Monday, October 12, 2009
Karaism and Resurrection
Even amongst Karaites this concept of life after death as well as the return to life is hotly contested. There have always been those that have taken the Tanach literally, derived from passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel in particular, and others that have assumed the works were metaphorical. The debate was so embittered that it threatened to break apart Karaism almost as soon as it was formed. But Anan ben David was quite astute when he was acquiring his Karaite followers and he knew that differing opinions existed within the community and he found a way to cleverly deal with the issue and thus ensure the integrity of the Karaite community during his time. Those of his followers that were descendants of Boethians and Zadokites would not even consider the possibility of an afterlife nor the resurrection whereas those that were Jews dissatisfied with the Talmudic philosophies of their Rabbinical leaders had been ingrained into the Rabbanite belief system from an early age were not prepared to give up their hopes for an afterlife. Because Anan had built Karaism around the principle of however you read and interpreted the Torah was correct for that individual, then he found it acceptable to have both beliefs within Karaism and ensured that it would not sprout into persistent conflicts by finding the common ground. Though it was never recorded, he most likely did it through a simple teaching that would have reflected his philosophy. He would have said something to the effect, “Whatever we do in this life we must do with the understanding that there is no return from death promised to any of us. Therefore it is beholding to us that we live a good life, a charitable life and follow God’s commandments because we may not have an opportunity to correct our errors or be forgiven for our sins if no afterlife exists. But should we die and find that there is a resurrection, how glorious that we can live it without any regrets of passed deeds.”
Personally as a Zadokite, there is no promise of an afterlife or resurrection in my future but I’m still in total harmony with the wisdom of Karaism which accepts this as a definite possibilty. Furthermore, should I find that I’m wrong; I will not be disappointed for I would have lived my life to the fullest, done the good deed and followed God’s commandments. Therefore it would be nothing more than a bonus to a life that had already provided me with happiness and contentment. Karaism accepts these two possible outcomes and rather than try to persuade those of one set of beliefs to adopt those of the other, it readily admits, we don’t actually know the ways of God. We don’t understand everything that he told us because we are like children trying to comprehend the workings of the universe. Or as is often asked, “Mee Camochah YHWH” (Who is like you God)? Definitely not us and we certainly don’t pretend to have some secret skills that permit us to interpret God’s words with the stamp of authority in the manner that our Rabbanite brothers have done. To do so would bear the hallmarks of egotism and false pride of which they have abundance. But alas, they consider it their divine prerogative to define and interpret God’s words.
The Rabbanite Resurrection
In the Rabbinic world there are no ifs, ands, or buts. The great Rabbis have decided that they are fully cognizant of God’s meanings in the prophetic references to resurrection. They claim to know it for a fact and therefore failure to accept their interpretations is a fundamental sin against their Judaism. So positive are they that 1 Samuel 2:6 refers to the resurrection when it says, “The Lord killeth and maketh alive; He bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up,” that they fail to see that the expressions are figurative, speaking of man sinking into the depths of despair, only to be raised up by God in his mercy. In my youth I had to learn the hard way that the Rabbanites will not brook any dissension in regard to their resurrection beliefs. As some of you have read in my earlier articles, I attended a Rabbinical Hebrew School since there weren’t exactly a lot of Karaite families in my vicinity. But like the Karaites of old, many that sat at the feet of Rabbinical teachers in order to learn Torah, I did not consider it too great a sacrifice. Sure, one suffered a few indignities, a number of snide comments, and a concerted effort to break my Karaite spirit, but it could not be done. There was one rabbi in particular that had an amazing ability to make contact with a yardstick no matter how far physically you may have been from him. All these years later I still remember his name; Wurtzberger. He was lethal with that piece of wood. Like so many rabbis he loved his parables and apocrypha. He told the class of the final days of King David. Apparently David didn’t want to die, so having known the hour of his death, he ensured that he would always study the Torah at that time since the Angel of Death was powerless to take anyone if they were reading the Torah at the time of his visitation. This went on for weeks until one day the Angel of Death shook the tree outside David’s window. As soon as David looked up to see why the tree was shaking the Angel snatched his soul away. Wurtzberger then asked me what I learned from the story hoping to make a point. With sincerity I answered, “It would appear that King David had similar beliefs to my own. Firstly, that only the Torah was the word of God and nothing else mattered and secondly that he knew there was no afterlife, no heaven or hell, so he tried desperately to hang on to his existence like a true Zadokite.” I had to take one strike of the stick over my outstretched fingers for that but it was well worth it.
