Can Sephardi Judaism be reconstructed?

David J Elazar z”l was a renowned political scientist and founder of the research institute, the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs.Although he has beeen dead since 1999, Elazar’s thoughts on the Ashkenazification of the Sephardi religious tradition, set out in this 1992 JCPA paper, are still pertinent today:

This numerical advantage meant that even to the degree that the major Sephardic and Ashkenazic centers suffered in the same proportion from the catastrophies of the twentieth century, so many more Ashkenazim were able to survive with their religious leadership and institutions intact. This also had to do with the conditions under which they survived. For example, almost the only Ashkenazi religious institutions that actually survived World War II were haredi yeshivot that through bribery and cunning managed to escape the Nazi (and for that matter Soviet) clutches. More modernized Jews had too much faith in the enlightenment of modern man to resort to those methods and hence perished.

Meanwhile, in the new world, new institutions had been developed in the Ashkenazi spirit by Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. Among Sephardim, the old country institutions were actually destroyed as a result of aliyot to Israel, in many cases, out of love, as it were, by the representatives of the Zionist movement who saw no value in the older religious way of life. They sought to create a new Israeli man by forcing the olim to abandon not only their institutions but their Torah scrolls and sacred manuscripts when they left their countries of origin. Once the olim had arrived, it was easy to discredit the authority of old-country elders. Thus, institutionally, the Ashkenazim, whether haredim or reformers, were in a better position to dominate religious life after World War II. Neither followed the spirit of the Sephardic way, which provided for moderation without institutionalizing either orthodoxy or secularism.

Institutions as Factors

The institutional factor was critical here. The Ashkenazim had in the course of 200 years adapted institutionally to modernity in their religious life. Both hassidim and yeshivot were religious Jewish responses to the eighteenth century; they were strengthened and expanded as Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These effectively seized control of the definition of what constituted traditional Judaism. In the nineteenth century, ideologically reforming movements, Reform and Conservative, appeared among the Ashkenazim of the West, who deliberately sought to create new forms of Judaism. Technically speaking, Conservative Judaism did not, only to reanimate what they saw as the flexibility and changing character of tradition; that is why in the early days of the Conservative movement Sephardim were very prominent in it, dropping out only when the movement took on separate institutional and ideological form.

As religious institutions ceased to be unifying factors in Jewish life, the Askhenazim developed civil institutions to perform shared or common functions, interaction in the Zionist movement, the national representative or community relations organizations, or local community federations.

The Sephardim, on the other hand, underwent no such institutional development. They tried to retain their traditional institutions, congregations and communities, yet were unable to adapt them except where they imitated Ashkenazi models. In the few places where Sephardic majorities remained after the great migrations, as in Morocco, or were established as a result of migrations, as in France, the older institutions that adapted slightly continued to exist, mostly congregations which remained localistic, serving the immediately private needs of individual families and not able to go beyond that. In France, indeed, the national institutions had been established earlier by Ashkenazim and were simply taken over by Sephardim in due course.

In most places, however, the Sephardim did not have a majority. Therefore they retreated to their own congregations or joined with the Ashkenazim in their institutions. Since in any case, like Ashkenazim, Sephardim underwent a crisis of religious belief and practice and most no longer remained faithful to tradition, the impact of these congregational and religious institutions was necessarily weakened.

This was especially true of religious institutions. In their own way the Ashkenazim, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, early on attempted to develop new institutions of higher Jewish learning to cope with the demands of modernity. Of them, the yeshiva is the most successful for the Orthodox and the rabbinical seminary with a strong Jewish studies component following the Wissenschaft model served the same purpose for the non-Orthodox.

