I was born into a secular family. I did not have an experience of religion as a child except that my father is something of a deist. He did not approve of organized religion but did speak of G-d in specious terms and was otherwise scientifically inclined. Nevertheless, he spoke often of morality and the right way to behave. Growing up I learned a lot about different faiths, but I was always curious about Judaism. I understood from family that we had some Jewish people in our ancestry, but no one knew anything about it.
As a teenager I became curious about religion. A number of my high school friends were attending various youth groups, most of them of one denomination or another of Christianity. I pondered the question of what does G-d want from me? I was thus open when on one occasion a high school friend invited me to a Jewish service. He mentioned that Rosh Hashana was coming up (the Talmudic New Year holiday that replaced the Biblical Yom Teruah [Day of Shouting]). I went to this service at a Reform synagogue and was nearly brought to tears. We said prayers in Hebrew (a beautiful language), sang songs, and had a great service. I knew there was no turning back from there. In that I had a Jewish background in my family I was readily accepted among several Jewish congregations. The words “I’m Jewish” slowly began to enter my vocabulary.
Attending the high holidays that year made me curious: I wanted to learn more. I began reading about religion, philosophy, and Judaism. I found that I most agreed with what I read about Judaism and a central Enlightenment philosopher named Baruch Spinoza (himself a Jew). I read every book on Judaism that I could get my hands on. The Internet was relatively new back then and was often an unreliable source of information. I began to practice more frequently at the local Conservative synagogue because they prayed more in Hebrew. I enjoyed reading the Torah and the rest of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) as well.
It was not long before I began to notice a disconnect. What we were doing in the synagogues and learning from the Rabbis about the holidays, laws, and practices did not match what was written in the Torah. Around that time I began to practice with the orthodox (Hassidic) and found the distance between what was written and what was practiced still greater. I wanted to find the source of this distance from the Torah. I soon discovered that the much lauded Talmud was the source of my difficulties. Although the Talmud is referred to obliquely in Jewish practice, few Jews really understand what it is. The Talmud centres on the Mishnah, which was written around the 5th century CE by “Rabbis” from the Pharisee religio-political movement. These Rabbis instituted a number of “reforms” that changed Jewish practice and belief. Over time the Talmud, and the commentaries on it, slowly changed Judaism into something no ancient Jew would recognize.
As I studied the Talmud with these orthodox Hassidic Jews things became really weird. When I visited Israel I was able to study Talmud in Yeshiva (Jewish religious school). I began to ask questions: “Why do we celebrate the new year in the fall when the Torah calls the spring month of ‘Nissan’ the first month?” “The Torah says that during the Exodus anyone traveling with the Israelites who was circumcised to be an Israelite was an Israelite, why are converts considered “ger” [a sojourner] when they should be honored as Israelites?” The answers to these questions were not satisfying. It made the Rabbis nervous to have to speak of the sources of Rabbinical authority.
Again and again I heard “the Torah says, but the Talmud explains.” Upon hearing this for the umpteenth time I asked: “Are there any Jews who do not follow this Talmud?” One of my teachers answered: “Yes they are called the Karaites.” He mentioned that they had a synagogue in San Francisco. I decided that I wanted to go learn with these Karaite Jews instead. The Karaites, or Benei Mikra, are the Jews dedicated to the Torah and Tanakh with reasonable human interpretation. To learn more about Karaite Judaism click here.
I visited the Karaite synagogue in 2006 for the first time and I fell in love immediately. My first visit to the Karaite synagogue in Daly City, near San Francisco, was quite an experience. Upon my second, the very next Shabbat, I announced that I wanted to become a Karaite. I was soon enrolled in Karaite Jewish University and was later confirmed as a Karaite Jew by oath (my wife Rachel converted to Judaism there as well and we were married under Jewish law).
The Tsadokim, or Latin Sadducees, were the righteous priestly party that led Judaism from the time of David until the Roman occupation of the Holy Land about a thousand years later. The Tsadokim are celebrated in the scriptures and confirmed by the prophets, several of whom were themselves Tsadokite priests. Only during the Roman Era was the Sanhedrin formed, the source of later Rabbinical authority. The more one reads the scriptures the more one comes to understand the centrality of the priesthood to ancient Judaism. These priests followed the scriptures as they are written making their statutes and religious edicts from the commandments written in the Torah. Ezra the Scribe, a Tsadokite priest himself, had the Torah read to the people in one morning. It is clear from reading the books of his time that the Torah was a written document easily understood anf comprehended by the common people.
I discovered that I was in general agreement with the Tsadokites. Their approach to Judaism was the last official, legitimate form to be endorsed by the prophets during the scriptural era. There is no such endorsement for the Pharisee/Rabbinical form of Judaism. This interpretation of Judaism is also open to a more rational Enlightenment and Spinozan view of Judaism. Unfortunately, we do not have many details of Tsadokite practice or tradition remaining. Thankfully, the Karaite Jews have crafted a sound and reasonable tradition and practice over the last 1200 years. Combining these three creates a powerful, traditional, modern, and authoritative form of Judaism that is much more palatable to most Jews today. In particular, it is devoid of the misogyny inherent to the Tamludic writings. This is what I teach and how I believe Judaism should be practiced.
I learned a lot about devotion to Hashem in the process. He had arranged my entire journey. He made sure I had my doubts and questions, guided me to the right teachers, and He guided me to the only functioning Karaite synagogue in the US at the time (which by coincidence happened to be near my house). There are no coincidences.