The Medieval Review 11.07.27

Walfish, Barry Dov. Bibliographia Karaitica: An Annotated Bibliography of Karaites and Karaism. Études sur le judaïsme medieval; v. 43; Karaite Texts and Studies; v. 2. Leiden: Brill, 2011. Pp. lxxxii, 810. $327. 978-90-04-18927-0. . .

Reviewed by:

Daniel J. Lasker
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Boston College

Karaite Judaism (from the Hebrew root q.r.', to read) is a distinct, mostly scripturalist, form of the Jewish religion with origins going back at least to the ninth century. The major difference between Rabbanism (the term used to describe rabbinic Judaism in the context of Karaism) and Karaism is the latter's rejection of the belief in an "Oral Torah" which was given on Mt. Sinai simultaneously with the "Written Torah" (the Pentateuch). This leads to divergences in practice, including dietary laws, calendar, personal status, Sabbath and holiday observances, liturgy and the like. Karaite origins are unclear, but the Islamic context of the schism was decisive in its formation and intellectual achievements. After a Golden Age in the Land of Israel in the 10th and 11th centuries, Karaite centers were found in Egypt, Byzantium (later the Ottoman Empire), Crimea, and Eastern Europe. Although Karaites were always a minority among Jews, they aroused strong emotions among Rabbanites who condemned what they considered to be the Karaite heresy. Karaism was a challenge to rabbinic Judaism because it called into question the formative belief of an authoritative, divine interpretation of Scriptures, and a number of Jewish intellectual achievements should be placed in the context of the Rabbanite-Karaite rivalry. Never a numerically large group, today there are probably no more than 40,000 Karaites worldwide, most of whom are of Egyptian origin living in the State of Israel.

In light of the vicissitudes of Karaite history, the inherent difficulties of studying Karaism (including the need to know Judaeo- Arabic in order to study the formative period; or Karaite Judaeo- Turkic, in its various forms, in order to study Eastern European Karaites), and the Karaite status as an alternative, non-normative form of Judaism, many mainstream students of Judaism have shown little interest in researching it. Thus, Karaite studies have greatly lagged behind general Judaic studies, and many basic tools of scholarship have not yet been developed. It is hence with great satisfaction that the first attempt at a comprehensive annotated bibliography of all sources relating to Karaism has finally appeared. This is a monumental accomplishment well worth the delay in its appearance (the primary author, Barry Walfish, Judaica specialist at the University of Toronto libraries, began formulating this project in the 1970's and working on it in the late 1980's; the secondary author, Mikhail Kizilov, who had main responsibility for Polish language entries and annotated the Slavic and Turkic ones, joined the project ten years ago; liii, lxi). And if, inevitably, there are missing entries or inaccuracies, the publication as it stands will now be an invaluable tool for all future Karaite scholarship. It is to be hoped that the bibliography will soon make its way on-line so that corrections, additions and updates will be possible.

Since Karaism is, in many ways, an alternate form of Judaism, it mirrors Rabbanism with the same areas of interests and intellectual pursuits, such as law, exegesis, theology, historiography and philology. Karaites also have their own distinctive cultural expressions, such as folklore, music and belles letters. As a result, Karaite studies requires many of the same skills as the more inclusive Judaic studies–-multiple languages and disciplines, philological exactness, historical consciousness, textual studies of manuscripts and rare editions, and the like. In contrast to general Judaic studies, however, Karaite studies is sufficiently compact that one could aspire to produce a single bibliography which aims to encompass the entire Karaite experience (an impossibility for Judaic studies in its entirety). The bibliography reviewed here attempts to do this feat with its 8063 entries in 20 languages (entries in non-western languages, other than Hebrew, are generally translated and summarized); 82 pages of front material including 38 pages of contents; and 84 pages of indices (author, reviewer, title, subject, geographical, scriptural, manuscript and printing) in Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic and Hebrew characters. Ten pages of plates showing a small sample of Karaite publications concludes the volume. The entries include Karaite texts, secondary literature on Karaite subjects, archival and journalistic references, and general studies not specifically dedicated to Karaism but whose Karaite content are described in the annotations.

