Many of you probably already know that, in ancient Roman times, there were three major sects of Judaism: Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. In a nutshell, the Essenes are reputed to have been the group from whom sprang Jesus and who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Pharisees were the spiritual ancestors of modern Jewry – and the Sadducess… Few people, outside of religious Jews could define them without looking them up first.
Ancient rabbinic writings refer to the “Saduqim” (Sadducees) frequently – frequently but never kindly. The reason is that the Saduqim rejected the “oral tradition”, embodied in the Mishna and its commentary, the Talmud. The bulk of what is called “Judaism” today has no clear source in the Bible. Instead, it is derived from the sayings of the sages, who use often far-fetched methods to show how their opinions are actually based on Scripture.
There are often difficulties with rabbinical interpretations of Scripture. First and foremost is the fact that the rabbis themselves admitted that “the Torah spoke in the language of man”. In other words, it was intended for the average Jew (of that time) to be able to understand it. And yet the rabbis would take a commandment such as “do not cook a calf in its mother’s milk” and deduce from it that it is forbidden to eat meat and milk together. According to the rabbis, such prohibitions had always been kept, as they had been transmitted from one generation to the next since the giving of the Torah. Therefore, they were not inventing anything new; only finding sources for what was already known and practiced.
It is problematic for the rabbis that there always seem to have been some Jews who disagreed. The Saduqim were one such group. Since the rabbis claimed to represent the Jews in the eyes of the non-Jewish nations – and in the eyes of most Jews – it is not surprising that rabbinical Jews gained the advantage. So much so that the Saduqim seem to have disappeared from the pages of history by Medieval times. However, not long afterward, a (possibly) new group of scriptural Jews arose – the Qaraites, also spelled Karaites. They seem to have materialized in the Middle East in the 7th or 8th century A.D. The name “Qaraite” (Qara’i in Hebrew) literally means “one who reads” and the word shares the same root as the Arabic “Quran” (something that is read).
It is important to note that Scripture (meaning, of course, the “Old Testament”), lays down no clear definition of who is a Jew. Thus, unlike their rabbinic cousins, Qaraites have simply given any righteous person the status of “Jew” if he joined himself to the people of Israel and was circumcised. This is why, if a Qaraite wishes to become accepted among rabbinic Jews, he must undergo a formal conversion according to rabbinical law. For many centuries, Qaraites and rabbinical Jews have lived oddly parallel lives. At times, the two communities were strongly intertwined. It was Qaraites who were mainly responsible for safeguarding the accuracy of Scripture and originating the vowel system most commonly in use today – and (educated) rabbinical Jews will acknowledge this. At the same time, Qaraites will sometimes acknowledge rabbinical contributions to the understanding of scripture.
For many years I have wanted to meet a Qaraite and not simply out of curiosity. I’ve always had a nagging suspicion that more of the truth may be on their side than most Jews would care to admit. Also, it is only natural for one to wish to reconnect with his long-lost cousin.
Recently I got my wish and met a Qaraite who I’d found online. He turned out to be a very intelligent young man. We conversed about a variety of topics and each of us learned much from the other. We hope to meet again.