According to conventional wisdom, Sephardic ultra-Orthodoxy is simply a copy of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy. Dr. Nissim Lion demonstrates that this simplistic view overlooks major differences between the two communities with respect to Zionism and the State, and even with regard to the atmosphere of their respective synagogues. Dr. Ariel Picard examines these differences and their sources, and claims that understanding them can make an important contribution to the public discourse, during a period in which the tension between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox is repeatedly in the headlines.
Most of the secular public perceives the ultra-Orthodox as a monolithic, extreme and secluded community that hungers after political power and is uncompromising with respect to religion. The massive media coverage of the angry demonstrations against the opening of a parking garage on Shabbat or the evacuation of graves at an archeological site, which made disproportionate mention of members of the ultra-Orthodox community and the Neturei Karta, strengthens these feelings and reduces the possibility of a fruitful dialogue between the various segments of Israeli society. Nissim Lion’s new book, Soft Ultra-Orthodoxy: the Religious Renewal in Sephardic Judaism, counters this destructive tendency and constitutes an example of how thorough and comprehensive research of fundamental processes can raise the level of public discourse.
General education, civil and cultural emancipation and the abandonment of the traditional Jewish way of life which took place in modern Europe led to the reaction known as “Orthodoxy,” a Greek term that means the way or belief that is straight and right. Jewish European Orthodoxy was characterized by the adoption of a strict religious lifestyle, seclusion from the non-Orthodox Jewish society, repeated attempts to keep the young away from general education, and the concentration of political power among a small group of rabbis who determine the correct way of life for the community. This phenomenon is known as “ultra-Orthodoxy” in Israeli society.
For many years, Israeli researchers in the social sciences believed ultra-Orthodoxy to be an Ashkenazi phenomenon, a continuation of the European movement. However, since the 1980s, and particularly with the emergence of Shas as a political and social movement in Israel, a large and significant Sephardic ultra-Orthodox sector has emerged. Researchers have had difficulty characterizing this group, since Orthodoxy did not exist in the Islamic countries. In his book, Nissim Lion reviews the accepted explanations in scholarly research for the difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Judaism – one of them concerning content and the other circumstances.
According to the first explanation, the character of Sephardic Judaism and the views of Sephardic sages were always moderate, and the Sephardic community was able to contain various beliefs and viewpoints within it. As a result, even when the secularization and modernization processes began among Jews in the Islamic countries, the leaders of the community knew how to moderate their influence and to avoid divisive confrontations. Those who hold this position view the new Sephardic ultra-Orthodoxy that took shape in the State of Israel as an imitation of the Ashkenazi form and an abandonment of the original character of Jewish culture in Islamic countries.
On the other hand, according to the second explanation, the gap between Europe and Islamic countries is a result of the differences in character between the modernization processes. While in Europe, modernization had an ideological aspect that rebelled against religious authority, the modernization processes in Islamic countries tended to be less rebellious and avoided the absolute rejection of religious values. Those who adopt this explanation claim that the transplantation of the Sephardic communities to Israel, a modern and Western society, created an Orthodox reaction among Sephardic Jews as well. For the first time, they encountered deep-seated secularization and were drawn into a more intense confrontation over their religious identity.
But is Sephardic ultra-Orthodoxy indeed the mirror image of its Ashkenazi sister? The answer to this question is the main innovation of the book. In Lion’s opinion, despite the many similarities with Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy, Sephardic ultra-Orthodoxy has unique characteristics which he describes as “soft” ultra-Orthodoxy.
One of the main differences between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic ultra-Orthodox is to be found in their attitudes towards Zionism and the State of Israel. While Zionism is perceived in Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodoxy as one of the incarnations of the modernization that threatens religion, the position of Sephardic ultra-Orthodoxy is more open. Thus, in contrast to Agudat Yisrael, which has declared that it will not accept any functions that reflect partnership and full responsibility for the country, Shas ministers serve in Israel’s governments. The Sephardic “softness” also has a liturgical manifestation which Lion comes across in his examination of the prayer books and customs in Sephardic ultra-Orthodox synagogues. Thus, he surprisingly finds that although the Prayer for the State of Israel in its Zionist formulation is not recited in their synagogues, in accordance with the classic ultra-Orthodox approach, a prayer for IDF soldiers that is totally absent from Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox synagogues is found in most Sephardic ultra-Orthodox prayer books and is recited in most of their synagogues. “Soft” Sephardic ultra-Orthodoxy is characterized by a much broader ability to include other views than the Ashkenazi version, even in areas not directly connected to the attitude towards Zionism. Although Sephardic ultra-Orthodoxy changed the atmosphere of the Sephardic synagogue from “calm religiosity” to “tense religiosity,” it nonetheless still represents a more heterogeneous space than that of the typical Ashkenazi synagogue.
The relative “softness” of Sephardic ultra-Orthodoxy is attributed by Lion to its “culture of repentance” which is manifested in the significant effort invested in returning the general public to religion. The result is the creation of a dynamic of social continuity between those who have already returned to religion, those who are strengthening their religiosity and those who will completely return in the future. Thus, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic community is overcoming the rigid Ashkenazi dichotomy between those “inside” and those “outside,” which makes it possible to welcome various sectors of society.
Lion’s book is an excellent example of the contribution that can be made by thorough and comprehensive research, which can clearly see the small details and the deep-seated processes in Israeli society. The stereotypes of the media discourse increase ultra-Orthodox alienation and accentuate the differences and gaps. In contrast, an understanding of the social and cultural complexity of the various groups in Israel can create a more multi-dimensional picture and contributes to a more fruitful dialogue between the various sectors of society.
Dr. Ariel Picard is Educational Director of the Be’eri Program and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His book, The Philosophy of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef in an Era of Change – An Investigation of Halacha and a Critique of Culture, was published by Bar Ilan University Press in 2007.
Soft Ultra-Orthodoxy by Nissim Lion was published by Yad Ben Zvi.