Because of the massiveness of this undertaking, the authors had to make some basic editorial decisions in order to produce a book of manageable size. One of those decisions was that no entry appears twice. Although there are some cross-references, this rule generally applies. It does, however, make for some problematic results. Taking a topic chosen at random, let us consider the entries referring to the fifteenth-century Egyptian Karaite legal expert Samuel ben Moses al- Maghribi. Samuel wrote one extensive legal treatise in Judaeo-Arabic, only parts of which have been published, mostly in a series of studies with German translations which appeared at the beginning of the 20th century. Three of these works, the ones dealing with priests, civil law, and laws of sanctity, are listed under the general heading "Samuel ben Moses al-Maghribi" (420, numbers 4926-4928), apparently because there are no separate categories for those legal topics. Other entries for similar publications, however, are found under different headings. One is listed under the rubric of calendar (430, number 5039); one under Sabbath (431, number 5058); three under holidays (432, numbers 5067-5069); one under incest (439, number 5176); and one under dietary laws (444, number 5238). Fortunately, there are detailed indices which pull all these disparate entries together, but here, again, one has to know that they are all listed in the author index (724), not the subject index(779), which has only some of those numbers (it is unclear the basis for the choice of what did not get into the subject index). And, if readers want to find the recent edition of the eighteenth-century Hebrew translation of Samuel's work (number 4929), they must go to the entry in the Hebrew part of the author index (743). A partial French translation of Samuel's homilies is located in a different section all together, one entitled "Sermons" (473, number 5503), which can be accessed in the subject index but not in the author index. This pattern repeats itself throughout the bibliography, especially for those Karaite sages who engaged in more than one area of intellectual endeavor. Users of this bibliography need perseverance in order to derive full benefit from its great richness.

Many of the entries in the bibliography are in Slavic languages, reflecting the centrality of Eastern Europe for Karaism starting in the sixteenth century (some of the introductory material is also translated into Russian). Eastern European Karaite studies have been complicated by the fact that in the modern period, Eastern European Karaites separated themselves from Jewish identity. This trend began in the nineteenth century in order for Karaites to win exemptions from Jewish disabilities in Czarist Russia, and it reached its fullest expression in the twentieth century, when Eastern European Karaites began seeing themselves as the descendants of central Asian ethnic groups with no relationship at all to the Jewish people and rabbinic Judaism. While this new Karaite self-understanding carried with it a number of benefits (including exemption from Nazi racial laws), the Karaites' newly imagined history gave rise to much imaginative, and imaginary, historiography and anthropology, often written by people with absolutely no knowledge of classical Karaite origins and religion.

This leads to an intriguing issue raised by this bibliography, namely whether all studies of Karaism are created equal. In light of Eastern European Karaite denial of Jewish identity beginning in the early twentieth century, much "scholarship" on Karaism in those regions has been devoted to substantiating a non-Jewish origin for this group (now called Karaims or variants on that name). Under the Soviet Union, where ethnic groups were more tolerated than religious ones, and objective historical scholarship was a rarity, the tendentiousness of many writings on Karaites was particularly pronounced. The authors of the bibliography saw their assignment as recording every written work, academic and non-academic, which refers to Karaism, no matter how farfetched its contents. Although a moderately critical position is taken concerning the contents of these works ("The annotations in this bibliography sometimes criticize the quality of the scholarship of the advocates of the Turkic theory [of Karaite origins]"), the readers are left "to decide for themselves which case is most compelling" (liv). Perhaps the recording of these entries will help researchers into pseudo-science; they do not have much to contribute to real Karaite studies.

Despite any reservations that might be expressed about one detail or another in this bibliography, the reader can peruse the book only in amazement at the wealth of material from multiple sources amassed and described by the authors. It will certainly be impossible from now on for anyone to engage in Karaite studies without reference to this work. In combination with recent scholarship on Karaism, and the availability of library collections, archives and memorabilia in the Former Soviet Union which were inaccessible for much too long a period, it is to be hoped this Bibliographia Karaitica will accelerate the placement of Karaite studies in an honored position in the realm of Judaic studies.