As a descendant of Crimean Karaites, I often find myself confronted by ignorant individuals who mistakenly label us as Turkic rather than Jewish. Not only is this offensive, but it is also based on the long-debunked Khazar origin theory. Genetic studies have conclusively disproved this theory, revealing it as a mere attempt to seek safety during the anti-Jewish practices of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, there are still people, particularly followers of the American neo-Karaism movement, like Nehemia Gordon, who use this theory to deny our heritage, religion, and very existence.
Nehemia Gordon’s writings highlight some intriguing aspects. One notable point is his misusage of the term “Karaylar” to refer to the language, while referring to the people as “Karaylar-Karaites.” This observation piqued my interest, as it brought to mind another group known as the “Karaim-Karaylar,” commonly referred to as Part-Karaimites or Karimi-Karaitizers.
To shed light on this topic, let’s turn to information provided by The Central Spiritual Board for Russian Karaims Abroad:
Karaimites or Karaimists practice Karaimism. It is not Karaite Judaism, but rather a Messianic way of incorporating certain practices from the Hebraic tradition into their lives, as understood in a socio-historical context.
Karaimites originated from the ancient Hypsistarian religion of the Crimeans (Karimi). Although they were not Karaites, they were Karai-like and were unfairly referred to as Karaitizers. However, they were actually closer to Noahites than imitators of Crimean Karaite practices, despite appearances.
Karaimites can be either Russian-Karaims (Zera Yisrael), whose men are circumcised, or Karimi-Karaitizers (Friends), whose men remain uncircumcised. The distinction between Russian-Karaims and Karimi-Karaitizers is akin to that between the Biblical Ezrakh Israelite and Ger Noachite, interpreted by Karaimites as professional (‘Alim) and amateur (‘Ummi) respectively.
It is essential to note that Karaimites, whether Zera Yisrael (Mahul Russian Karaims) or Noahites (Areil Karimi Karaitizers), are not “Karaimite Jews.” Although they often live among Jews, Karaimites stand out due to their distinct two-tier system. Furthermore, Karaimites have no connection to Sadducean Korahim. In fact, certain religions such as Sadduceeanism must be rejected to join the association due to their unspiritual tenets, including the rejection of the Afterlife.
According to Russian authorities, the Karaimites grew clandestinely among communities surrounding the remnants of the Old Judaists (Persian “Jidi”)—descendants of the Babylonian Exile—who populated the shores of the Khazar Sea. These communities welcomed apostles from Jesus and held respect for the Shirazi Muhammad, but they rejected the Babylonian Talmud and remained distinct from the Roman Judaeans.
During World War II, the Socialist Secularized-Sadducean Crimean Karaites collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust against Karaimite-Subbotniks across Ukraine (Lutsk, Kiev, Babi Yar) and even as far as Krasnodar. These individuals do not belong to the religious community of Proper Karaimite-Subbotnik Russian Karaims or even Part-Karaimite-Subbotnik Karimi-Karaitizers.
Russian authorities tolerated the Karaimites as long as they refrained from attempting to convert Orthodox Christians. Consequently, they focused on converting Sunnis instead. It is crucial to understand that the term “Russian Karaite” refers to Karaimites and is not intended to encompass Karaite Jews within the former Russian Empire’s territory.
Karaimites believe in circumcising the foreskin of the heart and are physically uncircumcised, except for ministers who may also be referred to as Karaims or Karaites. However, such Karaimites are distinct from typical Karaite Jews. For example, Karaite Jews reject Kabbalah, whereas Karaimites study it. Karaite Jews do not allow Ger-Toshavs, whereas Karaimites mostly consist of Ger-Toshavs. Karaimites believe in henosis-by-will-surrender and reject the idea of a unique hypostatic union. Similar to Abraham and Moses, Karaimites use Terabinth groves in the absence of a Kanesa. The only common ground between Karaimites and Karaite Judaism lies in their rejection of the Babylonian Talmud’s interpretation of the Bible and their prioritization of the Biblical narrative over Oral Torah (Sevel Ha-Yerushah).Source: The Central Spiritual Board for Russian Karaims Abroad
Most discussions about the Crimean Karaites not being Jewish are, in fact, addressing the Karaimites. Consequently, it is not surprising that confusion has arisen. Over time, historical accounts have become intertwined, leading to misunderstandings that persist today.
While perusing the official websites of the Public organization “Regional National-Cultural Autonomy of the Crimean Karaites of the Republic of Crimea” and the Ukrainian Association of Crimean Karaites “Krymkaraylar,” a page on religion sheds light on a specific term: “Karaimism.” At first, this term may appear unusual, but upon further reading, we encounter the following passage:
The history of Karaimism shows how, during the mental development of a people, erroneous interpretations are eventually replaced by more accurate ones.Source: Public organization “Regional National-Cultural Autonomy of the Crimean Karaites of the Republic of Crimea” and the Ukrainian Association of Crimean Karaites “Krymkaraylar”
So, what exactly is Karaimism? Officially, it is the religion of the Karaimites, as mentioned before. This brings to mind a section from the text by The Central Spiritual Board for Russian Karaims Abroad, which explicitly refers to these individuals as “Crimean Karaite imitators.” Today’s Crimean Karaites have assimilated certain Karaimites practices into their own religious beliefs. These include a blend of Christianity and Islam, much like the Karaimites themselves. Furthermore, both groups share the belief of not being ethnically Jewish, a notion embraced by many Karaimites as well.
The intertwining and misunderstanding of these histories can be traced back to pivotal moments in history, such as the Second World War when the Crimean Karaites claimed adherence to Karaimite beliefs for survival. However, individuals like Seraya Shapshal and his indirect descendant Volodymyr Ormeli began gradually incorporating more and more Karaimite practices into the belief system of Karaimism.
It is important to recognize that the Crimean Karaites and the Karaimites are distinct people with separate identities and beliefs. While they share historical and geographical ties, their religious practices and cultural traditions are not the same.
The Crimean Karaites, as descendants of the ancient Crimean Karaites, have developed a unique religious and cultural identity over the centuries. They have preserved their own customs, traditions, and interpretations of Judaism, which differ from mainstream Rabbinic Judaism. While there may be differing opinions among the Crimean Karaites regarding their Jewish or Turkic identity, it is crucial to acknowledge their specific heritage and the diversity of beliefs within their community.
On the other hand, the Karaimites, also known as Karimi-Karaitizers or Part-Karaimites, follow Karaimism, which is a distinct religious and cultural system. The Karaimites originated from the ancient Hypsistarian religion of the Crimeans, but they are not Crimean Karaites themselves. They have their own unique practices and beliefs, influenced by a mixture of Christianity and Islam, and do not identify themselves as ethnically Jewish.
By recognizing the distinction between the Crimean Karaites and the Karaimites, we can avoid generalizations and foster a more accurate understanding of their respective histories, religious beliefs, and cultural identities. While there may be overlapping historical factors that have influenced their identities, it is crucial to respect the separate existence of these two groups and avoid conflating their beliefs and practices.
In conclusion, it is vital to emphasize that the Crimean Karaites and the Karaimites are different people with distinct religious and cultural identities. While the Crimean Karaites have their own unique interpretation of Judaism and heritage, the Karaimites follow a distinct religious system. Recognizing the differences between these two groups is essential for an accurate and respectful understanding of their respective histories and beliefs.