This study is the first of its kind to deal with Eastern European Karaite historical thought, which found its expression in different historiographical genres. The book focuses on the social functions of the major Karaite historical narratives concerning the rise of Karaism, and its relationship with rabbinic Judaism. In the Middle Ages the main function of these narratives served Karaite apologetics, polemics against Rabbanite Judaism, and the formation of a separate Karaite identity. From the eighteenth century onward these narratives were used as an instrument to attain the civil rights of the Karaite community’s members, and served to cultivate a specific type of nationalism distinct from that of other Jewish communities and non-Jewish ethno-confessional groups.
This book examines the major factors which affected these transitions in the narratives’ social functions, and the resulting change in the Karaite self-image and historical consciousness. One of these factors was the image of Karaites created by Protestants, who defined Karaism as the original form of Judaism, a Scripture-oriented and rationalistic movement, which had not been “corrupted” by the Talmud. Here we perceive an orientalistic phenomenon of a special kind, whereby the “enlightened” people romanticize the “indigenous” people, while the latter (in our case—the Karaites) adopt this romantic image of themselves, and incorporate it into their own historical and national discourse.
The Protestant view of Karaism was adapted to a certain extent by some leaders of the Jewish Haskalah movement, especially those scholars of Hokhmat Israel in Western and Eastern Europe who belonged to the Reform movement, and sought a new form of Judaism, not too overly “burdened” by the “yoke of the commandments” and free of rabbinic regulations. Their interest in, and special attitude toward, Karaism encouraged the development of the historical scholarship of Karaism, and the rapprochement between Rabbanite maskilim in the Russian Empire and educated Karaite leaders.
The emergence of the Haskalah movement and Hokhmat Israel fostered new historical writing among the Karaite educated elite, such as Mordechai Sułtański, Abraham Firkovich, and Shelomo Beim. Their writings on Karaism, however, contained medieval historical narratives, presented as scientific facts and accompanied by pseudo-scholarly apologetics. In light of the official anti-Jewish legislation, these writings aimed to present the Karaite community to the authorities as a distinct nation, separate from Rabbanite Jewry, who prior to the crucifixion of Jesus had settled in the territories subsequently identified with the Russian Empire. This nation, according to the authors, had contributed to the development of these regions, had engaged only in “productive” occupations, and was more similar to the Christians—and thus fulfilled the criteria for emancipation, unlike the Rabbanite Jews. Their ahistorical writings contributed to the creation of a new image of Karaism and changed the public discourse about it in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.
The present study could not avoid discussing these forged documents from the nineteenth century—manuscripts, colophons, tomb inscriptions, and chronicles. These documents were proclaimed as being authentic ancient texts and aimed to prove the antiquity of the Karaites, and their contribution to the development of the lands where they had settled. Paradoxically, it was an attempt—the first in the Russian Empire—to use the methods of scientific Jewish history for the obtaining of emancipation. The importance of the forged documents is not in the historical facts they contain; rather, their interest lies in their phenomenological value. They are examined here as a socio-cultural practice, which was also commonly found in Russian educated society during a period of modernization transitions. They mirror new processes in the historical consciousness of the Karaites (and not only theirs) which occurred at this time. This period was marked, inter alia, by a shift in the perception of the text, which became an instrument for promoting a certain historical idea, and aimed to change some social and political discourses.
In addition, the phenomenon of forgeries also had a side effect: it challenged the researchers to conduct scholarly debates, to reexamine historical sources, to seek new documents, and to construct alternative theories. All these activities gave an impetus to the development of Karaite studies and of the study of Jewish history in Slavic countries and the Crimea, to the research of oriental communities inside the Russian Empire, and to Khazar studies.
The influence of nineteenth-century Russian oriental studies (especially in the case of the Khazars) on the shaping of Karaite ethnic identity is one of the issues researched in this book. Its impact was among the factors which brought about changes in the Karaites’ historical narratives.
A considerable part of this study is based on dozens of unpublished and previously unknown sources. These were found in various manuscript archives (such as the private archive of Firkovich and in two of his collections, which are preserved in the Russian National Library of St. Petersburg; the manuscripts from the Institute of Oriental Studies of St. Petersburg; from the Harkavy collection in the Ukrainian National Library of Kiev, and others). In the course of working on these archival materials the names of unknown authors, treatises, and an entire genre of Karaite literature—chronography—were revealed. This kind of historical writing does not belong to any definitely shaped literary tradition: it is a genre suggesting more freedom, where authors could express their own thoughts and sometimes the opinions of other community members.
This study also uses Karaite books and periodicals from the nineteenth and the early twentieth century in Russian and Polish as well as Hebrew Haskalah periodicals. All these diverse materials represent different, sometimes contradictory, approaches of Karaites to their history, religion, and national identity.
The book sheds new light on several conventional notions that have informed the study of Karaism from the nineteenth century; it presents the spiritual life of the Jews of Eastern Europe in a broader context—one that extends beyond the world of Ashkenazic Jewry—and finally it is intended as a contribution to the scholarly and public discourse on Karaism and to expanding its boundaries.