Why We Do Not Need Modern Orthodoxy—Or Any Orthodoxy

by David Shasha

Preface: There has recently been, unfortunately, a great impetus within our community to instill the values of Centrist Orthodoxy into all our religious institutions. The following essay is an attempt to provide background to this situation as it applies to the history of our Mizrahi/Sephardi community.Ashkenazim and Mizrahim/Sephardim

The traditions of Syrian Jewry go back to the time of King David. The evolution of our community through the Israelite kingdoms and the Babylonian Diaspora is little known. The true significance of the Syrian community comes about after the Muslim conquest of the Levant. Thereafter, the communities of the Middle East, Spain and North Africa develop within the web of Islam. This evolution of Judaism and its attendant ideology is better documented historically, but just as foggy to many Jews. Emerging from the Byzantine-Christian rule of the pre-Islamic era, with its repressions and persecutions, the Jews of Islam developed under a relatively friendly regime.

This development accentuated the role of the new synthesis of knowledge emerging in the Islamic humanities and sciences. While Christianity in Byzantine society degenerated from the Roman apogee, Islam took a hold over world civilization. Having maintained an even-handed tolerance for Judaism, the Muslims helped broker a new era in Jewish letters.

The rise of the Ge'onim, the heirs of the great Talmudic academies in Babylonia, heralded the new Jewish learning. Jewish scholars opened up the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Pythagoras and Plato. In sharp contrast to the more insular Talmudism of previous centuries, the Ge'onim, led by the giant of the era, Rabbi Se'adya, conducted an overhaul of Rabbinism. Their writings display an understanding of philosophy and science. Studies of the Hebrew language developed. New translations of the Bible into Arabic brought the sacred writ of the Jews into the linguistic orbit of the new culture.

At this very time Europe entered into a period of decline. The burgeoning communities of France and the Rhineland were increasingly cut off from the living wellsprings of Geonic society and culture and the Arab base. The Jews of Ashkenaz developed an idealized image of Jewish society, based on a novel amalgamation of a frozen Talmudism blended with an absolutely obsessive concern for local custom. The foremost school of the Ashkenazi Rabbinate, that of Rashi and the Tosafot, meticulously sought to align an unquestioning Talmudism with local variations.

With almost no exception, the Ashkenazim rejected the Islamic symbiotic model. Outside the orbit of Arabic culture, the Ashkenazim did not study the Greek humanities and sciences. Certain Ashkenazic Rabbis even prohibited the study of the arts and sciences. The great Spanish-Egyptian Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, Maimonides, in his magnum opus The Guide of the Perplexed, established a new working model of the Judeo-Arabic curriculum. This book drew great criticism from the Ashkenazi Rabbinical authorities.

In Spain, at the crossroads of Islamic and Christian society, the crucible was laid down. Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel, of German origin, vilified the Judeo-Arab culture and replaced it with Ashkenazic Talmudism. Rabbi Asher's rigid fundamentalist stance was transmitted to his many students in Spain. By the end of the 13th century, the rifts between Ashkenazim and Sephardim were wide and acrimonious. The works of Maimonides were interdicted and put under official ban (herem). The Ashkenazim had sought a pure, unadulterated Talmudism, which would not have recourse to the filters of the humanities and sciences. The Maimonidean Controversy, a battle between rational culture and uncritical tradition, had broken out.

The Origins of Modern Orthodoxy

It is this primal split between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi/Sephardi cultures that is at the root of the problem with Modern Orthodoxy. Modern Orthodoxy is a complex movement, based in 19th century German-Jewish culture. Its origins go way back to the late 17th century: With the collapse of the messianic movement of Sabbatai Sevi, new trends developed in European Jewry. The rise of a movement of pietists, known as Hasidim, sought to consolidate the messianism of Sabbatai and spread Kabbalistic ideas. The Hasidim led by Israel Ba'al Shem Tov were initially viewed with suspicion by the Rabbinic leaders of the time, headed by Rabbi Elijah the Gaon of Vilna. The Vilna Gaon eventually excommunicated the movement.

