Sephardic Halakha As an Alternate Paradigm for Authentic Jewish Continuity

Zvi Zohar
    Shalom Hartman Institute 


In this article, I shall attempt to characterize the response of Sephardic rabbis to the challenges of modernity. My general thesis is that their response is different, in significant and interesting ways, from that of their Ash-
kenazic-European peers. Moreover, the modalities of this "difference'" suggest valuable alternate paths of Jewish authenticity, beyond the denominational schism that has shattered Occidental Jewish life in modern times. 

The Coalescence of Orthodoxy in Europe 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, European Jewry underwent processes of Haskalah ("Enlightenment") and secularization, accompanied by intense internal social and ideological tensions. Many rabbis felt that these
changes threatened the very existence of traditional Judaism and, in order to counter these threats, they formulated a counter-strategy which became known as "Orthodoxy." Understandably, Orthodox leaders declared that they were simply preserving and continuing the ways of life and the beliefs of pre-modern Judaism. However, such contentions are at variance with socio-historical reality, writes Jacob Katz: 

             The claim of the Orthodox to be no more than the guardians of
              the pure Judaism of old is a fiction. In fact, Orthodoxy was a
              method of confronting deviant trends, and of responding to the
              very same stimuli which produced these trends, albeit with a
              conscious effort to deny such extrinsic motivations.1

Orthodoxy's goal, then, was to oppose the radical moves of Jewish modernists, which were seen to endanger the future of true Jewish life. Orthodoxy's strategy, as formulated by its leaders, was to totally deny the legitimacy of all modernist innovations, by stating that Halakha (Jewish religious "law") was an eternal, fixed corpus of normative directives. This view of Halakha was encapsulated in the Orthodox slogan "Torah prohibits the New."2 However, the assertion "Torah prohibits the New" undermines the validity not only of "dangerous" innovations but also of any new halakhic ruling. Thus, while Orthodoxy was, first and foremost, a rejection of Reform and Haskalah, the internal logic of its rejectionist strategy severely impaired the ability of Orthodox rabbis to respond to other aspects of modernity in a creative halakhic manner. Is the Orthodox mode of response to modernity somehow inherent to halakhic Judaism? Fortunately, this is not a "what-if" question, a counter-factual of the type so disparaged by historians. Students of modern Jewish religion and culture have a readily accessible test-case available, in the experience of Sephardic-Oriental Jewry's encounter with modernity. 

Sephardic-Oriental Jews in Modern Times 

Under the caption "Sephardic-Oriental'" I include -- for the purposes of this discussion -- those Jews who lived, over the past few centuries, in the Islamic countries of the Middle East and North Africa. The Jews of the Middle East (ME) and North Africa (NA) were significantly exposed to the influences of modern Europe since the fourth decade of the 19th century. By the eve of the first world-war, Jews of NA and the ME were significantly affected by modernity, in direct proportion to their economic status, their education and their urban location.3  The
inter-war years saw the extension of modernization to large sectors of the Jewish middle and lower-middle class. In sum, by the late 1940's a large proportion of Sephardic-Oriental Jews in their countries of birth
were quite modernized. Never the less, the typical response of the Sephardic rabbinic elite to these developments was very different fro that of their European peers. In brief, Sephardic rabbis cannot seriously be characterized as Orthodox. 

Contextual Differences 

Elsewhere, I have noted and discussed several variables which made modernization in Islamic lands different from that of Europe. Here, I would like to stress one of those variables, namely, the lack (in Islamic lands) of anti-clericalism as found in Europe. Also, Islamic religious leaders in these countries did not respond to modernity by the formation of radically different forms of Islamic religious life.5 Rather, even those Muslims who criticized the current socio-political and cultural situation of their society chose to characterize the sought-for changes as truly compatible with the spirit of Islam and with the norms of the Shari'a.6 In this respect, Jews of Islamic lands were similar to their Muslim compatriots: attacking rabbis as backward and criticizing halakhic Judaism as obscurantist were not a-la-mode in the Sephardic-Oriental milieu, and movements which advocated abandonment of rabbinic Judaism in favor of some brave, new definition of Jewish identity did not develop there.7 In general, even those sectors of the Jewish community whose lifestyle reflected the commandments of the Torah in only the most minimal way, including those who advocated modern  political ideologies such as socialism, communism or secular Zionism, did not seek to bolster their position by insulting the community's rabbis or traditions.8 In the absence of Jewish ideological attacks upon Judaism or against rabbinic authority per-se, there was no external impetus for Sephardic-Oriental rabbis to formulate a policy stating that "Torah prohibits the New," or to refrain from reaching novel halakhic decisions if warranted by specific socio-historical developments. However, lack of such external factors is not enough; considerations internal to Sephardic halakhic discourse might conceivably lead rabbis to reject halakhic change. Let us see then, how Sephardic halakhic writers regarded change in Halakha. 

