Herman on Lasker, 'Karaism: An Introduction to the Oldest Surviving Alternative Judaism'

Daniel J. Lasker
Marc Herman

Daniel J. Lasker. Karaism: An Introduction to the Oldest Surviving Alternative Judaism. The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization Series. London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2022. 268 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-80085-596-0.

Reviewed by Marc Herman (York University) Published on H-Judaic (May, 2022) Commissioned by Robin Buller (University of California - Berkeley)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57630

Karaites, a group of nonrabbinic Jews whose history stretches back more than a thousand years, easily provide the most enduring challenge to rabbinic hegemony. Loosely connected by a shared rejection of rabbinic traditions and legal authority, Karaites flourished in various places and times and were not always second fiddle to a rabbinic majority. Yet Karaites and Karaism have not succeeded in attracting significant scholarly interest. A quick survey of recent Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) conferences turns up just one panel and only a smattering of papers that address any aspect of Karaite history. Most syllabi for survey and introductory Jewish studies classes found on the AJS website and in other repositories, as far as I can tell, likewise omit any mention of Karaites.

The need for the volume under review, the first wide-ranging English-language introduction to the study of Karaite Judaism, is thus abundantly clear. In twelve concise and readable chapters, made admirably accessible to the nonspecialist, Daniel J. Lasker draws on a lifetime of research into what he calls an “alternative Judaism,” that is, a rich Jewish tradition that is decidedly nonrabbinic but, with the notable exception of its modern iteration in eastern Europe, enthusiastically Jewish. Not only is Karaism, Lasker demonstrates, significant in its own right, but its study also can be instructive regarding conventional rabbinic Judaism. Karaism: An Introduction to the Oldest Surviving Alternative Judaism also announces a recent efflorescence of scholarship that has gone almost unnoticed in wider Jewish studies circles. More scholars today are working on Karaite materials than ever before, and increased attention to the manuscripts collected by Abraham Firkovitch, held at the Russian National Library but increasingly available online, promises to revolutionize the study of Karaite Judaism, especially its Judeo-Arabic variety.

Although today Karaites make up only a few small communities, Karaism played a seminal role in the shaping of premodern Judaism. While Lasker avoids the “pan-Karaite” approach to Jewish history, according to which Karaites are either the progenitors, boogeymen, or stimuli behind every development in the history of the Jews, he nevertheless underscores that the “ghettoizing” of Karaite studies has left fascinating and important material outside of conventional scholarly knowledge. At different points throughout Jewish history, Karaites and Rabbanites lived alongside each other, and the relationships between the two groups were not endlessly fraught nor were the boundaries between them always strictly enforced. Even in the absence of living Karaites, particularly in the medieval Mediterranean, Karaism loomed large in the minds of many Rabbanite ideologues. It may not be a stretch to suggest that the rabbinic doctrine of dual (written and oral) revelations almost inevitably led to questions about the authority and authenticity of the Oral Torah—and those questions in turn spurred much Rabbanite writing on these topics. The challenge of Karaism, and of others who questioned rabbinic authority, must be considered one essential factor in the shaping of many premodern Judaisms.

Lasker divides his book into two thematic parts. The first is arranged chronologically, from the obscure origins of “proto-Karaite” figures, through the height of Karaite intellectual activity in Palestine in the tenth and eleventh centuries, to later medieval Byzantium, early modern and modern eastern Europe, and, finally, the contemporary global scene. The second half of the volume addresses central topics in Karaite religious thought, including law, rituals, exegesis, theology, and polemics. The narrative here is also arranged chronologically and fills in details for many of the figures encountered in the first half of the volume. Lasker surveys some of the major historiographic puzzles in each case, and although he advocates for his own views, he does so with a light touch, allowing readers to exercise their judgment. (Perhaps he has in mind the alleged motto of the supposed founder of Karaism, ‘Anan ben David: “Search scripture well, and do not rely on my opinion.”) Helpfully for the undergraduate classroom, each chapter can stand on its own; each is written concisely, with an audience of noninitiates in mind. Lasker even includes brief summaries at the end of each chapter and suggested further readings in the English language.

If there is a central lesson that might be derived from this book, I think it is this: Karaite Judaism is far more interesting and complex than reductive descriptions of a “scripturalist” group let on. As Lasker shows, Karaites frequently veered from what might be expected of those who advocate for a “literal” sense of the Hebrew Bible, often without feeling any need to explain their decisions. Karaite Judaism, it turns out, was a dynamic and evolving tradition, one that confronted many of the same issues faced by larger scriptural religious groups. It is made even more interesting because its members were, and are often dubbed in scholarship as, “a minority within a minority” and reacted to hegemonic cultures in ways that sometimes overlapped with and sometimes differed from those of adherents to rabbinic Judaism. In the Islamic world, for example, Karaites occasionally diverged from their Rabbanite counterparts by choosing to write Arabic in Arabic characters, as opposed to the usual (Judeo-)Arabic in Hebrew characters; they even transliterated the Hebrew Bible into Arabic characters. In one of the more fascinating twists to this story, facing stiff anti-Jewish regulations in eastern Europe, Karaites declared themselves no longer part of the Jewish people. This too is but one extreme Jewish reaction to modernity.

This work of intellectual and cultural history leaves little untouched. Lasker is up to date on scholarly arguments and literature (which is not surprising, given his own vast contributions to the field). One area that lies outside the purview of this volume is the social history of Karaites and of mixed Karaite/Rabbanite communities. The Cairo Genizah, almost uniquely, sheds light on blended Jewish societies, even though they were undoubtedly commonplace in the premodern Middle East and beyond. The results of studies by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, Marina Rustow, David Sklare, Oded Zinger, and others show that the schism (or even the church/sect model) that many medieval authors describe was often only imaginary. These conclusions have much to teach intellectual historians. Indeed, the scriptural commentaries of Abraham Ibn Ezra teem with references to Yefet ben ‘Eli, probably the most important Karaite scriptural commentator. While Ibn Ezra does criticize Karaites in general and Yefet in particular, he is not exclusively censorious of his predecessor from the Karaite heartland. With the publication of forgotten works from the Genizah and elsewhere, it has become increasingly clear that the study of Rabbanite Jewish thought must take into account its Karaite counterpart. Even though few can match the breadth of Lasker’s interest or productivity, one hopes that this volume stimulates a new generation of interest in Karaism.

Citation: Marc Herman. Review of Lasker, Daniel J., Karaism: An Introduction to the Oldest Surviving Alternative Judaism. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. May, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57630

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