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In the Middle Ages a religious movement emerged that posed a serious challenge to rabbinic leadership across the Jewish world. Karaism opposed the rabbis, rejected the Talmud, and called for a return to the Hebrew Bible. For two centuries preceding the Crusader conquest, Jerusalem was a flourishing center of Karaite life, learning, and publishing. On one hand, Karaites established themselves as a stable social presence in Jewish communities across the Islamic Near East. On the other hand, they and the rabbis fought for power and over the proper way to be a Jew. Karaism persisted for centuries in many places in the Near East and Europe. Even today, there remain two Karaite communities—a small one in Israel, and an even smaller one in the Bay Area. The Karaites remind us that in Jewish history there have been many Judaisms.
Fred Astren is a professor in the department of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University. He received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and conducts research in the overlapping fields of late antique and medieval Jewish history. He is the author of Karaite Judaism and Historical Understanding (University of South Carolina Press, 2004).