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Movement of Karaism - The Begininng

Many non-Karaites scholars trace the origins of Karaism to ‘Anan Ben-Dawid. There are scholars who trace the origins of Karaism to the transition from the Persian period in modern-day Iraq to the Arabic period, in the middle of the seventh century. Still other scholars trace the origins of Karaism to the “sects” of the Boethusians and Sadducees of the second temple period. Certainly medieval Rabbanite scholars were among those, as one of them writes upon the founding of Karaism: “Thereupon ‘Anan was seized with a wicked zeal - he and with him all manner of evil and worthless men from among the remnants of the sect of Saddoq and Boethus set up a dissident sect...” Clearly, there is disagreement about the founding of Karaism amongst scholars. What does hold true, however, regardless of scholarly disagreement, is the fact that there has always been a contingent in Torah-observant Israel, whether this was the majority or the minority, who rejected any source of divine law other than the TaNaKh. Consequently, most Karaites trace the origins of Karaism to the giving of the Torah. For them, Karaism is a term that is used only to differentiate the movement of true Torah observance from that of the contrived “laws” of the Rabbanites.

One of the defining moments in the development of Karaism as it is today was the writing of the Mishnah and Talmud, which culminated in 500 c.e. A product of the upper ruling classes, the Talmud, and its process of codification, was a means of suppressing and controlling the uneducated masses of Jewry. Its mountains of harsh, petty religious requirements consumed the lives of the Jews who were forced by the political power of the exilarch to observe its strictures under pain of financial penalty, torture or death.

With the coming of the Arabs in the seventh century, the ability of the Jewish underclass to relocate to Armenia, Azerbaijan and other provinces conquered by the Arabs made possible the escape of those who would not live under the imposing rule of Jewish upper class exploiters. Only then were they able to maintain a true Torah way of life, unhampered by the political and economic concerns of their former superiors. This is not the genesis of Karaism itself, but rather that of a great many movements which were born in revolt to the unleashing of the Talmud on the Jewish people. These sects were by the nature of those who founded them, individualistic and ascetic. They rejected the permanent authority of a single individual to interpret the law. Each man was responsible to understand the Torah and arrive at his own interpretation of it.

The orginisation of the Karaites was rather loose and informal until the sevnth century c.e., but after that, due to Rabbanite coersion, it became necessary to organise and by the next century the first universally recognized leader of Karaism was ‘Anan Ben-Dawid. A member of an aristocratic Rabbinite family, he discovered the follies of Rabbanism, and wrote the first systematic non-Rabbinic theological document. While Karaism existed before him, this is why he is often noted as the father of Karaism.

‘Anan himself did not attract many adherents; however, beginnings are often small. Over time, the concepts he wrestled with inspired many other people to adopt the principles of Karaism. By the time of Dani’el Ben-Mosheh al-Qumisi in the tenth century, Karaism had spread throughout the East.

In the course of history, as with all things, the movement changed. Many of its early characteristics were tempered by the movement of Karaites back into the larger Jewish communities. Eventually, asceticism gave way to the rise of a Karaite aristocracy and a wealthy upper class. Admittedly, during the course of its development, Karaism has obtained, and consequently had to be purged from, Rabbanite influence.