Every age in the history of Judaism has had its own division into rival sects and movements, each of which claimed to be the sole bearer of the authentic interpretation of the Torah—and that its opponents were hopelessly mistaken or deceitful.
During the Middle Ages the sectarian division in many Jewish communities was between Rabbanites and Karaites. The former label applied to those who followed the religious leadership of the rabbis, which claims to be founded on an oral tradition that was consolidated into the Talmuds; The latter group denied the validity of that tradition and accepted only the Bible itself as authoritative. Though the Karaites are today a marginal group amounting to a few thousand adherents, they were once a force to contend with, comprising up to forty percent of the world’s Jewish population.
It was natural for the medieval Rabbanites, when attempting to formulate a policy toward their current rivals, to seek guidance in the ancient rabbinic texts. The Mishnah had denied admission to the next world to those who reject the supernatural authority of the oral Torah or to the "Epicureans." The Talmud defined the heretical Epicurean as someone who derides the rabbis and their teachings. The Karaites fit these definitions precisely.
In the twelfth century, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the quintessential champion of theological rationalism, was drawn in some respects to a universalism that transcended sectarian or ethnic parochialism. But on the other hand, precisely because he attached such decisive importance to correct theological beliefs, he was impelled to deal most strictly with those who espoused unacceptable ideas. In his multiple roles as rabbi, jurist, commentator, philosopher and community leader, we sense the difficult task he faced in trying to steer a proper course in defining a normative policy toward the Karaites.
In his earlier works, when confronting with the issues from a more theoretical standpoint, he was more likely to echo the very harsh talmudic denunciations of heretics and dissenters. In fact he extended those condemnations into an actual directive to execute the traitorous heretics without due process, such as by casting them into pits—or where circumstances do not permit that—to contrive more roundabout methods for the elimination of the sinners. Maimonides cited an ancestral tradition to the effect that executions of this sort had been carried out in the “lands of the west.” The culprits were not being punished as sinners; rather, they were being eliminated preemptively as imminent threats to the Jewish people.
But there was also a kinder, gentler and more tolerant Maimonides who peeks out from the pages of some of his other writings. It is clear that his views about Karaites underwent a drastic change during the course of his lifetime.
For example, in one of his responsa he wrote about Karaites and Rabbanites praying in the same synagogue. Although he ruled that the Karaites may not be counted as part of the quorum (since they reject the rabbinic liturgical framework), they need not be expelled—let alone executed.
In his responsum he advocated a permissive policy of acceptance and cooperation with regard to the biblical precepts that the Karaites did observe, such as circumcising their sons and drinking their wine. Some scholars were certain that the Maimonides who had elsewhere taken such a hard line on the Karaites could never have expressed such a liberal attitude, and therefore were impelled—incorrectly—to deny that he was this document’s true author.
Maimonides’ reversal of attitude left visible traces in the manuscripts of his earlier works, in which he continued to insert textual revisions throughout his life. In some of those emendations he insisted that the harsh measures he had previously advocated for dealing with the Karaites and other heretics applied only to the movements’ founders who had wilfully rebelled and rejected the authentic Torah tradition. We must, however, adopt a more forgiving attitude toward their latter-day descendants who were reared in that faith and cannot be held culpable for their deviant beliefs.
In justifying his position, Maimonides adduced talmudic categories such as that of “a child who was taken captive by gentiles” and grew up without any knowledge of Judaism, and hence their transgressions cannot be viewed as deliberate; or “they are merely following their ancestral traditions,” a classification originally used to explain how gentiles outside the holy land did not really worship their idols. Even after being exposed to rabbinic teachings, their Karaite upbringing had prejudiced them against giving them a fair hearing. Such misguided Jews should be approached amicably in hope of returning them to the fold of rabbinic Judaism—but in any case, violence should be scrupulously avoided.
It might be that Maimonides was simply mellowing with age; but there is good reason to suppose that his change of heart was influenced to the differing historical and social realities in the various localities to which he was relating.
Thus, in his epistle to the Jews of Yemen, he instructed them that a lenient policy was warranted only in Egypt where the Karaites did not pose a serious threat to the well-educated Rabbanite community; but that in Yemen, where there were fewer qualified rabbinic teachers and hence the youth were more vulnerable to heretical influences, there might be a call for more drastic measures—including assassinations.
Relations between the sects were very rancorous in Andalucia and Morocco where Maimonides spent his formative years. Indeed, he draws a crucial distinction between those Karaites who followed their own traditions peaceably but acted respectfully toward other Jews (as was apparently the case in Egypt, where the two communities cooperated on communal matters and frequently intermarried) and those who actively attacked and ridiculed their Rabbanite opponents. The former “should be treated with respect and dealt with honestly; relations with them should be conducted in humility and in the path of truth and peace.”
I am hesitant, to say the least, to draw practical conclusions from this historical episode for our contemporary situation in which the profusion of Jewish denominations and ideologies is at once more fragmented and more nebulous. For many of us, the theological controversies that generated modern Jewish movements now appear out of sync with the challenges that really confront us today as Jews and as humans.
As Maimonides came to appreciate, a personal acquaintance with our flesh-and-blood neighbours can sometimes overcome the most rigid of ideological barriers.
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