowed to convert.

They were refused, with the pungent (and clever) phrase ha-Karaim einam mit’achim le-olam. That literally means “the Karaites are never allowed to become our brothers again,” but is a play on the halachic rule about tears made in a garment upon the news of the death of a close relative. Halachah prohibits mending those, says that those kera’im, those rends in the clothing, einam mit’achin, are never to be sewed up.

That phrase figures in one more story R. Uzziel tells, so maybe it was a trope rather than that one rabbi’s good idea. In this second story, some rabbis refused to have a disputation with Karaites despite their promise to convert should they lose.

His most recent evidence was from the 1935 ruling by a Jerusalem court, that all worldwide Jewry must shun a Jewish man who married a Karaite woman, they and their children.

Why So Strict?

He refuses to debate or discuss sources of such a well-known halachic fact. He does explain the thought process behind it—Karaites are worse than Jews who leave religion, even rebelliously, because those Jews act as individuals, without affecting others. The Karaites from their inception tried to alter Judaism, in a way that would have sundered the covenant with Hashem, since Chazal (Gittin 60b) understood Shemot 24;37 to mean that the Oral Law (which the Karaites disputed) is the linchpin of our connection with Hashem.

That’s why the rabbinic reaction to the Karaites was so vehement, including the decision to separate ourselves from them forever, and so universal that we would ignore even the greatest of rabbis if he argued otherwise (I’m skipping R. Uzziel’s poetic quotes to support these ideas).

To his mind, the cases where circumstances foiled some people’s attempts to accept Karaite converts show Heavenly agreement with our strategy.

His last note in this first responsum is that he was addressing only individuals who wanted to convert. Should an entire community be ready to convert and accept all of Torah, including the Oral Law, he thinks a convocation of rabbis would have to assemble to discuss the matter.

All the Facts Weren’t In

The next responsum, the one with the date of 5 Iyyar, reveals that the rabbis of Istanbul had left out a crucial detail, that this man’s mother was Jewish. That means the “convert” is already Jewish, which obviates the previous discussion—there’s no issue of whether to “accept” him, since he’s a Jew.

They now need to know if they have to treat him as a mamzer, the product of an illegitimate union who is not allowed to marry ordinary Jewish women. Halachah also ascribed to all Karaites a chezkat mamzer, the presumption of being a mamzer, including this man’s father (R. Uzziel does not clarify whether this is a decree, part of our negative response to Karaites, or an expression of our certainty that over the years, enough Karaites have married wrongly that we assume they’re all mamzerim. That would assume that they’re all still halachically Jewish, however).

If the father’s a mamzer, so is the son. On the other hand, a chezkat mamzer means the father is not a definite mamzer, which gives us the leniency that if a woman already married such a man, halachah would not require her to divorce him (because we do not know he’s a mamzer). That should also mean we treat the children as ordinary Jews first because the Gemara trusts women (while pregnant, at least) to certify that the father of their fetus was permitted to her, such that the child would have no lineage problems. Second, there is an halachic principle that any one item that leaves a large group came from the majority (kol de-parish me-ruba parish). That lets us assume the particular Karaite man who married this Jewish woman was from the majority of Karaites, who are not mamzerim.

Now he mentions a minority view that we can accept Karaites back into the Jewish fold; for this man, who has thought of himself as a Karaite, his mother’s Jewishness lets us follow that minority view.

That’s his baseline halachic reaction,  but he thinks it’s ultimately a matter of judgment—these rabbis have to determine that this man (who thinks of himself as a Karaite) sincerely wishes to join the observant Jewish people, which includes accepting the Oral Law. If they do, they should feel free to accept him as a Jew.

He understands that they may feel the need to do this for broader policy reasons (such as that this Karaite man is going to marry a Jewish woman no matter what, so better he be accepted and feel some obligation to observance and halachah than that we reject him and they go off as Karaites, taking her Jewish children with them), and is comfortable with that.

So, for the day the State was established, a reminder of the complicated calculus of trying to keep together a fractious Jewish people, when to take back those who have caused us great trouble, and when to stand firm in our rejection of them.

About Gidon Rothstein

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