ARR 438-440


American Reform Responsa

143. Marriage with Karaites

(Vol. LXXV, 1965, pp. 97-98)QUESTION: A young Karaite girl, whose family comes from Egypt and who says she has always considered herself Jewish, asks a rabbi to officiate at her marriage with a young Jewish man. Shall he, as a Reform rabbi, officiate at the marriage?ANSWER: The status of the Karaites in Jewish law has shifted a number of times. Sometimes they are accepted and sometimes they are excluded. For example, Isserles says plainly: We must not marry with them (Even Ha-ezer 4.37). No one questions that they are of Jewish descent, but the question involved from time to time is the question of their legitimacy. If their marriages were deemed invalid, then the children, of course, need not be illegitimate in Jewish law, since a child born out of wedlock is not necessarily deemed illegitimate. A child born out of a union that cannot be legitimatized is illegitimate, such as a union between a man and too close a relative, or between a man and a woman married to someone else. So it is really held against the Karaites that the general rule is that their marriages are deemed valid, but their divorces are deemed invalid. Therefore, if a woman is divorced by Karaite law and remarried by Karaite law, her offspring of the second union will be illegitimate. This is the basis for their rejection. As important as the letter of the law is, so is the intensity of the emotions involved. In periods when the groups were hostile to each other, the laws were strictly interpreted. Therefore, nothing is to be gained by following the ups and downs of the various decisions. It is best to be guided by one of the greatest authorities, David ben Zimri of Egypt, who had perhaps more connection with Karaites than any other rabbi. He is very liberal about them (see A Treasury of Responsa, pp. 122ff). In David ben Zimri’s Responsa (IV, #219 and VIII, #9) on marriage with a Falasha, he speaks by analogy about the Karaites, and he takes the general point of view that their marriages are deemed valid, but their divorces are deemed invalid; and because of this, if any Karaite is a descendant from a woman remarried after a Karaite divorce, such a person may be deemed a Mamzer and cannot marry a Jew. This is precisely the burden under which the B’nai Israel group labors in the State of Israel today. The Orthodox rabbis, on the analogy with the Karaites, consider their marriages valid and their divorces invalid. Therefore, the group is under the suspicion of Mamzerut. However, David ben Zimri continues that, nevertheless, many of the Karaites have intermarried with Jews, and he says that by the law of averages, the likelihood of illegitimacy (i.e., the percentage of divorce and “remarriage” and of children from this “remarriage”) is so small a percentage, that they could easily be considered legitimate and should be accepted into the community. David ben Zimri concludes that he agrees with Maimonides’ son, the Nagid Abraham, to receive them into the community. Before coming to this conclusion, he says “At all events, I admit that if they [the Karaites] all agreed to enter into the community, making a promise of obedience to it (Chaverut) and to accept the tradition of our Rabbis to be like us, I, with the agreement of the scholars, would permit them to enter our community.” Beyond all this, there is a special consideration involved in the fact that we are Reform Jews. We accept the validity of civil divorce, at least in the United States. In some countries the Reform congregations give a form of divorce which really does not change the situation in the eyes of Orthodoxy, since these Reform divorces are considered by the Orthodox authorities as invalid (just like the Karaite divorces). Therefore, we frequently marry people who are the children of women who had been only civilly divorced and have remarried. The children of such a union are certainly illegitimate in Orthodox law. Yet we marry them without hesitation. The reason for refusing a Karaite certainly does not have validity for Reformers. If we accepted the old ground for refusal, we could not marry a considerable percentage of people we do marry. Since the authorities agree that Karaite marriages are valid and Karaites are of Jewish descent, and since the only objection is the validity of their divorce and the consequences drawn from it, we should have no hesitation in officiating at the marriage of a Karaite and a Jew. Since this young lady declares that she has always considered herself to be Jewish, we might ask her to state further that she means to become part of the Jewish community, with full loyalty. In other words, she will not need conversion, but merely a statement of Chaverut. This would follow precisely the practice of David ben Zimri, who (as stated above) very likely had more direct contact with Karaites than any other rabbi.Solomon B. Freehof

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.