The Karaites and Conversos

Most people familiar with my work know that my area of primary expertise is Sephardic history, more specifically the Crypto-Jewish experience. While investigating this area of study, one interesting episode in the history of Conversos brought the topic of the Karaites/Qaraites to my attention.

In 1391 thousands of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula converted to Christianity under coercion. Thousands of Jews had been killed in violent attacks that lasted through the summer months. Thousands more converted, and these individuals were known as Conversos. They constituted a new class in Castilian and Aragonite societies. The Conversos were a self-perpetuating group. That is, their children, grandchildren, etc. were classified as Conversos. Most Conversos remained in the Peninsula, and many lived hybrid lives caught between Christian and Jewish identities. Many Conversos, however, opted to escape the Peninsula to return to Judaism openly.

In 1449 an event would strangely intersect Conver-sos and Karaites/Qaraites. A group of two dozen Con-versos fleeing the Iberian Peninsula made their way to Cairo to reintegrate into the Jewish community. Surprisingly, they chose the Karaite/Qaraite one.

The Karaites or Qaraites derive their name from the word kara or qara in Hebrew, meaning to read. The term Mikra or Miqra refers to the Tanakh, i.e., the He-brew Bible. As the name implies, the Karaites saw themselves as Scripturists and rejected the necessity and validity of the Oral Law as understood in classical Jewish circles.

The comparison between Conversos and Qaraites is particularly interesting since those Conversos that retained Jewish practice often developed a modified faith more independent of traditional rabbinic exegesis. Perhaps this was to be expected. Many Conversos’ familiarity with traditional Judaism lessened with the decline of openly practicing Jewish communities throughout the 15th century and the increasing anti-Converso sentiment among Old Christians, i.e., Christians from non-Jewish origins.

For many Conversos, the Bible became more central to their Jewish identity. It was often understood, however, independent of traditional Jewish interpretations. The perceived focus of Karaites/Qaraites on the biblical text may have appealed to some of these individuals like those who journeyed to Cairo in 1449.

Whatever the case, the question of the Jewish identity of Conversos brought to me wonder how Kara-ites/Qaraites were viewed theologically as well as practically by the rest of the Jewish community.

Having also intently studied Jewish identity in the Second Temple Era, my interest peaked again. I have already written a short work titled, “Who is a Jew?” which investigated this question, but I had not brought up groups like the Samaritans or the Karaites/Qaraites.

My discovery, as is often the case, is that there is often a difference between the theoretical position and the practical everyday reality. There is also a difference in rabbinic authority versus rabbinic law. In summary, I discovered that two contradictory approaches were and are often adopted simultaneously.

I should note that I am not specifically focused on the history of the Karaites/Qaraites and the development of their theological system. There are various excellent resources for those interested in this topic. This is not to detract from the fascinating historical, cultural, and religious perspectives embraced by the Kara-ites/Qaraites. In this short work, my focus is on the normative Jewish response to them. This is particularly important since the Karaites were classified as heretics.

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Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education. He is the author of The Converso Dilemma: Halakhic Responsa and the Status of Forced Converts and The Karaites: And the Question of Jewish Identity.

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