Chatting with the Karaites

You don’t hear much about the Karaites. That despite the fact that the only Karaite synagogue in America is right here in the Bay Area, B’nai Israel in Daly City. So when I got a call last week asking if I’d like to sit down with Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef Firrouz, the chief rabbi of the world Karaite community, I said sure.

I’ve long been fascinated by the Karaites, a community of Jews who follow the Torah but eschew the rabbinic writings, most notably the Talmud. Once spread throughout Iraq and Syro-Palestine, they co-existed with rabbinic Judaism until the time of Sa’adia HaGaon, the 10th-century sage who excoriated them as apostates and demanded they be excluded from mainstream Jewry. And so they have been ever since, much to their chagrin.

The American Jewish community doesn’t pay much attention to the Karaites, they being so small in number. Aside from the 1,500 or so in Daly City, there are but several families and individuals nationwide. But 25,000 to 30,000 Karaites, most of them immigrants from Egypt, live in Israel, where they are accepted as Jews according to the Law of Return, they serve in the IDF and their historic Jerusalem synagogue is a major tourist attraction. But, not unlike Reform and Conservative Jews, they continually struggle with the Orthodox-controlled Rabbinate for recognition and support.

Just last week, Israel’s Supreme Court handed them an important victory, ruling that the Rabbinate could no longer threaten to withdraw kosher certification from slaughterhouses that allowed Karaite slaughter, which differs slightly from standard Orthodox practice.

That ruling followed several other recent court victories, including one that forced the Ministry of Religious Affairs to stop denying them the correct forms to obtain religious divorces, a practice that Rabbi Firrouz, who lives in Israel, characterized as pure harassment.

Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef Firrouz in Daly City on July 31 (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky

“According to the law, we have all the rights and duties of an Israeli Jew,” he told me during our hour-long conversation inside the small Daly City synagogue building. “We are not weird, strange people on the margins.”

Firrouz, 43, has been head Karaite honcho since December 2011. The Israeli-born son of Egyptian Jewish immigrants, he lives in Beersheva, where he’s working on his Ph.D. in Jewish thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

My first question was, if the Karaites oppose rabbinic Judaism, why is he called “rabbi”? Firrouz smiled. That’s for the Israeli authorities, and the outside world in general, he explained. Within the Karaite world, he and other spiritual leaders are known as chachamim, or “wise ones,” a title conferred by their Council of Sages, which is headquartered in the Israeli city of Ramla.

Karaites do things differently than other Jews. They take off their shoes in the synagogue, they prostrate themselves in prayer, they don’t care for yarmulkes — although Firrouz and the men accompanying him all had head coverings. They follow patrilineal, not matrilineal descent. And they cling to the Torah as the word of God, with each Karaite taking responsibility for his or her own understanding and observance. As chief rabbi, Firrouz offers guidance, but it’s up to each person and each community to decide practice, within certain parameters.

“He’s not the boss of anyone,” one man in Firrouz’s entourage offered, to general chuckling.

For example, the biblical prohibition on boiling a kid in its mother’s milk? That’s taken literally, meaning that so long as there’s no chance of an actual blood relationship, meat and milk may be consumed together. Some Karaite communities are loose about it; others may serve goat cheese with beef and cow milk with lamb; still others may place meat and milk separately on the table and permit diners to do what they will.

Memorial wall in the Karaite synagogue in Daly City (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Karaites focus on trying to determine a commandment’s original intention, and look askance at modern rabbinic attempts to get around prohibitions in order to make life easier. Shabbat elevators? Imitation bacon? That’s not the Karaite way.

Firrouz took me through an example: the Shabbos goy, a Talmudic invention. Torah says that on the seventh day you shall not work, and neither shall your children, your servants, or your domestic animals. If that is so, he said, if the Torah respects animals so much that they, too, deserve rest on the Sabbath, how then could we Jews lower a human being below the status of a donkey?

“Yet the Oral Torah [Talmud] says a person can work for you, a human being created in the image of God!” he exclaimed. “How can you put a person below the level of an animal?” Jews are meant to be “lights unto the nations,” he reminded me, serving as an example of correct, moral behavior. Who would want to be a Jew if they see us behaving so brutishly, he asked?

Karaites are making inroads in Israel, Firrouz told me. Most of the marriages he’s performed in the last two or three years have involved a Karaite and a “rabbinate” or mainstream Jew, he said, and the couples then join the growing Karaite community. “We have more in common than what divides us,” he said.

Firrouz was in the Bay Area this week to officiate at a group conversion, which has taken place at the Daly City synagogue every other year since 2007. Fourteen individuals were welcomed into Karaism on Aug. 3, from Kansas, Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Israel. It was the culmination of an 18-month online study course organized by the Jewish Karaite University, founded in 2005 to bring new blood into the ancient community. J. wrote about the first mass ceremony in Daly City eight years ago, described to us as the first Karaite conversions in the world since 1465. More than 50 converts have joined the community since then, all of them in ceremonies at the Daly City shul.

What about women, I asked — can they become Karaite rabbis? Certainly, Firrouz said. Two women were part of the last candidates’ class in Israel; they didn’t finish the process, but he said he’s “waiting eagerly” for the first Karaite woman to be ordained as a “chacham” and join the Council of Sages.

“It’s important that a woman be involved in the decisions of the Sages, because she sees things differently than a man,” he said.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].