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September 2007

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Monday, September 3, 2007
Heretic of the month: Anan Ben-David

This is part of our Sep/Oct 2007 issue.

Who gets to interpret the Torah? For the last 1300 years, the traditional Jewish answer has been: the rabbis. Want to decide Jewish law? Fine. Here's your curriculum: several years of intensive Bible and Talmud study, and a final exam consisting of detailed legal questions regarding dietary, family purity, and Sabbath laws. Receive ordination from a rabbi who himself -- until the last forty years, always "himself" -- received it from a qualified rabbi, and you're all set. Until then, however, it's not your place to decide questions of law, for yourself or for others.

Of course, within the rabbinic tradition, there are a lot of peculiar ideas -- not least, the convenient belief that said tradition actually dates all the way back to Mount Sinai. Never mind the fact that the Talmudic rabbis were, themselves, always disagreeing about what the law says, and that the Bible nowhere mentions a full-blown system of oral law. Actually, were told, every "jot and tittle" of Jewish law is part of an oral tradition that dates back to the earliest days of the Jewish covenant with God.

Disagree with that idea, and you're a heretic. A Karaite, to be precise -- literally, someone who reads (as in, the Bible — the Hebrew word may actually be derived from mikra, Bible, rather than likro, to read) for him or herself. The founder of this breakaway sect was a sage named Anan Ben David, this issue's heretic of the month.

Anan lived in the eighth century, shortly after the final codification of the Babylonian Talmud. Unsurprisingly, there are varying accounts of his life -- this is one of those areas in which dueling sects battle it out in Wikipedia entries. According to some, Anan and his brother Josiah were both eligible to be the Exilarch, the head of the Jewish community in exile in Babylonia, with Anan losing out to his brother. But there is little textual evidence of this, and many claim that the story is a fabrication by Anan's followers, who sought, long after his death, to boost his reputation.

What is undisputed is that Anan had independent, and idiosyncratic, interpretations of Biblical law, which placed him squarely at odds with rabbinic tradition. And, lest one think that "independence" equals liberalism, Anan's approach to Jewish law was often much stricter than that of the Talmudic sages. For example, Anan rejected the Talmudic expansion of "do not cook a kid into its mother's milk" to include everything from (in our culture) cheeseburgers to chicken parmesan. (Did you ever see a chicken producing milk?) But then, he was so strict about methods of slaughter, and standards for contamination, that most meat was prohibited anyway.

Or, to take another example, traditional Jews know that if you turn a light on before Shabbat, you can leave it on -- but not according to Anan, whose views often bordered on the ascetic. Anan was also prone to outrageous stretches of interpretation -- including word-play that put the Talmudic rabbis to shame -- to locate current practice in Biblical scripture.

In fact, while Anan's anti-rabbinic attitude appealed to many, his ideas were so strict that, within a generation, his Karaite successors were already squabbling amongst themselves over which to keep and which to discard. Within a century, Anan's views became known as "Ananism," as distinct from Karaism, which, like rabbinic Judaism, evolved to meet the worldly needs of ordinary people. Some Karaites continued to follow Anan's views, eventually turning toward a hermit-like, almost monastic existence. But most did not, and by the tenth century, Karaism had grown to rival rabbinic Judaism in acceptance and importance. Karaism produced its share of sages, like Benjamin al-Nahawendi, who produced his own code of law based on allegorical and even philosophical readings of the Bible, and several critics of Anan, including Moses al-Kumisi and Ishmael of Akbara.

But for the active persecution of Karaism, Judaism might well have split into two sects -- not unlike Islam, which was similarly divided between Sunnis who believed the hadith (religious law) was more or less fixed in tradition, and Shi'ites who, a bit like the Karaites, saw themselves as empowered to interpret it. Indeed, throughout much of the ninth century, Karaite scholars were often held in higher regard than rabbinic ones.

That all changed with Saadia Gaon (892-942), one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time, arguably the first Jewish philosopher -- and a severe critic of the Karaites. Where other sages had more or less put up with Karaism, Saadia went on the attack, excommunicating the entire sect, forbidding intermarriage with them, and publishing detailed refutations of their ideas. The movement never recovered. It did endure -- remarkably, Karaism has had its own parallel history for the last 1200 years, and there are up to 30,000 Karaites still alive today, mostly in Israel. But despite a rich history of sages, communities, books, and movements (and, today, websites and logos and MySpace pages), Karaism remains on the fringe of Judaism, regarded by most as a heretical sect.

Of course, today, it's hardly shocking to "not recognize the authority of the post-Biblical tradition incorporated in the Talmud and in the latter rabbinic works," as the website karaites.org summarizes the Karaite belief: most Jews don't. But there's that distinction between heretics and everyone else, which we've seen month after month in this column: heretics are believers. From Anan's idiosyncratic asceticism to the faithful of today, Karaism is not agnosticism; it's a different way of being religious. Just not the one the rabbis want you to see.

***
Previous heretics include: Shabbetai Tzvi, Jacob Frank, Baruch Spinoza, and Joseph Rabinovitch. Next issue's heretic: The Witch of Endor. And we're not talking about the fictional one from the Horatio Hornblower series. We're talking about the real, live, Jewish one who predicted King Saul's downfall.

-- Text by Jay Michaelson / Photo Courtesy the Encyclopedia Judaica.

This is part of our Sep/Oct 2007 issue.
posted by Benyamin | 12:53 PM | Link | |
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