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  • Karaites Real and Imagined:Three Cases of Jewish Heresy*
  • Marina Rustow


Heresies Real and Imagined

There is a widespread misperception that Judaism is a religion of praxis rather than belief, in which adhering to behavioural precepts, rather than particular doctrines, renders one a member in good standing.1 But was premodern Judaism nothing but a congeries of rabbinic dictates on how to observe the commandments properly? Was belief really so marginal a consideration in determining the boundaries of the Jewish oecumene? What has prevented much of modern Jewish historiography from focusing on struggles over doctrine?

The first modern works on Spinoza are a case in point, insisting that he was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Sephardi [End Page 35] community in 1656 for his acts rather than his opinions. But the preface to the writ excommunicating him cites both 'the abominable heresies which he practiced and taught and … his monstrous deeds', a phrase that should probably be read as a hendiadys referring to Spinoza's teaching of doctrine alone.2 The history of the Jews is filled with excommunications for heresy of which Spinoza's was not the first. From late Antiquity on, both rabbinic and lay authorities imposed the ban on men and women whom they accused not only of behavioural infractions but of doctrinal error as well.3

Or else they imposed the ban for behavioural infractions behind which they sensed doctrinal ones lurking. In Abbasid Iraq, Naṭronay bar Hilay, head (gaʾon) of the rabbinic academy of Sura on the Euphrates (857-65) and a zealous champion of rabbinic hegemony, threatened to excommunicate anyone who shortened the traditional text of the Passover liturgy (haggadah). That was, on its face, a ban for violating a behavioural precept. But in justifying the threat, Naṭronay fulminated:

they are heretics, and mock and slight the words of the Sages of blessed memory, and they are students of ʿAnan [ben David, fl. c.760], may his name rot … who said to all those who strayed and whored after him, 'Abandon the words of the Mishnah and the Talmud, for I shall create for you a Talmud of my own', and they still persist in their error … And now one must shun them so that they do not pray with Israel in the synagogue.4 [End Page 36]

For Naṭronay, shortening the haggadah was manifest proof not of sin but of heresy — specifically, Ananism, which only selectively adhered to the accumulating corpus of rabbinic legal precedent and post-biblical tradition, and denied the rabbinic claim to be that tradition's sole guardians. That, more than their irregular conduct, was why Naṭronay considered haggadah-shorteners heretical: violations of behavioural precepts threatened most acutely when they were attached to ideological aberrations. Ideology made the difference between mere sin and heresy.

The timing of Naṭronay's threat was significant, for matters of doctrine counted for much in the Abbasid realm in the ninth century, and the urge to declare heresies was not entirely specific to Judaism. Starting in 833, three successive caliphs and their jurist-administrators carried out an inquisition (miḥna) designed to ensure that every judge believed the Qurʾān had been created by God rather than having existed for an Aristotelian eternity.5 It is impossible that Naṭronay was unaware of the miḥna, and its pervasive presence likely amplified whatever echoes of heresy he heard in the customs of his western neighbours.

But it has turned out to be a matter of high historical irony that Naṭronay detected anti-rabbinic heresy in this truncated version of the haggadah, for it was nothing but the Palestinian rabbinic version of the liturgy—what his perfectly orthodox neighbours to the west used to recite instead of the longer Babylonian version.6 For Naṭronay the threat of heresy was omnipresent and the distinction between non-Babylonian and non-orthodox very fine indeed, during an era when Iraqi rabbinic leaders struggled to replace local Mediterranean forms of Judaism with the [End Page 37] Babylonian ones their own academies purveyed. Within a generation of Naṭronay, the followers of ʿAnan would join forces with another group of non-rabbinic Jews...


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pp. 35-74
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2007
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