The Sephardi Perspective: Misunderstanding the Sephardim

Recently, both the Reform and Conservative movement held symposia in Israel to discuss why they have made little inroads into the Israeli mainstream. While their leadership and its champions in political parties like Meretz rally the government to receive official status, the laity does not number more than a few thousand people.

Both of these movements find the situation perplexing as they assume that because the ‘average’ Israeli is not religious, they would have a kindred spirit with the non-Orthodox. To their credit, these movements are seeking to understand the reasons behind the Israeli abhorrence or neglect of non-Orthodoxy.

Interestingly, both symposia placed the problems with attracting Sephardim high on their respective agendas. The Conservative movement included a panel on the patronizingly titled “Egalitarian Sephardi Communities: Is the revolution upon us?” The Reform movement held a two day conference at the Van Leer Institute titled “Contemporary Reform Judaism – Sociology, Education and Theology.”

The latter conference included a debate which goes to the heart of the problems beset by these movements in Israel. Yehuda Maimaran, of the Morasha Institute, made a distinction between the two types of Israelis: the traditionalist, usually Sephardi, Jew and the Reform Jew. Maimaran said that the traditional Jew never denies the authenticity of Orthodoxy, nor does he abandon loyalty to Halacha. He just has trouble translating his beliefs into practice.

I would argue that Maimaran has almost understood the end to the Sephardi traditional phenomena, but not the means. The Reform Movement’s emphasis on personal choice and freedom is built into a system that is rooted in the European Reformation and hostile religious anti-Semitism. The European Reformation had many positive aspects but it also brought much negativity like the antagonism to non-secular humanism, religious war and extreme individualistic behavior. The Reformation made the canon of text the literal and the ultimate arbiter of religious performance.

While Sephardi religious authorities maintained a flexibility of mind in accompaniment with the text, Ashkenazi Jewry was becoming more and more rigid in its interpretations. Sephardim developed a realistic approach to Halacha, Ashkenazim became obsessed with the ideal perhaps unrealistic approach. This meant, in the words of the Jewish political scientist Daniel Elazar z’l, “as modernization engulfed them, the Jewish religious leadership in Central and Eastern Europe became either more radical or more conservative in their approach to tradition, either seeing antinomian radical reform or refusing to continence any new departures, even in interpretation.”

“The religious leadership of the Sephardi world, on the other hand, particularly in North Africa and the Balkans, developed a whole pattern of halakhic interpretation that moved far in the direction to reconciling halakhah with modern technology and life down through the nineteenth century.”

The Sephardim had their own “Reformation” which they met with modernity in the time of the Muslim rule of the Iberian Penninsular (Al-Andalus) and leading up to the united monarchy, in what became known as Spain. Rather than break with tradition, the Jews of Spain created a plausible synthesis of religious practice and observance coupled with a thirst for non-Jewish philosophy, science and culture. The idea that Shem (the Jew) would take the best of Yaphet (the Greek or gentile) took root very comfortably amongst the Sephardim, especially amongst the greatest Rabbis of the time. The ‘Golden Rule’ of the Rambam became the raison d’etre of Sephardi religious communal life for centuries to come.

Reform Judaism was, and in many ways, still is, a reactionary movement. In fact, in an Ashkenazi setting, all of the movements are by nature a ‘reaction’. However, the non-Orthodox movements reacted to a history that is foreign to the Sephardim. Not just the events themselves, but the context and the responses are alien to those who met modernity and the outside world long before the extreme retorts of the Ashkenazim.

Non-Orthodox Judaism has a lack of confidence that many Sephardim cannot relate to. Maimaran is incorrect when he assumes that the Sephardi traditional Jew is troubled by his dichotomy of belief with practice. There is an acceptance and acquiescence that the world is not perfect and man is perhaps the least perfect. The Sephardi Jew does not need the non-Orthodox ‘shoot the arrow and then draw the target where it lands’ approach to Judaism.

The Reform movement?s discussion on its lack of Sephardi membership also showed a more insidious side to its agenda. During the panel discussion, Maimaran correctly implied that Reform Judaism in Israel was a decidedly Ashkenazi phenomenon. Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform Movement here, said so explicitly. She said that Sephardim who belonged to the Reform Movement tended to come from “certain socioeconomic strata” and from “certain neighborhoods in Israel like Ramat Aviv.”

Uproar emanated from the audience which prompted one person to shout “How ugly of you to say such a thing.”

Professor Naftali Rothenberg demurred afterward saying that there was a wide divide between the traditional Sephardi Jew, no matter how educated, and the Reform Jew.

“Reform Jews are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi and they tend to express themselves in abstract, theological and philosophical terms. In contrast, the traditional Sephardi Jew, no matter how secular he or she is, has a more emotional, instinctive approach to Judaism, to faith.”

It is sad that a conference attended by some supposedly important thinkers can still arrive at the same pseudo-scientific, if not racist, conclusions. When reading between the lines, Rothenberg is saying that Ashkenazim are more intellectual and thoughtful, while the Sephardim are less educated and emotional. In other words the ‘Oriental’ or ‘Levantine’ Jew of old time prejudices are alive and well in the Reform leadership.

The truth of the matter is that the neo-theological reactionism of Reform and the intellectual persuasiveness of the realist Sephardi mean that Rothenberg?s ugly prejudices are turned on their head. The Sephardim have a wealth of religious tradition and history that enables them to face modernity, remain traditional, and yet have strong bonds to both the religious and secular. The Ashkenazim do not have a cohesive tradition that binds the many seemingly disparate worlds that a Jew seeks to live in. As a result, Ashkenazi Jewry has split into a myriad of movements, each of which may have many advantages, but with respective a set of beliefs which is selectively useful only to a particular group of people.

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