History of Karaite Judaism

About 3500 years ago (see post on dating of the Exodus), Moshe (Moses) led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the wilderness. At Mt. Sinai, Moshe gave the Israelites the ten basic commandments and then went on to write a complete constitution for the construction of an entire civilization–a complete society with the basics of civil law, complete dietary laws, rules regarding governance, and establishing a religion to carry these laws forward for future generations.

Moshe had the combined knowledge of Baylonian law and culture, (the Hebrews were a Sumerian people) and that of the Egyptians, as he had been raised and educated as an Egyptian prince (Kamose?). This ancient and divinely inspired construction for society helped to forge the Nation of Israel in the wilderness and led them safely into a new land.

Once arrived, the Israelites immediately began to deviate. They began to go after Canaanite practices and beliefs. Nevertheless, they maintained enough national cohesion that several Shoftim (Heb. Shofet: chieftain or ruler, also mistranslated as judge) were able to liberate them from various foreign invaders. I call this the First Acculturation, a few Canaanite ideas from this time survived in Israelite practice.

After the devastation wrought by the Philistines in the 12th Century BCE (the rulerships of Ehud, Shamgar, (unfortunately these were incorrectly ordered when the book was compiled), and Samson, the religion resurfaced in a central way. The high priests Eli and Shmuel each took on a dual role as shoftim and priest as they slowly knitted together the Israelites into one faith that prayed at one place: Shiloh. The monarchs that followed moved the central location to Jerusalem a few decades later.

Again idol worship reentered Israelite life. Yerevam (Jeroboam) led the northern tribes in secession from the unified kingdom and built altars to Baal, a Canaanite deity represented by a cow. He also established a priesthood that was not made up of the descendants of Aharon (Aaron) or the Levites. Now Israelites were engaging in despicable practices like molech (the passing of the firstborn through fire) and a ritual described by a stele in Ugarit (now in Syria) in which a calf was boiled in its mother’s milk. The cult of Ashera (also Ashratum, Easter)–a mother deity, the wife of El, and the mother/consort of Baal–took up residence in the Temple of Jerusalem complete with temple prostitutes. These rituals were forbidden and yet the Israelites allowed themselves to be led astray after these foreign deities. This I call the Second Acculturation.

King Hezkiyau (Hezekiah) drove them out, but his son restored the idol worship. The next king, Yossiyahu (Josiah) also did away with the idol worship. The change was too late, as the kingdom of Yehudah (Judah) swung back and forth in the geopolitical struggle between Egypt and Chaldea (Babylon), and King Nebuchadnezzar decided he’d had enough. The destruction of Yehudah and Jerusalem led to an exile from the Holy Land.

Once again Israelites began to adopt ideas from other cultures. One major religious idea adopted from the Chaldeans is a special love for the “mystical” number 28. The Chaldeans had an entire temple dedicated to the number wherein every object was made with a dimension of 28. The Babylonians were soon swept aside, however, by the Persians in the late 6th Century BCE.

The Persians follow a religion called Zoroastrianism in which they make no images of their deities, follow laws similar in nature to those of the Torah, and follow a set of priests called Magi (at the time an hereditary role). The Zoroastrians believed in a heaven and a hell in the after life, in a good deity and an evil one. They also believed in an end of days in which a magical prince would reset the world and evil would be destroyed. This was what I call the Third Acculturation. Jews adopted many of these beliefs: an afterlife, the magical Messiah, and the end of days are all derived from Zoroastrianism and did not exist prior to this time.

Upon the return to the holy land Ezra and Nehemiah were able to restore most of ancient Judaism and strike a political balance between adherents of Biblical Judaism and those who wished to add new traditions and beliefs. After a century or so this balance broke down in what I call the Great Heresy: the birth of the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed that great men should be able to control the practice of faith, like the Magi. Their sages could add new commandments to the Torah and subtract others with which they disagreed through various mechanisms of interpretation.

Their “reforms” began small, they added a commandment to wash one’s hands before eating bread, for example. This was in direct violation of Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:2 which commands us neither to add to nor subtract from the commandments of the Torah. Even the following of great sages is discouraged in Tehilim (Psalms) 146:3 which tells us not to place our faith in any son of Adam from whom we may receive no salvation.

The countering movement, the Tzadokim (Sadducees) tried to maintain Biblical Judaism by following only what is written in the Torah. Although much has been written of the Sadducees, most of what is believed about them is incorrect and based largely upon supposition. Most of the historical records about them were written by their enemies. This movement thrived during the reign of the Hasmonean Dynasty (the Maccabees). By the time of the Roman occupation the Sadducees seem to have been a relatively small minority with some political power but a clear second to the majority of Pharisees.