Halakha as a dynamic religious phenomenon -- as seen by Sephardic rabbis 

Examining writings of prominent Sephardic rabbis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we find that the prevailing attitude was that there were no immanent features in Halakha requiring rabbis to refrain from formulating new halakhic rulings, in new circumstances. To the contrary: they held that the greatness and eternal vitality of Halakha lie in its capacity to express Judaism's noble values in a variety of forms, as appropriate to changing circumstances. 

Let me provide three expressions of this Sephardic orientation: 

  •  In nineteenth-century Europe, some voices were heard calling for the revision of Maimonides' thirteen   Principles of Jewish Faith. Inter alia, it was suggested that the Article affirming belief in the absolute eternality of Torah be re-phrased or deleted, so as to provide Jews with the capability of accommodating Judaism to modern conditions. Rabbi Eliyyahu Hazan9 responded that Torah as we have it requires no change at all, in order to enable response to contemporary historical developments. The reason, he wrote, is that -- 

  •               Since the Holy Torah was given to physical human beings, who
                  are always subject to changes stemming from differences in
                  history and time, in rulers and decrees, in nature and
                  climate, in states and realms --- therefore, all Torah's words
                  were given in marvelous, wise ambiguity; thus, they can
                  receive any true interpretation at any time.... Indeed, the
                  Torah of Truth, inscribed by God's finger, engraved upon the
                  Tablets --- will not change nor be renewed, for ever and ever.10

    In other words, the words of the Holy Torah are eternal; yet the eternality of Torah is manifest specifically in its inexhaustible capacity to yield multiple meanings, each appropriate to a different human reality. 

  • In the introduction to the first volume of his collected responsa Mishpetei Uzziel,rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uzziel11 totally rejects the central premise of Orthodoxy, and stresses that Halakha must  respond to modern developments: 

  •               In every generation, conditions of life, changes in values,
                  and technical and scientific discoveries -- create new
                  questions and problems that require solution. We may not avert
                  our eyes from these issues and say 'Torah prohibits the New',
                  i.e., anything not expressly mentioned by earlier sages is
                  ipso facto forbidden. A-fortiori, we may not simply declare
                  such matters permissible. Nor, may we let them remain vague
                  and unclear, each person acting with regard to them as he
                  wishes. Rather, it is our duty to search halakhic sources, and
                  to derive, from what they explicate, responses to currently
                  moot issues ... In all my responsa, I never inclined towards
                  leniency or strictness according to my personal opinions;
                  rather, my intention and striving were always to search and
                  discover the truth. To the extent that my understanding
                  enabled me, I walked in the light of earlier halakhic masters,
                  whose waters we drink and whose light enlightens us; With this
                  holy light, which issues from the source of the hidden,
                  concealed Light, I illuminated my eyes....12

    In this paragraph, rabbi Uzziel rejects the path of Orthodoxy, of Reform, and of those "afraid to decide'" described by Elon, above. He states that Halakha can and should develop through hermeneutic and analogy, applied by halakhists deeply motivated to discover the truth.  His sentences are replete with what may be termed mystical rationalism, which bring to mind Maimonides' introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed.13 Clearly, Uzziel sees halakha as far from a finite set of normative dicta, but rather requires halakhists to discover anew how Jews should relate to developments in human life, values and science --following the light contained in earlier rabbinic writings so as to illuminate thought on contemporary issues. 

  •  A third illustration is to be found in the thought of rabbi Hayyim David HaLevi, currently (1995) chief rabbi of Tel-Aviv.14 In response to criticism directed against him by an (unnamed) Orthodox rabbi, HaLevi rejects that rabbi's assertion that commitment to Judaism entails refraint from halakhic creativity. Since all legislation known to human beings requires nearly constant revision due to "changes in the conditions of life," how is it, asks HaLevi, that the laws of our Holy Torah, revealed to us thousands of years ago, can still function and

  • guide us, today? He responds: 

                  This is possible only because permission was given to Israel's
                  sages in each generation to renew halakha as appropriate to
                  the changes of times and events. Only by virtue of this was
                  the continuous existence of Torah in Israel possible, enabling
                  Jews to follow the way of Torah....There is nothing so
                  flexible as the flexibility of is only by virtue of
                  that flexibility that the People of Israel, through the many
                  novel and useful rulings innovated by Israel's sages over the
                  generations, could follow the path of Torah and its
                  commandments for thousands of years.15

    I do not know if rabbi HaLevi was acquainted with the words of Eliyyahu Hazan, quoted above. In any case, the similarity between them is striking: the "same" Torah can serve as the ground of Jewish life over thousands of years, despite far-reaching changes in society, history, science and culture -- only because of the flexibility inherent in its words, whose potential is realized through the creative endeavors of Israel's rabbis. In sum, perennial renewal is a sine qua non of authentic halakha. 

