Photo Credit: Magnes Press

Title: Karaism: An Introduction to the Oldest Surviving Alternative Judaism
By Daniel Lasker
Magnes Press



One of the longest-surviving forms of alternative Judaism is Karaism, a belief system which rejects the Oral Torah and only accepts the Written Torah. However, despite its lengthy history, Karaite Judaism is seldom discussed or considered in present-day mainstream Rabbinite Judaism. Daniel Lasker’s “Karaism: An Introduction to the Oldest Surviving Alternative Judaism” serves to combat this lack of Karaite knowledge in Rabbinite circles through a comprehensive overview of the history, laws, and beliefs of Karaite Jewry. Lasker’s “Karaism” reads easily for a consumer new to learning about this minority Jewish sect, and he makes the very clear statement that Karaite Jewry is not to be excluded from the narrative of Judaism as a whole.

Lasker’s twelve chapters can be separated into three sections. In the first section, the first five chapters, he summarizes the history of Karaite Judaism. This narrative begins with the origins of Karaism – which some believe to be in the medieval Middle East, and some believe to be closer to the era of the Second Temple, with a revival taking place in the ninth century. Then, Karaite Jewry persisted through medieval Israel and spread to the Byzantine Empire, Eastern Europe, and more. Finally, this section leads to an overview of the Karaite return to Israel, and the struggle for inclusion and equality as a religious minority in the predominantly Rabbinite Jewish land of Israel.

In the second section, from the sixth chapter through the eleventh chapter, Lasker explains Karaite rituals, beliefs, and literature. While Karaite and Rabbinite Judaism often share similarities in beliefs and rituals, given that they use the same Tanach as the original basis of their religions, there are various points in which they diverge, such as kashrut. For instance, Karaite Judaism interpreted the commandment not to “boil a kid in its mother’s milk” to mean that they should not consume meat of an animal with milk of the same species. Meanwhile, Rabbinite Judaism took the same source to mean that milk and meat of any species should never be consumed together.

In this second section, Karaite literature, exegesis, and polemics are explained in-depth. While Karaite Judaism does not accept the Talmud and many other Rabbinical exegetical works, they have plenty of exegetical literature of their own, which interpret the Tanach according to Karaite ideals. Karaite Jewish commentators generally believe that the Tanach does not utilize metaphors, and is instead meant to be taken at its word. Meanwhile, Rabbinite Jewish commentators are often quicker to interpret Biblical passages as metaphorical. Both Rabbinite and Karaite interpretations and values manifest themselves in extensive works of poetry and literature written by both Jewish groups over the centuries. In fact, Rabbinite and Karaite poetry and literature have often been written as responses to one another in the form of polemics, arguing about the legitimacy of the respective groups. The second section of Lasker’s book outlines Karaite Judaism in terms of the practical and theological, but also in terms of the literary and in conflict with Rabbinite Judaism.

The final section is the last chapter, which poses the question of the future of Karaite Judaism. While recent decades have brought about the ability for people to convert to Karaism, the Jewish sect remains a shrinking religious minority within a religion that is a minority group itself. With factors such as assimilation into either Rabbinite Jewry or secular society, Karaite Judaism is at risk for extinction. At the end of his book, Lasker poses the as-yet-unanswerable question to his readers of what will happen next to the longest-persisting sect of alternative Judaism.

Throughout the book, Lasker handles the topic of a Jewish minority sect with respect and sensitivity. In his introduction, he discusses the fact that Karaite Judaism is seldom considered relevant in Rabbinite communities, but they continue to exist as a global community. Throughout the book, he is careful to make it clear that, while Karaite Jews observe differently, Karaite Judaism is Judaism – a point that is emphasized through using the terminological dichotomy of “Karaite Jews” and “Rabbinite Jews” throughout the book, always ensuring that both groups are acknowledged for their common Judaism instead of only for their difference. Additionally, while this book is written about Karaite Jews by a Rabbinite Jew, Lasker includes an additional element of focusing on Karaite perspectives by beginning each chapter with a Karaite primary source such as commentaries, responsa, or rabbinical statements. In doing so, Lasker emphasizes Karaite perspectives, rather than only considering his Rabbinite lens, when discussing Karaite history and practice.

Lasker’s book is inviting for readers with limited experience learning about Karaite Judaism. The book serves as a brief, yet simultaneously detailed, overview of many broad components of Karaite Judaism, rather than focusing on a single detail in-depth – a tactic which would better serve seasoned Karaite scholars. Additionally, with a “For Further Reading” section concluding each chapter with similar relevant works about the topic in question, Lasker invites readers to continue learning more about Karaite Judaism. At the end of the book, Lasker has compiled a list of important names and terms from throughout the book, including descriptions of each one to ease the learning process for readers. Lasker’s “Karaism” provides an accessible door for readers to enter into the otherwise daunting world of Karaite scholarship and education.

Daniel Lasker’s “Karaism: An Introduction to the Oldest Surviving Alternative Judaism” is a comprehensive, welcoming introduction for readers who are new to the study of Karaite Jewry. With cultural consciousness and sensitivity, he provides an overview of the history, religion, and literature of the minority sect, then concludes with the question of the future of Karaite Jewry. Using tactics such as further reading recommendations and a list of relevant terms and names, Lasker has opened up a path for more people, no matter their background, to become educated about the oldest sect of alternative Judaism that exists today.


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Shayna Herszage-Feldan is a recent graduate of Stern College for Women and a research technician at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research.