So certain are the Rabbis that resurrection is a promised tenet of Judaism that they insist that after God banished Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden and removed man’s initial immortality he made a promise that should Adam lead a pious life then he would be given the fruit from the Tree of Life on the day of resurrection and then once again he would live forever. But how this exactly relates to the subsequent Rabbinic belief that all the pious that have ever existed will all be seated on thrones which are reserved for them after the resurrection, I cannot figure. . Of course there’s some confusion as to the seating arrangements since the Midrash states that the greatest of all these thrones is Abraham’s whereas in the Zohar I:97, that distinction is given to Jacob. Already we can see that in the Rabbinic resurrection there is already conflict brewing. Though we might not be able to witness this fight over the prime seats because according to the kabbalah which sources its statement from Midrash Tannaim 58, Mishle 17, Ketubot 111a, as well as a entire host of other rabbinic literature, it claims that the resurrection of those that lived in Israel will take place forty years prior to the rest of the world. Considering that these same learned Rabbis also claim that the reign of the Messiah will only last forty years according to Sanhedrin 99a and Tehillim 90: 393, which once again they authored, I guess the rest of us are going to miss out on everything, so why even bother worrying about thrones to sit on. Our resurrection is just too late! That is if we believe in such a thing.
In The Talmud There is No Doubt
But as the Rabbis will tell you, there should be no doubt in the resurrection as the phoenix is living proof of it. Taken from the Hebrew word spelled chet, vav and lamed, they find its reference in Job 29:18 and Ben Sira 27a, and therefore assure their followers that resurrection is a certainty as much as the phoenix is a reality. Mythical birds I’m afraid don’t inspire me with confidence in their belief. I will counter it simply by saying I believe in it as much as I believe in the phoenix. When Yakov Kahana confronts Rabbi Judah Loew in Shadows of Trinity with the episode of Saadiah Gaon causing the slaughter of thousands of Karaites, an episode now hotly denied but common knowledge even just a few generations ago, it was with the knowledge that none of those killed would ever return. Neither man, not even Rabbi Loew believed they would. There was no phoenix that would erase the tremendous loss of life in the years 940 to 942 AD.
It would appear that much of the rabbinic belief in resurrection also comes from the belief in Isaiah 26:19 that God will cause a celestial dew to fall upon the earth that will act like an elixir of immortality, causing the dead to rise from their graves and sing his praises. How strange that for everything else from the Old Testament the rabbis will insist there are covert meanings that require their interpretation but in this case they espouse a belief that this verse is to be taken literally. How is it that they have forgotten the saying that God’s words are like dew upon the lips, refreshing those that thirsted? Like manna from heaven it will sustain those that partake of it. Why is it they suddenly cannot see the poetry of Isaiah’s words, the vision of God’s teaching finally uniting the people of this world and all those that had died in his name, making it worthwhile to all those that had suffered at the hands of a world that refused to accept them. The essence of those that died will live spiritually in this new generation of followers and their death’s would not have been in vain. Examine the rest of Isaiah and it becomes quite plausible if not credible that this is the resurrection he was speaking of. Not of the physical bodies of those that died, but of the spirit, strength and heart that led them to sacrifice themselves in the name of God. A virtual resurrection of the way things were intended to be had the world not turned their back on the words of God.
So Karaism, as I have explained has provided me with a choice. As Anan indicated, it was not necessary that we all agreed on the concept of an afterlife as long as we all agreed that we must make every effort to make this life we are given substantial; that we live with a purpose and strive to make this a better world. Unlike the Rabbinical Judaism which would and does brand me as a heretic for even challenging the concept of the resurrection, I can express my Zadokite heritage to my Karaite brethren without hesitation. It is not necessary that they agree with me should they be believers in the resurrection nor for their sake do I hope I’m proven right. In the end I only hope that we find that both of our beliefs have been proven correct just as Anan would have expressed his desire for it to be so. And that simply put, the freedom of expression, the tolerance to differences, the acceptance of what unites us, not divides us, is WHY KARAISM.