Did the Jewish communities in the Islamic world really have a more moderate tradition, and, if so, why has it been abandoned by Sephardic religious leaders in recent decades? The case of Rabbi Amsalem of the Shas political party raises an issue that goes deeper than immediate political concern, touching on the adoption of an Ashkenazi-haredi halachic attitude by Sephardic religious leadership. Hartman Institute research fellows Professor Zvi Zohar and Dr. Ariel Picard discuss Sephardic religious rulings and offer different interpretations of the changes that these have undergone.
During the past year MK Rabbi Chaim Amsalem caused quite a stir by publicly criticizing his movement, Shas, for straying far from the Sephardic worldview and adopting an Ashkenazi-Lithuanian ideology. In interviews granted to the media, Rabbi Amsalem supported the inclusion of haredi Jews in the workforce and the IDF, a core curriculum including secular subjects (mathematics, English language) in haredi schools. In response, Shas Council of Torah sages demanded that Amsalem resign from the Knesset. The movement’s weekly publication, Yom L’Yom, went so far as to call him an Amalekite.
Rabbi Amsalem’s critique of Shas and the party’s response have raised a deeper question regarding the adoption of a Lithuanian-haredi approach to halacha by Sephardic religious leadership. In this column, we spoke with two Hartman Institute research fellows about Sephardic halachic tradition, the differences between these traditions in recent centuries, and the adoption of the Lithuanian approach by the preeminent Sephardi Torah sages in recent decades. The two scholars offer completely different explanations for these changes.
Zvi Zohar, author of Tradition and Changeand the Luminous Face of the East, both of which deal with the halachic and philosophical teachings of Sephardic scholars in the modern era says:
In the past two hundred years, Sephardic halachic rulings have been characterized by several elements. Traditionally, Sephardic halachic rulings sought to be inclusive with rabbis’ decisions taking the situation, the needs of all of the members of the community, and varying degrees of religious fervor into account alongside attention to halachic minutiae. The German and Eastern European phenomena of an entire community setting itself apart or closing itself off from the outside world because the general zeitgeist was insufficiently religious; or halachic rulings targeted at a devout segment of the community that keep the commandments and ignore the fact that large parts of the community do not—tended not to occur in Islamic countries.
This traditional Sephardic approach did not stem from ignorance of what was happening in Europe. Sephardic rabbis, well aware of the European reality, did not accept the exclusionary approach adopted by many European rabbis, or the idea that halachic rulings were targeted at a minority within the community. Thus the resulting "the stricter the better" notion that took root in European Jewish communities did not take hold in Sephardic rulings In which rabbis intentionally changed halachic rulings so as not to leave too many people outside of the definition of the traditional Jew. Even Rabbi Ovadia Yosef—following in the footsteps of many who came before him—stated that he would prefer to formulate less stringent rulings to allow more people to remain connected to the tradition.
An example of this can be seen in the nineteenth century when Jews of Iraqi descent established communities in India . Even as these communities grew, numbering thousands of members many of which became very rich and successful, they continued to view Iraq and Baghdad as the center of knowledge and the source of authority on matters of tradition.
Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel (1880-1953)
Abdallah Somekh (great-grandfather of Professor Sasson Somekh of Tel Aviv University) was the most important rabbi in Baghdad during the second half of the nineteenth century. Upon heard that the chief rabbi of Hebron, Eliyahu Mani was on his way back to the land of Israel after travelling to India where he ruled that the streets of Bombay could not be considered part of the public domain de’orayta (according to the written law) and therefore community members could utilize non-Jewish assistants and servants to perform various actions on their behalf on the Sabbath; Rabbi Somech summoned Rabbi Mani for a talk in which he explained that this should have been forbidden as is plainly specified in the Shulchan Aruch. Rabbi Mani replied that the halachic approach forbidding these activities is indeed the one accepted in Sephardic rulings but that nonetheless he ruled differently, as he saw all Iraqi Jews in Bombay going to synagogue on the Sabbath with snuff boxes and handkerchiefs in their pockets and carrying parasols to protect them from the blazing sun.
