Off the Shelf: Developing traditions and variations

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

All religions change and develop over time. That can mean new interpretations or reimaginings of a specific aspect of the tradition, or a major break occurring over theological or legal differences. These variations can be seen in two new works: “Becoming Elijah: Prophets of Transformation” by Daniel C. Matt (Yale University Press) and “Karaism: An Introduction to the Oldest Surviving Alterative Judaism” by Daniel J. Lasker (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization/Liverpool University Press). In the former work, Matt discusses how the prophet Elijah changed in the Jewish imagination from the zealous prophet portrayed in the biblical text to the compassionate helper and teacher found in Jewish folklore. In the latter, Lasker offers a history of Karaite Judaism, a branch that began in medieval times due to its refusal to accept the Oral Torah (Talmud and Mishnah), and which developed its own rituals and practices.

Matt notes that two different versions of Elijah are found in Judaism. There is the biblical Elijah, who is portrayed as “fearless, fierce, and untamed.” This is a man who thinks nothing of condemning the Israelites for what he sees as their refusal to accept God’s commandments and who murders 450 priests who have worshipped the god Baal (although commentators have suggested the text really means he ordered the Israelites to kill the priests, rather than doing it by his own hand). However, in rabbinic literature, Elijah’s “outstanding quality is no longer zealotry but compassion. He helps the poor, rescues those in danger, defends Israel from its enemies, and will one day redeem the whole world by heralding the Messiah.” This is the Elijah who is welcomed at every seder and for whom a chair is placed at every circumcision. 

By the third century C.E., the ancient rabbis adapted Elijah as one of their own. Since Elijah was swept up to heaven in a chariot of fire, it was thought that he never died. This allows him to exist on two planes and to continue to appear on the earth. In the Talmud, there are tales of rabbis who met Elijah and relayed his message to their colleagues. Elijah was the one they turned to when unsure about how to rule. In fact, when the ancient rabbis were unable to come to a consensus, the Talmud notes that by saying, “This passage will be interpreted by Elijah in the future.” That occurs more than 300 times in the Talmud.

It was not only the ancient rabbis who remade Elijah in their image. By medieval times, kabbalists (mystics) began to interact with Elijah in their visions. The prophet was the one who revealed secret teachings that otherwise might have been rejected as not part of Judaism’s “sacred tradition.” Matt notes that underlying their acceptance of these ideas was the belief that “the prophet Elijah, guardian of that tradition, would never reveal anything controverting or undermining it. If an innovative teaching came from Elijah, it was automatically acceptable and beyond any suspicion of foreign influence or heresy.” This was how novel mystical traditions were accepted when, without the stamp of approval of Elijah, they might not have been. 

In the Bible, there is no mention of Elijah’s family or his marital situation. He stands outside of society and often exclaims how alone he is. Yet, ironically, he became an integral part of many Jewish rituals. Matt notes that these moments are usually liminal ones, when change occur: “The seder celebrates liberation from slavery, meant to be experienced anew. Through circumcision, the infant enters the covenant of Abraham. Havdalah distinguishes between light and dark, marking the transition from Sabbath holiness to the mundane weekday world.” Since the ancient rabbis saw Elijah as someone partly of earth and partly of heaven, this seems appropriate. 

One of the most interesting sections compares and contrasts the lives of Moses and Elijah. In rabbinic writings, Elijah is often found wanting. One case in particular stands out: after the Golden Calf incident, God wanted to destroy the Israelites. Moses pleaded for God to spare them, offering to die in their place. Elijah, on the other hand, asks that God take his life since he believes the Israelites will never stop worshipping other gods. Yet, it is Moses who dies and is never seen again, while Elijah is swept up to heaven and reappears on earth.

“Becoming Elijah” offers an excellent look at how the portrayal of Elijah has changed over time. The work demands some familiarity with the biblical story of Elijah and some basic knowledge of Judaism. But this intriguing work will reward readers with new ways of looking at both Elijah and Jewish tradition.

While Matt looked at a specific Jewish figure, Lasker discusses an alternate form of Judaism that has survived from medieval times to the present day. Over the centuries, there have been many alternate variations of Judaism, but the one that most people know of, and which most people practice, is Rabbinite Judaism. All contemporary branches of Judaism, except for the Karaites, follow Rabbinite Judaism. (Even if modern movements disagree on specifics, they all follow the same calendar and the rulings they might reject are rabbinic ones.) 

The main cause of the split between Rabbinite and Karaite Jews is whether the Oral Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, something the Karaites have never accepted. One major reason for their refusal is based on the idea that, if God gave these teachings to Moses at Sinai, why are there debates between rabbis about the appropriate way to follow the law? God would have given a definitive answer to any problem. Rather than accept these rabbinic rulings, the Karaites have developed their own ways to interpret the Bible. 

Lasker discusses the history of the Karaites, noting how its historians came to claim ancient ancestry for the religion, saying it began in biblical times. Some also claim other alternative branches of Judaism, which appeared decades or centuries before, as early versions of Karaism. However, Lasker writes of its true development, showing its start during medieval times and noting how its Golden Age occurred in Palestine during the ninth-11th centuries until the Crusades helped destroy the community. He also discusses its history in various other parts of the world, including Egypt and Eastern Europe, the two communities whose history continues into contemporary times. 

While in Egypt the Karaites always considered themselves an integral part of the Jewish community (with Rabbinate and Karaite Jews intermarrying), the Karaites in Eastern Europe began to separate themselves, claiming their religion was not part of the Jewish tradition. This separation began when antisemitic laws began to be enforced against the Jewish community, for example, the Russian law requiring Jewish males to spend 25 years in the Russian army in the 19th century. By the time of the Holocaust, Rabbinite and Karaites claimed to be two separate religions in order to save the Karaite community from the Nazis. After the Holocaust and the declaration of the state of Israel, two main Karaite communities were established: one in Israel and the other in the United States. 

The most interesting part of Lasker’s work focuses on the two groups’ different customs and traditions. For example, Rabbinite and Karaite Jews follow different calendars, meaning that Jewish holidays fall on different days. The Karaite interpretation of not lighting fire on Shabbat originally meant that no fire could burn during that day. That ruling was later modified so that fire would be used for lighting, but not for use with heating or cooking, even if the fire was lit before the Sabbath began. Plus, no blessing is said over those lights. Rather than saying a child becomes required to observe the commandments at age 13, Karaite children become obligated when they are mature enough to follow the commandments, even if that is before the age 13. The Karaite prayer book originally contained mostly biblical psalms, although over time, new writings have been included. However, the prayers normally recited in Rabbinite prayer services do not appear. Karaites also remove their shoes before entering a house of prayer, where there are no chairs. Prayers are recited while prostrate. 

“Karaism” is written for a general audience and does a wonderful job showing the Karaites’ development, history and attempts to stay vital in contemporary times. Anyone interested in the history of Judaism will find this work fascinating in its ability to show how contemporary assumptions about our religion do not always accurately reflect our history.