It was at this time that an embryonic conception of Orthodoxy developed. The two groupings, Hasidim and Mitnagdim, fought long and hard for the soul of Ashkenazi Jewry. The Hasidim, largely unlettered and romantically ecstatic, spread their ideas through the medium of the Hasidic tale. This literature vilified the religious orthodoxy of the Yeshivah community. The Hasidim promoted the idea of the charismatic Rebbe who would lead the community in an ecstatic union with the Divine. The Orthodox Mitnagdim sought the traditional means of Torah study, which obviated the need for a single, charismatic leader.

Throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, these two groups anathematized one another. That was until the emergence of a new Jewish class called the Maskilim. The Maskilim were "enlightened" Jews who emerged from the ghettoes of Europe at the time of political emancipation. In France and Germany movements were afoot to integrate the Jews into civil society, after the centuries of oppression. The price of this integration was, interestingly, a renunciation of Jewish praxis. A neutered Judaism developed as the price of assimilation.

This Judaism sought to either modify or even annul the system of Jewish law, Halakhah. To this end, scholarship and religious reform went hand in hand. Scientific study of Judaism sought to downplay metaphysics, mysticism and ritual and highlight the rational, ethical and historical aspects of Jewish civilization. The recently fractious groups, Hasidim and Mitnagdim, dropped their bitter clash and targeted the Maskilim for vilification. It was at this time that Orthodoxy as we now know it crystallized.

Throughout the 19th century, the new Orthodoxy took renewed strength. The reform movements had the disadvantage of straying from the organic rituals and communal structures of Judaism. Orthodoxy took as its clarion call the rejection of the profane arts and sciences. This rejection came in response to the great strides taken by the Maskilim in the scientific study of Judaism.

The split of Orthodox and Reform took a great leap forward at the time of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch's student, the great Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, jumped ship to compose a massive compendium of Jewish history, the famous Geschichte der Juden, which deprived Orthodoxy of a major literary talent. Graetz's polemic with Hirsch led to an offshoot development: Modern Orthodoxy.

Modern Orthodoxy sought to lighten the tight sanction against the profane sciences imposed by the Orthodox. Orthodoxy, however, had gained the ascendant among religious Jews at the time and this innovation was met with a certain skepticism. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, though esteemed by the Orthodox as one of their own, let loose a can of worms: Orthodox Jews would forever debate and argue over whether or not it was permissible or even worthwhile to expose themselves to "alien" ideas.

The Jews of Spain and the Middle East in the Early Modern Era

During the 19th century, the Levant was opened up to European colonialism. This movement led to a new openness in Jewish learning in the form of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. This movement was opposed by some Rabbis, but by and large was integrated into the Jewish institutional system.

The great giant of Baghdad, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim, in opposition to his Ashkenazi Orthodox counterparts, promoted the new learning as a supplement to Torah study. Rabbi Hayyim, the Ben Ish Hai, promoted a progressive curriculum that took root all throughout Spain and the Middle East.

Levantine Jews opened themselves to this new modern world, as they had opened up to the Islamic revolution some 12 centuries earlier. The communal culture of the Sephardim of the Middle East, with few exceptions, had maintained a pedagogical pluralism in spite of the Ashkenazi pressures. This openness obviated the need for the new denominations. Eastern Jews, also known as the Mizrahim, had never lived under the dark cloud of Christian persecutions. There was no need for "emancipation." The Middle East presented Judaism with a keen sense of autonomy: Native Jewish courts and communal institutions functioned undisturbed over many centuries.
Traditional continuity reigned in the East. In contrast to the seismic shifts in Europe, Mizrahi/Sephardi Jews experienced little religious commotion. The Sabbatian calamity, so disturbing in the European Jewish community, caused barely a blip on the Sephardi radar screen. Kabbalistic study continued unabated while the reestablishment of the rational culture, now filtered through Christian Europe and its Enlightenment, was laid down.

In this sense, the evolution of the Mizrahi Jews into modernity was natural. Figures such as Elijah Benamozegh in Italy and Eliyahu Hazzan in Egypt wrote treatises in congruence with both Jewish tradition as well as the newly emerging Wissenschaft study of Judaism and the humanities. The harsh split between Orthodox and Reform never took place in the Middle East.