The Sephardim were not successful in developing either, although there were attempts. The yeshiva, with its isolationist orientation, was foreign to the Sephardic tradition, while the rabbinical seminary involved too sharp a break with traditional institutions for most Sephardim. The Sephardic Talmud Torah, which had played an equivalent function in traditional Sephardic society, either was not able to redefine itself or failed to attract the students it needed to survive, as most Sephardim (like most Ashkenazim, for that matter) ceased to be interested in higher Jewish studies. Ironically, most of those who were, were products of Ashkenazification and attracted by the fundamentalism offered by the yeshiva world rather than the moderate openness of Sephardic institutions. Thus, in time, most of those Sephardic youth who wanted traditional learning either went to Ashkenazi yeshivot or Sephardic yeshivot modelled after the Ashkenazi pattern and accepted Ashkenazi ways in everything except, perhaps, the minhag tefilah (prayer ritual).

Where their culture remained intact, Sephardim developed exemplary educational systems from bottom to top, whether in Amsterdam or in Salonika (to give two prominent examples). However, nowhere in the twentieth century Sephardic dispersion did Sephardim form their own higher yeshivot, in most cases because they were not present in sufficient numbers. At most, they found a subprogram for them within an Ashkenazi yeshiva, that itself often was established by Ashkenazim. Only in Eretz Israel did thy have the numbers to do so, and there the Sephardim who had the wherewithall did not have the interest, while the ones who had the interest were attracted to Ashkenazi yeshivot or Sephardic copies of same. This trend was strengthened by the fact that the Sephardic way had been dominated by Spaniolim, those Jews descended from the exiles from Spain and Portugal, and the Spaniolim as a group early abandoned a firm commitment to tradition in favor of modernization. Those interested in traditional learning increasingly came from the Jews of Asian and African countries, the so called edot hamizrach, who, while within the Sephardic cultural and religious spheres, were most disrupted in their high culture by their migrations, and apparently lost the intellectual wherewithall to produce their own institutions during the critical transition.

Since the Ashkenazim had begun developing their institutions in Eretz Israel before 1860, while living in the midst of a Sephardic majority, their models were firmly implanted by the time the Sephardim began building their own institutions. The major Sephardic institution of higher Jewish learning in Israel, Yeshivat Porat Yosef, became the first of a long series of replicas of Ashkenazi yeshivot. On the other hand, the Beit Yetomim HaSepharadi (the Sephardic orphanage), was founded by Sephardim in Jerusalem in 1895 in the traditional Sephardic mold, whose charter provided and continues to provide for a rabbinical training curriculum that includes secular studies, failed to attract significant leadership or student body, perhaps because in its early days it was based on the hidden assumption that only orphans who had no other way to make a living, would go into the rabbinate in modern times. That meant that non-orphans were not attracted, and the orphans wanted to get out.

The earlier Talmud Torah of the Vaad HaEdah HaSepharadi b’Yerushalayim (Central Committee of Sephardic Jews of Jerusalem), the governing body of the Jewish community of that city from time immemorial (it claims to have been founded by Nachmanides when he reestablished Jewish community life in the city in 1268), also failed in the early days of the Zionist Yishuv, probably for similar reasons. There no longer were enough Sephardic young people interested in the traditional rabbinate in the new world emerging under Zionism. Between World War I and the mid-1970s, from time to time, the Vaad HaEdah tried to establish rabbinical training programs of similar character, but failed because of the opposition of the Ashkenazi establishment.

The Ashkenazification of the Sephardim

The death of Rabbi Uziel marked the final takeover of power from the Sephardim by the Ashkenazi rabbinical establishment. The establishment of the office of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Eretz Israel in the 1920s was the beginning of that takeover. Until that time there had been only one Chief Rabbi, the Rishon Le-Zion, chosen by the Sephardic community. The Ashkenazim had their individual kollelim and batai din (rabbinical courts), all what we would now call haredi in character. The Zionist movement, religious and non-religious, wanted to introduce a more Zionist rabbinate, and the British were not adverse to assisting them. Hence, the establishment of the dual Chief Rabbinate, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, in 1921.

In violation of the halakhah that Sephardi custom was to predominate in Eretz Israel, which dates at least from the Middle Ages, the Ashkenazi rabbinical leadership insisted that, as the new majority, Ashkenazim could bring in and maintain their own customs (minhagim). Ashkenazi haredim went even further, to insist that every person had to follow the customs of the community from which his family came in Eastern Europe, down to the smallest matters of pronunciation.