During this time the Pharisees sought power by means of political maneuvering, deceit, and treason. On several occasions they sided with the enemies of the Jewish people in order to secure greater power for themselves, most notably the Seleucids and the Romans. This according to the Historian Josephus, himself a Pharisee.

Another problem during this time was the popularity of mysticism. Zoroastrianism had made its way to Greece where it evolved into the mystery cults. One very popular mystery cult was the Dionysian Cult, the forbear of Kabbalah. These mystery cults focused on magical, manly figures who were supposed to be children of the deities (demigods). Several men were declared to have been manifestations of these deities including the likes of Alexander and Marc Antony. Jews were not immune. Ideas of magical angels, an ultimate resurrection of the dead into an angelic form, and an even more magical Messiah (who would ride down from the clouds on a white horse) spread throughout Jewish communities. Magical amulets and phylacteries were invented called tefillin. These were small black leather boxes to be worn on the head and arms of worshippers. The Passover seder was replaced with the Dionysian symposium, including the ordered drinking of wine, the four questions, and the leaving of a place setting, and the opening of the door, for Dionysus (now exchanged for Eliyahu [Elijah] whom the Rabbis claim never to have died). Ancient Jews, who founded their beliefs upon the real world, nature, and what they understood of science, would have found these ideas ridiculous. This is what I call the Fourth Acculturation.

A Dionysian Bacchanalia.

With the destruction of the Temple, and the later annihilation of the followers of Pharisees Akiva and Bar Kochba (whom Akiva believed to be the Messiah), Judaism went into remission for centuries. The followers of Biblical Judaism and others opposed to the Pharisees seem to have continued at this time in small numbers primarily in Egypt and Babylon (modern Iraq).

The Pharisees continued to be dominant. Some time between the 3rd and Sixth Centuries CE the Pharisee sages, now called Rabbis (Heb. Masters) wrote the Talmud, a series of books recording Pharisee doctrines. The Talmud makes no claim to be divinely inspired nor does it attribute in any way the doctrines contained within it to G-d.

Later, as the Talmud spread it began to be justified as an “Oral Torah,” that had supposedly also been given to Moshe on Mt. Sinai and had been handed down through the generations. Conveniently, only the Pharisees seem to have been aware of it, and also conveniently, it agreed with all of the religious and political motivations of these sages. Essentially, congregations were all but required to accept the Talmud and the authority of the Rabbis because they said so.

Some congregations refused and were later labeled “Karaite” meaning those who read the scriptures. The Karaites slowly coalesced into a separate political movement by the 9th Century CE. The spread of Islam provided the opportunity for the Karaite congregations to be recognized as a separate Jewish movement from the Talmudic Jews. Biblical Judaism thrived and as many as 40% of Jews at the time may have been among the Karaites.

Once again, rather than debate the Biblical Jews in a rational and civilized manner, the Rabbis turned to manipulation, deceit, and treason. Karaites were delegitimized by the Rabbis, intermarriage was disallowed, the communities were separated, and the Rabbis began to seek outside help against the Biblical Jews. The Rabbis convinced the King of Castile to exile the Karaites in the 12th Century (ironically all Jews would be expelled from Spain just three centuries later). Soon, Karaites began to shrink in numbers. The Crusades destroyed a significant Karaite community in Ramle (now in Israel) as well as the community in Jerusalem. The Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem was destroyed and had to be rebuilt after the Crusades.

Then the Kabbalah was developed in the either the 12th or 13th centuries. While I will not go into detail here this tradition of mysticism brings sexual imagery into Judaism along with other Dionysian ideas. This is what I call the Second Great Heresy.

Argentina went on to lose the next match with Germany 4-0.

Biblical Jews did not fare well during this time. A low birthrate and the relative poverty of the Middle East following the Crusades led to a decline among the Karaites. Biblical Judaism faced the real threat of total extinction in the mid 20th Century when the Arab countries expelled the Jews. Karaites moved to Israel, only to become third class citizens in a country dominated by European Jews. Some Karaites moved to the United States and prospered.

Today a new movement of Biblical Judaism seeks to return the Jewish people to the real written Torah and away from the misdirection, idol worship, deceit and treachery of the Talmud. Based upon the scholarship of the Karaites, but independent of it as well, this rational approach to Jewish faith that seeks a more ancient form of Judaism while applying it to a modern lifestyle.

Welcome to Biblical Judaism and may YHVH bless you!

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