The Emergence of Ashkenazi Jewry as Leaders of World Judaism

Over the course of the 19th century, the demographic nature of the world shifted. The world system, led for centuries by the East, shifted westward. This process took place over many centuries and had its roots in the emergence of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century and the end of the Crusades. Be that as it may, the great technical and scientific advances of Europe put the East into a subservient position. Much of this degeneration was due to the scientific revolutions of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In these two crucial periods traditional religion fell by the wayside in a way that even the Muslim High Middle Ages could not have envisioned. The collapse of Scholastic Humanism created all sorts of difficulties for the Jews and Muslims of the Middle East. Paradoxically, the very stasis of the Muslim world at this time in world history contributed to its religious equilibrium.

The new schism enveloping the Ashkenazim affected the Sephardim during the great immigrations of the early 20th century. Weakened by internal indecisiveness and communal confusion, the Sephardim, particularly in the United States, fell prey to the fractious Ashkenazic hegemony. There was little consensus among the Sephardim as to how to proceed. Sephardim in America, some here since Colonial times, continued in the ways of their forefathers. But the immigrants were faced with a confusing array of new options.

At the turn of the 20th century Sabato Morais, an Italian Sephardi, founded the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The subsequent evolution of that Seminary is a strong case in point for the lack of Sephardic control of American Jewish institutions. Sephardim felt compromised in the sense that they had a deep feeling of Jewish continuity and a great desire to adhere to both the Jewish law as well as develop their sense of science and art. The difficulties that they faced stemmed from their demographic weakness and their inability to organize themselves properly.

The Failure of the Sephardim and the Rise of Modern Orthodoxy

In this context the failure of the Sephardim to develop their own institutions of Jewish learning led to the critical issue of denominational affiliation. Had the Sephardim maintained their traditions, there would have been little need to make the choice. Internally, the Sephardim would have maintained their traditional culture, based as it was on the traditions emanating from the Islamic Mashriq, North Africa and Spain. These traditions had already decisively addressed the issues still plaguing the Ashkenazim. Torah was inclusive: It could accommodate pure Talmudism as well as the so-called "profane" sciences, as the Ashkenazim saw it.

Modern Orthodoxy, now transplanted to America, continued its unceasing battle with Orthodox fundamentalism. The Strictly Orthodox fought the Modern Orthodox who, critically, cut themselves off totally from the newly emerging Conservative movement. This meant that critical scholarship was becoming a contingent fact in Modern Orthodoxy. Religious litmus tests had to be developed to gauge the "trustworthiness" of scholars. Modern Orthodoxy claimed that it was open to the world, but this "openness" was fraught with misdirection and confusion.

Modern Orthodoxy thus had the difficulty of having to prove its Jewish faithfulness to the Strictly Orthodox who mistrusted their limited secularism. But because they had no solid traditions of intellectual attainment in the humanities and sciences the Modern Orthodox could never fully commit to modernity, yet insisted that, in comparison to the Strictly Orthodox, they were tolerant and pluralistic.

The issue of Sephardim and Modern Orthodoxy is thus somewhat vexatious. Absent the emergence of a legitimate American Sephardi Rabbinical leadership, the Sephardi communities were forced to affiliate. Modern Orthodoxy became an issue when Sephardi rabbis abdicated vital seats of influence in their own communities to the Ashkenazim. The traditional equilibrium of the Mizrahi/Sephardi Jewish culture was upended.
Increasingly, the Sephardim emulated Ashkenazi behavior and began to split into factions.

Some Sephardim (with Israeli Orthodoxy emerging as a key factor) went to the Strictly Orthodox with others opting to be Modern Orthodox. Citing the commonality in either denomination, Sephardi adherents made their cases as powerfully as they could. The Strictly Orthodox, in common parlance "Black Hats," sought to reinforce the Sephardi insistence on conservative tradition while the Modern Orthodox, by far the majority, sought out a compromise between conservative tradition and modernity.