Rabbi Mani explained that were he to consider Bombay to be a public domain de-orayta, all those carrying objects in the public domain on the Sabbath would be committing a serious transgression. By ruling that it was a public domain only de’rabannan (according to the oral law), it was possible to offer them a solution—their non-Jewish servants could carry their belongings for them. Even if some Jews continued to carry their own items, they would be committing a less serious transgression. In this manner, the members of the community were saved from being defined—by themselves and by others—as serious sinners. After rethinking the issue, Rabbi Somekh accepted Rabbi Mani’s reasoning, even though the halachic ruling for Baghdad was different.
Another feature of Sephardic ruling is the notion that events in the non-Jewish world are not necessarily hostile and that every case must be examined individually. The basic attitude of Torah scholars in the Middle East and North Africa was to take a positive view of modern schools that combined general studies with Jewish learning, on the condition that the pupils be taught to live a traditional lifestyle, not abandonning the Jewish tradition. Rabbis felt that this form of education was an improvement over the traditional modes of education that existed in the community up until then. Prominent rabbis also acknowledged and supported technological innovations and democratic values:.
Rabbi Uziel, who late in life became Israel’s first Chief Sephardic Rabbi, supported women’s right to vote in the elections for the representative body of the Jews in Mandatory Palestine, while Rabbi Kook, for example, opposed. Rabbi Uziel admitted that in the past women were not included in public and political leadership positions, but, as far as he was concerned, that should not affect the present. Were women not "creatures created in the image of God and blessed with intelligence?" he asked. Are they not subject to the decisions made by the elected assembly? "How can you grab both ends of the rope at the same time: impose disciplinary obligation [the obligation to obey the decisions of the elected representatives] on them but deny them the right to vote?"
By the end of the twentieth century virtually all of the rabbis considered the greatest scholars of their generation—Rabbi Uziel, Rabbi Yosef Mashash, Rabbi Haim David Halevy, Rabbi Moshe Malka, and others—had passed away. Simultaneously,those who had been their students in the 1950s and 1960s who had started attending Lithuanian yeshivas assumed leadership. These people, who are ethnically Sephardic and still speak Hebrew with clear pronunciation of the guttural letters het and ayin, assumed the Lithuanian-haredi ethos of withdrawal and seclusion, the hostile attitude to the world at large, and strict religious values. Thus the current generation of Sephardic rabbis, view a community of scholars and seclusion as a religious value.This adoption of haredi attitudes by rabbinic leaders and those influenced by them has also taken place in a significant number of Jewish communities of Islamic country-origin outside of Israel such as in Mexico and France…
I shall conclude with an illustrative anecdote: Two years ago, I attended an academic conference in Mexico. We stayed in a small hotel and were told that we had a host for the Sabbath meal and that we should meet him at a large synagogue of the Aleppo community, called Magen David. We were wondering how our host would identify us. When we entered the synagogue the answer was obvious—we were the only ones there not in haredi clothing.
Our host was someone who had done very well in business. At his home, we sat around his large Sabbath table, the women on one side and the men on the other. They were a little surprised that my wife took part in a conversation on matters of Judaism. At some point, I asked our hosts why the men in synagogue had been wearing haredi clothing. He answered, "Because they’re very religious." "But the community is from Aleppo," I said. He responded that Jews in Aleppo were very religious too,"."Yes," I said, "but they didn’t dress like that." Our host was shocked: "How is it possible that the Jews of Aleppo were very religious but didn’t dress like religious Jews?" So, there you have it: not only have the Ashkenazi codes been completely adopted but even the change itself has already been forgotten.