Given the numbers and power of the Ashkenazim, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbinate soon became more powerful than the Sephardi. Ashkenazim came to dominate the institutions of the Chief Rabbinate, countrywide and local. Moreover, they were convinced that their way was the correct way, and, hence, they made a deliberate effort to overwhelm the Sephardim whose ways were strange and, in their eyes, not sufficiently rigorous.

The Sephardim, in turn, fell victim to their own internal divisions. The Sephardic Chief Rabbinate had been the preserve of the Spaniolim, who be the early 1950s were thoroughly outnumbered by Asian and African olim. In the struggle over who would be appointed to succeed Rabbi Uziel, the Ashkenazi rabbinical establishment threw its backing behind Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim of Iraqi origin, who was opposed by the Spaniol establishment. Rabbi Nissim won, with Ashkenazi votes, which put the Sephardic Chief Rabbinate in a clearly subordinate position, de facto, to the Ashkenazim, a position in which it remains to this day, although one of the selling points of Shas, the Sephardic Torah Guardians, and its spiritual mentor, former Rishon Le-Zion, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who is recognized as one of the great posekim (halakhic decision-makers) of our day by Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, was that the Sephardim had to take back their rightful position.

Unfortunately, Rabbi Yosef and his colleagues had themselves become so Ashkenazified through their education in Ashkenazi or Ashkenazified yeshivot that, while they in fact regained some power, they did not offer very much of an alternative. Rabbi Yosef, also of Iraqi background (since the election of Rabbi Nissim, all the Sephardic Chief Rabbis have been of Iraqi background), feeling the pressure of the Ashkenazi yeshiva heads, consistently refused to provide support to the Sephardic community’s efforts to establish more open yeshivot in the 1960s and 1970s.

The few isolated examplars of the old Sephardic tradition, men like the Sephardic Chief Rabbis of Tel Aviv, Haim David HaLevy (the author of an excellent and widely-adopted contemporary abridgment of the Shulkhan Aruch for popular use and once one of the most popular rabbis in Israel until he was more or less silenced under pressure), and of Netanya, Rabbi David Celouche, are under constant pressure to conform to the Ashkenazified ways and the Ashkenazi approach. Even they must dress in the Ashkenazi rabbinical style, so thoroughly Eastern European in its origins. The authentic costume of the Sephardic Rabbinate has been given up except in the case of the Rishon Le-Zion, who wears traditional garb on state occasions.

Ashkenazified Sephardic yeshivot teach the rabbinical stories of Eastern Europe to their students so that a Sephardi rabbi, speaking to Sephardic Jews, will tell stories of the hassidic masters because he will not know the many excellent and beautiful stories of his own tradition. The popular religious music of the Ashkenazim is now widely used by Sephardim on festive occasions such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and even in Sephardic religious services at certain points because that is what the people learn in school and what is familiar to them. Sephardic religious music is hardly ever taught, and even Sephardic customs are taught as exotica or folklore rather than part of a living tradition.

Sephardim and Ashkenazim

The only difference preserved by these Ashkenazified Sephardic religious leaders is that almost all see themselves as mikarvim (those who try to bring the people closer to Jewish tradition rather than isolating themselves from the less traditional). in this respect the Sephardic way is still alive. It stands in sharp contrast to the isolationist approach of Ashkenazi Orthodox of almost every stripe. This can be seen in the respective congregational patterns of the two groups. It is recognized by all that there are many ways to be Orthodox. In a typical religious neighborhood in Israel or in Brooklyn one may find several different hassidic minyanim, a yishiva or Litvak minyan, one or more modern Orthodox congregations, perhaps Young Israel or religious Zionist, or simply one with a more dignified service and one with a more free-flowing one. All will live side-by-side in mutual recognition, but each will be homogeneous. In other words, kindred souls will find each other and stay together; few, if any, will really welcome people as permanent congregants who do not observe in an Orthodox way — indeed, in their particular style.