The Failure of Modern Orthodoxy in the Sephardic Context

Mizrahi/Sephardi Judaism has been torn asunder. The internal problematics of Ashkenazic culture, unceasing since the 9th century, are deeply ingrained in the historical memory of Ashkenazi heritage. These problems have torn at the very heart of Western Jewry, a Jewry at fatal odds with itself. The demography of Western Jewry and its suicidal drive to assimilation and self-destruction is too well known to have to be repeated here. The future of Western Jewry is tenuous due to the interdenominational strife and the lack of internal motivating factors.

With the ever-imminent dissolution of Western Jewry, options are frantically being sought. The Black Hats, tenacious and ruthless, have promoted their denomination as the only means to save Judaism from this new invisible Holocaust. Zionists have delegitimized the nature of Diaspora life. The Modern Orthodox Jews, losing the will to maintain their battle with the Black Hats, are developing a new nationalist messianism. Their new enemy is the Arab, Reform and Conservative Jews, minimizing the problem, have flailed their arms and abdicated responsibility for their own failings.

Bringing Back the Mizrahi/Sephardi Option

The sad truth is that Judaism is now suffering from the loss of the Mizrahi/Sephardi option. While the Sephardim were able over many centuries to negotiate the strong demands of both Judaism as well as Western civilization, through its Greco-Roman antecedents, the Ashkenazim clearly made a shambles of the whole thing. America, in many ways similar to the open nature of Middle Eastern society, has presented Jews with great opportunities. We are richer and freer than we have ever been. We have political power and can make our way in the country with our heads held high. And yet never in our long and illustrious history have we been so confused over who we are.

The stranglehold of Modern Orthodoxy over the Mizrahi/Sephardi community has led to increasing strife and acrimony. We now have our own denominations. As a corollary to this development, we have also been colonized internally by the Ashkenazim. We have no mechanisms to study our own history and culture as it has little bearing on those who have infiltrated into our midst. The desperation of sectarianism has bit us on the rear. Instead of opening up our communities, we have shut them off. Intellectual growth has reached a nadir.

It is for this reason, that we must seek to wipe the slate clean and get back to the sources that nourished us over the centuries. Instead of allowing ourselves to be lead, we must take the leadership role once again. If Mizrahi/Sephardi Judaism is to survive in the west, it must unite and eliminate factionalism within its community. Modern Orthodoxy is as much a part of the problem as any other denomination.

It is quite interesting that a strenuous objection was raised just last year in Congregation Beth Torah during a lecture on the Mizrahi/Sephardi Rabbis of the 19th and early 20th centuries given by Dr. Zvi Zohar of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. This objection had to do with the fact that Dr. Zohar claimed that the Mizrahi/Sephardi Rabbis did not identify themselves as "Orthodox." Some in the crowd, indoctrinated in the nomenclature of Ashkenazi Judaism, had maintained otherwise. When reviewing specific legal decisions by these Rabbis, Dr. Zohar was faced with incredulous audience members who insisted that the Rabbis could not have decided in such a manner as it was contrary to "Orthodoxy."

It is this sad portrait of a Mizrahi/Sephardi world at odds with its own heritage that must strike us in the final analysis. Whatever conundrums rock the Ashkenazi world, it must be remembered that these battles are endemic to their community, not ours. To watch Sephardim playing out others' conflicts is very pathetic and sad. In the prophetic words of the legendary Sephardic Hakham Moise Ventura, "the Orient is again called upon to play an important role in the cultural life of Nations." We Mizrahi/Sephardi are destroying ourselves and allowing our precious communities to collapse in what has been a nasty inter-Ashkenazi battle.

At the very moment that we should take the helm and present the Levantine option as the only one that can repair the breaches in Western Jewry, we have fallen prey to the very breaches themselves. As I have said elsewhere, the main problem in the Mizrahi/Sephardi community today is unfortunately over which type of Ashkenazi we wish to be. It is this sad reality that must be addressed before the collapse has turned into a self-immolation.

David Shasha.



Nasawi News
Bulletin Board
Levantine Center
Open Tent