Karaites In The Classroom: On the Use of Group Role-Playing in the Teaching of Jewish History

  • by: Jon Bloomberg

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Heshvan 5751, pp. 15-16. Appears here with premission.

One of the important subjects for study in the history of the Jews in the Middle Ages is the Karaites. The Karaite challenge to Rabbinic authority preoccupied the minds of leading figures of the Geonic period, particularly Saadiah Gaon. Halakhic authorities, especially Rambam, faced the question of how the Karaites should be classified, and hence, how they should be treated, from the standpoint of the Halakhah. Karaites views and interpretations form the backdrop against which much of Jewish exegetical and philosophic literature of the medieval period, e.g., the commentary of Ibn Ezra and the Serer ha-Kuzari, must be viewed if it is to be understood properly.

The Karaites are thus a topic that should be included in a course in medieval Jewish history. But how can it be made both interesting and meaningful to the high school student? Following is the approach which I have adopted in 11th-grade Jewish history classes and which relies largely, although not exclusively, on the use of group role-playing.

The section of the course devoted to the Karaites begins with the analysis of selected primary source texts in translation. Four passages are assigned, all of them dealing with the person of Anan, the 8th-century founder of Karaism, and with the beginnings of Karaism. Of the four sources, however, the authors of two are Karaites, while the authors of the other two are Rabbanites, i.e. opponents of the Karaites. Students are asked to compare the two sets of accounts as to their depictions of the character and personality of Anan and their presentations of the emergence of Karaism. Class discussion focuses on the conclusions which emerge.

The vast divergence between the Karaite and Rabbanite sources, even in matters of pure “fact,” becomes readily apparent, and students are asked to suggest plausible explanations. In most cases, they quickly recognize the authors’ biases. They have thus learned a critical lesson for the historian: careful consideration must be given to the question of what biases or personal considerations are at work in the primary sources which one is examining and from which one is drawing conclusions.

The balance of the unit on Karaism consists of two separate group role-playing exercises. In the first, the class is divided into four groups (6-8 students in each). Two groups, playing the role of Karaites, must arrive at an effective strategy for attracting followers to their fledgling movement. The remaining two groups, who play the role of Rabbanites, must plot the means for preventing the spread of Karaism. Students are given 10-15 minutes during which time the teacher circulates to keep the groups focused clearly on the issue and to answer any questions. A spokesperson from each group then makes a brief presentation of his/her group’s conclusions, and a short period is allotted for class members to pose questions and issue challenges.

Students will frequently conclude that their strategy – be they “Karaites” or “Rabbanites” – should be to appeal to the masses, those most likely to be attracted by Karaism, with rational arguments regarding Torah She-Be’al Peh. The “Karaites” thus propose to convince the masses that reason alone is sufficient for establishing the true meaning of Torah SheBi’Khtav and that only those interpretations which are in accord with reason should be accepted as valid, while the “Rabbanites” propose to convince the masses that reason is unreliable, that different people using their reason will arrive at different conclusions, and hence an authoritative tradition is indispensable. Such conclusions reveal that students do not yet understand (or have failed to apply their understanding) that ideological struggles which involve power and influence, e.g. contemporary political campaigns, are more frequently fought and won not on the merits of the respective ideological positions of the combatants, but by means of personal attacks on opponents and with appeals to the special interests of those whom one seeks to attract. When their flawed approach is corrected, the “Karaites” usually begin to promote the opportunity which Karaism offers for individualism, i.e. the application of each individual’s own reason to the interpretation of the Thrah SheBi’Khtav without relying “blindly” on the interpretations of others. They also attack the Geonim as being “power-hungry” and as striving to protect their power by limiting access to a true and accurate knowledge of the Torah, thereby making this knowledge, and thus the power, the preserve of an elite class. The “Rabbanites” meanwhile stress that allowing individuals to rely on their own reason in interpreting the Thrah SheBi’Khtav will most certainly lead to fragmentation within the Jewish community since different individuals will reach different conclusions and arrive at different interpretations. In addition, they mount a frontal attack on Anan, accusing him of being deficient in character and thus unworthy of holding a leadership position.

In the second role-playing exercise, students examine the emergence of Karaism from another vantage point. Here the focus is on the personal considerations which enter into and frequently dominate the decision-making process of each individual. Students are again divided into four groups. Each group is given an identity: one is a group of wealthy and prominent bankers and merchants; a second are civil servants in the employ of the Muslim government; the third are rabbinical students in the yeshiva of Sura; and the fourth is a group of simple, uneducated Jews. Given 10-15 minutes, each group must decide whether or not they will become Karaites and then briefly present their decision and its underlying rationale. Once again the presentations are followed with the questions and challenges of the other class members.

The central point which emerges from this exercise is that, for the most part, decisions are not made in the realm of the abstract and the theoretical but emanate from real-life concerns. Thus, for example, bankers and wealthy merchants will prefer to remain with the status quo, rather than risk their economic well-being by aligning themselves with what might be a short-lived, fringe group – regardless of what they actually think about the ideology of that group. Similarly, uneducated, lower-class people who feel downtrodden, full of despair, and with nothing to lose might very well attach themselves to a new movement that offers some hope – again, without regard to the ideological question.

What are the educational benefits of using such group role-playing exercises in the teaching of Jewish history? Certainly, there is student interest, motivation, and active involvement. Beyond these educational benefits the use of role-playing, when done thoughtfully and skillfully can lead to a clearer understanding of history. It helps students understand that history is an aggregate of many individual decisions, frequently by people very much like themselves. The “message,” of course, is that their individual choices are important and that they can make a difference. Moreover, role-playing enhances students’ sense of historical perspective – they are encouraged to view events and movements from the perspective of actual participants rather than as “outside” observers looking back from afar. Finally, the kind of role-playing exercises described above help the student understand that causality in history is complex, that events come about as the result of the conjunction of many and varied factors. And, as the student weighs the suggestions of classmates and arrives at a consensus position, the awareness of this complexity and of the role of history must inevitably be enhanced.