Contrast this with a typical Sephardic congregation. It will be composed of people of all levels of observance, from black-hatted yeshiva students to people who think of themselves as secular but enjoy attending services from time to time. In the congregation all are equal. No one is asked how much or how little he observes. Sephardim assume that all people want to be traditional, only some people need greater degrees of help. That Sephardic attitude, which is typically Mediterranean, runs against the grain of the Ashkenazi pattern where people have to declare their religious ideology and form of religious behavior to fit into one community or another within Orthodoxy as well as between Orthodox and non-Orthodox.

Sephardi congregations may be divided by the traditions of their communities of origin, but there are no religious tests per se. Moreover, as the immigrant generation passes, even those divisions are diminishing. In Israel, the minhag yerushalayim, which, from a formal halahkic point of view is binding on all Jews in Eretz Israel, is becoming more widespread, and diaspora communities are either adopting that ritual or finding their own amalgams based upon the traditions of the Sephardim who founded them.

The strenghths of the Sephardic way are also its weaknesses, while the weaknesses of the Ashkenazi way are also its strengths. If the strength of the Sephardic way is in its willingness to try to cope with the world around it through interfacing rather than isolation and its reaching out to all Jews without breaking away from tradition, those strengths also lead to its weaknesses in the tendency of Sephardim not to take firm stands in defense of the maintenance of tradition, to almost blow with the wind, as it were, rather than be willing to make the necessary sacrifices in a world often hostile to tradition. By the same token, the weakness of the Ashkenazi tradition makes them very strong, even fanatically strong, in defending, adhering to, and trying to advance their position, whatever it might be. Hence, they are better prepared to fight the fight against the breakdowns of modernism than the Sephardim, one way or another, while the Sephardim find it hard to stand up to those breakdowns and to the proposed responses to them developed by the Ashkenazim. The tendency of the Sephardim has been to simply give in when confronted with such iron-willed assertion of what is right. It should be noted that this is true with regard to both the religious and the Zionist socialist establishments in Israel where the majority of the Sephardim found themselves after the break-up of the traditional Sephardic world.

What of the Future?

The destruction of the matrices of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic worlds may make it more difficult for Sephardim to maintain the continuity of their religious tradition. At the same time it makes it possible to attract non-Sephardim, who are seeking a Judaism of that kind, to the Sephardic way. Can it be done? Only if there is a major effort to revive Sephardic halakhic interpretation, train Sephardic rabbinical leadership, and present the Sephardic way as an equally valid expression of Judaism, one that avoids Reformation-style schismatics and speaks on behalf of an organic Judaism through which Jews as a group are linked to a common tradition, while as individuals they make their own choices as to how to relate to and express that tradition. Some such cross-fertilization does exist. For example, the late Rabbi Haim David HaLevy Donin, an Ashkenazi, was much impressed with the Makor Haim, the popular halakhic guide of his Sephardic colleague of similar name referred to above, and drew heavily on it for his books on the To Be a Jew series.

At the present time another effort is underway to build a Beit Midrash L’Rabbanim in the classic Sephardic mold in Jerusalem, led by a group of Sephardic communal activists. The head of the Beit Midrash, Rabbi Dr. Avraham Shalem, was a student of Rabbi Uziel’s, the last to carry on the classic Sephardic manner. The institution, itself, Neot Deshe, is operating as a continuation of an earlier body whose nearly 100-year-old charter provides that rabbinical education must include Jewish history and thought, languages, sciences and general education, as well as rabbinical studies. This effort is probably the last chance that will be available to revive the Sephardic way of learning as part of a continuous tradition. A similar effort is underway in Tel Aviv.

The revival of a living organic Judaism of this kind is the need of the hour in Jewish life. The best opportunity for doing so is through the Sephardic way. A major effort must be launched to reconstruct the Sephardic halakhic tradition and make it a living tradition with posekim addressing the great religious questions of our time in the Sephardic way. The restoration of Sephardic modes of teaching and learning and the establishment of educational institutions, particularly higher educational institutions, that will provide a home for those modes and train people able to express and continue the Sephardic way. All this must be done through scholarship, but whether or not the scholarship becomes part of a living heritage of the Jewish people is another question.

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