Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Meet Joe Pessah, 'rabbi' for California's Karaites

Most of the world's 30,000 Karaites, an ancient sect that does not recognise rabbinic Judaism, live in Israel, but there is one community in California. Daniel Treiman in The Daily Forward interviews Egyptian-born Joe Pessah, the community's acting rabbi.

"By day, Joe Pessah is a marketing applications manager for a tech company in California’s Silicon Valley. In his spare time, however, the 62-year-old Mountain View resident pursues a much more unusual vocation.

"Pessah is the “acting rav” for America’s Karaite community, a now-tiny Jewish sect "that broke more than a millennium ago with rabbinic Judaism. While adhering to the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, Karaites rejected the divine origin of the Mishnah, or Oral Law, and the authority of the Talmud.

"Karaites maintain many practices that set them apart from mainstream contemporary Jews (known to Karaites as “Rabbanites”). Hewing closely to what they see as the Tanakh’s plain meaning, Karaites do not extend the biblical prohibition against cooking a calf in its mother’s milk into a sweeping ban on mixing meat and dairy. (They’ll eat chicken and dairy together, and some will eat beef with dairy so long as they’re not from the same source.) On some matters though, the Karaites are more stringent than other Jews. For instance, they believe that the prohibition on kindling fires on the Sabbath bans cooking and electricity use. (That means hot plates and light timers are out.)

"At one time, Karaites posed a vigorous challenge to rabbinic authority. Today, however, their global population is estimated at only about 30,000, most living in Israel, where they have a number of synagogues.

"The Karaites’ only North American synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel in the San Francisco suburb of Daly City, serves a population of immigrants from Egypt. Pessah says that the region’s 800 Karaites are widely dispersed, some driving as many as 60 miles to attend Saturday-morning services (despite the Karaite belief that driving on the Sabbath is forbidden). Many have quietly integrated into the larger Jewish community, participating in synagogue life, joining youth groups and enrolling in Hebrew and day schools. To preserve their own unique traditions, they have set up a summer camp experience to teach young Karaites about their heritage.

"Pessah arrived in the Bay Area in 1970, having fled Egypt with his wife, Remy. Pessah’s exodus followed a three-year stint in a prison camp, where he was beaten and tortured as the Nasser regime stepped up its persecution of the country’s dwindling but ancient Jewish community.

"He played a key role in reconstituting an organized Karaite community here in the United States in the 1980s. Since there are no Karaite rabbis in America, Pessah, who had sometimes led prayers as a youth in his native Cairo, has served as the community’s de facto spiritual leader. Prayer services were held first in private homes, then in a local Conservative shul and since 1994 in the Karaites’ own Daly City synagogue."

Read article in full


Anonymous said...

Nice article, but a few errors or misconceptions need to be corrected. So here goes:

1. The toll of 30,000 Qaraites worldwide is in dispute and by no means authoritative.
While the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs estimates the Qaraites to number 40,000 in Israel, the absolute minimum grand total of the Qaraite population in Israel stands at 25,000.
In any event, outside of Israel live at least 2,500 authentic Qaraite Jews.

2. It is not accurate to label Qaraite Judaism a sect. By this appelation's underlying logic, also Orthodox Judaism may be dubbed a sect.

3. There are a few additional Qaraite communities in the US. For one, the Daly City community has a small branch of sorts in LA. Other small Qaraite communities exist in Chicago, the metropolitan NYC area, Albany NY and northern Texas. A synagogue without a building of its own exists in Albany NY.

4. The Mishna doesn't have and never had divine authority. Its contents are strictly the musings of rabbis, not God's words or thoughts.

5. It's inaccurate to say there's a biblical prohibition against cooking a calf in its mother’s milk. What the Torah actually commands in three different places in entirely identical wording is to not cook a KID in its mother's milk. A "kid" in biblical Hebrew means a suckling goat or sheep.

6. The article states that some Qaraites will eat beef with dairy so long as they’re not from the same source.
But still others (Qaraites of non-Egyptian extraction) go even further and believe that according to the commandment THERE'S NO ISSUE EATING EVEN A KID IN ITS MOTHER'S MILK AS LONG AS THE KID WASN'T COOKED IN ANY OF ITS MOTHER'S MILK, SINCE THE PROHIBITION IS ONLY ON THE COOKING ITSELF.

7. While all Qaraites agree that all forms of work are prohibited on Shabbat (and in this context also by using electronic and electrical appliances), Qaraites do not believe the prohibition on kindling fires during Shabbat causes a sweeping ban on the use of electricity. Opinions vary on the matter. Some think electricity from all sources is banned, others believe electricity may be used as long as it's from non-grid sources like solar power, wind power, and batteries. Still others accept solar and wind power but disapprove of using batteries. Others allow all sources of electricity on the condition no work be done with electrical and electronic appliances on Shabbat.

Thanks for taking the time to have the article's errors and misconceptions disspelled for yourself.

bataween said...

Journalists! Thanks for addressing the errors and misconceptions in this piece.