Karaites and Science
Mathematics, physics, chemistry, logic, music, and astrology share an ability to speak to humans across borders, moving more easily between cultures than do cuisine, clothing, or dogmatics. For this reason, throughout history we see evidence of scientific learning serving as a common language between otherwise diverse groups, opening doors to a broader exchange of ideas. However, it must be said, for these reasons (and others) science has sometimes been shunned by religious conservatives. It arouses suspicion precisely because of its apparently anti-ideological posture, and based on worries that it will import foreign values, strengthen counter-cultural hierarchies of authority, and erode, by its very common-argot, the meaning-laden particularities by which a religion defines itself and upon which it grounds its truth. Thus we are primed to anticipate that early Judaism will be mistrustful of science, and will not be surprised to encounter antiscientific voices throughout Jewish history.
However, an essay by Ofer Elior in the current issue of JQR (108.3) introduces one compelling chapter of a counter history—recovering the story, sources, ideas, and relationships that fed the commitment to scientific learning among a population of Karaites in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By focusing on the science-positive curriculum of sixteenth-century Turkish Karaite Joseph Beghi, Elior traces a Jewish genealogy of active scientific learning that weaves in and through not only curricular debates, but also Karaite-Rabbanite relations, and the boundaries of the “Jewish” library, adding another facet to our understanding of late medieval and early modern Judaism.
Read Elior’s essay “Attitudes toward Science in the Karaite Community of Istanbul: The Case of Joseph Beghi” in the most recent issue of JQR, and see how his findings add to the larger discussions happening at the Katz Center this year (Jewish Life in Modern Islamic Contexts) and last (Nature between Science and Religion).
Map courtesy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Jewish National and University Library.