    The basic orientation of Sephardic rabbis, reflected in the above quotations, is thus different from that of Ashkenazic Orthodoxy. The key difference is, that the former advocate a dynamic halakha while the latter identify commitment to Torah as essentialy requiring adherence to the pre-modern halakhic status quo. Two salient implications seem to be suggested, in conclusion: 

        1)   Understanding and interpretation of modern Judaism is seriously
             lacking if research focusses only on European-Ashkenazic experience
             and culture; 
        2)   Sephardic-Oriental halakhic culture offers an interesting alternate
             paradigm to European Orthodoxy's ethos "Torah prohibits the New."
             Conversely, there is more than one authentic modern continuation of
             pre-modern halakhic Judaism.

    N O T E S 

        1    J. Katz, Orthodoxy in Historical Perspective, in: Studies in Contemporary Jewry, 2 (1986), p. 3 - 17; the citation is from pp. 4-5. 
        2    This slogan was coined by the founder and leader of the Orthodox movement, rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839) also known (after an acronym used in the title of his first major work) as 'Hatam Sofer'. 1984) A brief presentation of rabbi Sofer's life and views may be found in Moshe Sammet's article in EJ 15:77-79. 
        3    That is to say: a wealthy, Alliance-educated Jew living in a
             newly-built quarter of Cairo was quite modernized indeed -- while a
             lower-class, kuttab-educated Jew living in a Kurdish village was
             little touched by modernization. 
        4   For a concise presentation, see my article The Halakhic Teachings
             of Modern Egyptian Rabbis, Pe'amim 16 (1983), p. 65-88 (Hebrew). 
        5   Thus, the so-called 'Islamic reform' movement which was an
             important factor in Egyptian and Middle-Eastern Islam in late 19th
             and early 20th century under the leadership of Afghani and 'Abduh
             was much less radical than European-Christian Reform. Conversely,
             the Wahabi movement, which radically attacked the traditional
             Islamic establishment, was not at all a response to modernity.... 
        6   Inter alia, this was the path adopted by most Arab communists.... 
        7   A very unusual exception to this general rule was Rabbi Raphael
             Katzin's attempt to establish a 'reform' congregation in Aleppo
             c.1862, described by Yaron Harel in HUCA 63 1992, p. XIX-XXXV
        8   Which is not to say, that rabbinical leaders were never openly and
             directly criticized. Thus, many Cairene Jews severely criticized
             the behavior of the incumbent chief Rabbi as high-handed and
             despotic, in the early 1920's; in the late 1940's, thousands of
             Baghdadi Jews participated in a mass demonstration against chief
             rabbi Khaduri, who they regarded as cowardly failing to demand that
             Iraq's nationalist (and effectively: anti-Semitic) leadership
             alleviate the community's plight. But even these radical critiques
             were definitely ad-hominem. 
        9   Eliyyahu Hazan was born c. 1847 in Izmir and grew up in Jerusalem
             where he received a thorough rabbinic education. he later served as
             rabbi of Tripoli and then of Alexandria, until his death in 1908.
             His published works include Ta'alumot Lev, responsa (four volumes)
             and Neveh Shalom on the halakhic traditions of Alexandrian Jewry --
             in addition to the work cited in the following note. 
        10   Eliyahu Hazan, Zikhron Yerushalayim, Livorno 1874, p. 57. 
        11   Rabbi Uzziel, 1880-1953, was born in the Old city of Jerusalem to
             an ancient and illustrious Sephardic family. From 1912 to 1939 he
             served as Sephardic rabbi of Jaffa and Tel-Aviv, and from 1939
             until his death -- as chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel. He composed
             a seven-volume work of responsa entitled Mishpetei Uzziel; a two
             volume work on halakha concerning orphans and widows and their
             legal guardianship -- Sha'arei Uzziel; and works of theology and
             homilies, such as Hegionei Uzziel and Mikhmanei Uzziel. 
        12   Introduction to the first volume of Mispetei Uzziel, Tel-Aviv 1935,
             pp. IX-X. 
        13   The greatest rationalistic philosophical work of Medieval Judaism. 
        14   Rabbi HaLevi was born in Jerusalem in 1924, and was educated in
             Jerusalem's Sephardic Yeshivot. He served as rabbi of Rishon
             LeZiyyon, and since 1973 has been chief rabbi of Tel-Aviv. In
             addition, he has served since 1964 as a member of Israel's chief
             Rabbinate Council. HaLevi has written hundreds of articles on a
             wide range of Jewish topics, and in addition has published 25
             volumes, including Bein Yisrael la'Ammim (Between Israel and the
             Nations) (1954); Devar Hamishpat (3 volumes, 1963-1965); Dat
             u-Medinah (Religion and State) (1969); Maftehot ha-Zohar
             u-Ra'ayonotav (Index to the thought of the Zohar) 1971; an
             ideationally-explained code of Jewish religious norms -- Meqor
             Hayyim haShalem, 5 volumes (1967-1974); nine volumes of responsa --
             'Aseh Lekha Rav(1976-1988); 
        15   Hayyim David HaLevi, 'Al gemishuta shel ha-halakha (On the
             flexibility of Halakha) in: Shana b-Shana 1989, pp. 183-186 

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