Ariel Picard, author of The Philosophy of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in an Age of Transition: Study of Halacha and Cultural Criticism:
Just as you cannot generalize Ashkenazi halachic rulings—the Lithuanian, Galician, and Hungarian approaches all vary—Aleppo is not Damascus and neither is Casablanca. There are differences between halachic decision-makers in different locations and in different times.
The distinction between Sephardic and non-Sephardi decision-makers is no more correct than other distinctions. My sense is that we do not gain much from these generalizations; as they only manage to deepen the rifts in Israeli society.
I feel that instead of arguing which tradition is more "appropriate" to today’s reality,we should look for different and varied sources of inspiration from among the entire range of Jewish culture throughout the ages. There is something wrong, if not downright contemptuous, in saying that Sephardic Jews "forgot their heritage" in Lithuanian yeshivas. Rabbi Ovadia and Rabbi Mazuz of Bnei Brak are conservative in their halachic rulings despite the fact that they did not study in Lithuanian yeshivas. The extremism we are witnessing among Sephardic scholars today is not the result of their having been co-opted by Lithuanian yeshivas. This extremism is a typical, even obvious, response to the modern, extroverted society Sephardic Jews have encountered in Israel. It is their response to modern Zionism.
It is true that Algerian and Moroccan Jews knew all about secularism. Their encounter with this in Israel did not, in that sense, take them totally by surprise, as it did Yemenite Jews. Even Baghdad had its communist Jews and its Zionists, but the communal structure was clear. The community was headed by rabbis committed to tradition. There was no anti-religious leadership. In the 1950s and 1960s, the hegemonic rule in Israel was socialist, secular, and ideologically non-religious. This secularism scorned Sephardic traditionalism. The critical event for Sephardic Jewry was not their encounter with Lithuanian yeshivas but their encounter with the secular hegemony.
The Jews of Baghdad and Casablanca who came to Israel encountered a secularism that was much more aggressive than any they knew from their own cosmopolitan cities. The rabbis responded as though under attack. In their native surroundings they had had a sense of confidence; in Israel, they felt they were losing their children to the secular hegemony. They responded to this intense secularism in a much more extreme manner than in their native lands.
Choosing the haredi model as a response to the encounter with Zionism is also obvious: it is the only model that has worked. Sephardi Jews discovered that, in Israel, the only community that stood steady and proud in the face of modernity was hat of the haredim.. Who would it make sense for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to connect to? It was almost instinctively clear to him that the Ashkenazi haredi Jews spoke the same language as he did.
Rabbi Ovadia is haredi in the sense that he identifies modernity as the enemy. He comes from a tradition of moderation, and therefore his halachic rulings are more moderate, but it is important not to confuse moderation with capitulation. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is not a humanist, despite what leftists think about him. He may support one agreement or another, but he does not have an essential left-leaning position. His essential positions and his serious concerns are the same as those of the haredi Jew.
The liberal public takes a romanticized view of Sephardic Jewry and its rabbis and therefore experiences constant disappointment with them. It wants its own liberal positions to be expressed within traditional Judaism and therefore latches on to Sephardic scholars as an anchor to its own modernity. In my opinion, such an analysis is wrong. By and large, Sephardic scholars have not adopted modernity the way modern Orthodoxy does today.
There is therefore no difference between Deri and Yishai. Deri may seem more congenial to secular people. He’s a regular Joe, and Eli Yishai is not. But his fundamental positions are opposed to modernity. The notion that one is primitive and the other enlightened is a projection of our own liberal concepts and hopes onto them. There is something very paternalistic about it. Both Deri and Yishai were partners in the big step taken by Shas—fortifying the Torah world to protect the Sephardic community from modernity. They have worked on this for over twenty years and have scored tremendous success: they have built separate institutions; they do not attend university; they have created a separate, cohesive community. Now Rabbi Amsalem comes along and wants to turn them into religious Zionists, to a version of the crocheted kippa crowd? Of course they have come out against him in full force.
Professor Zvi Zohar teaches in the Faculty of Law and in the Faculty of Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University and is a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.