Are You Secretly a Sephardic Jew?

By R. Haim Ovadia

Maybe we really are all Sephardic!  After all, those who call themselves Sephardic are not just those from the Iberian peninsula (Sepharad was the Hebrew name for Spain), but most of the Jews of the Mediterranean world reaching east to India — and they were the ancestors of Ashkenazim.

Many terms have been created to name the Jews of this vast region — Mizrahi Jews, edot HaMizrah, Mediterranean, and Arab Jews — by not only scholars and activists but even those with a racist agenda.  Some see the definition of Sephardic as non-Ashkenazi, wandering into the very dangerous terrain of defining one’s identity by the Other’s, thus depriving one group of the right to have independent definition and content.

I have claimed elsewhere that when searching for a common Sephardic denominator, Islam should be a major factor, to the extent that we could use the term “Jews of Islam.”[1] Would we then define Ashkenazi culture as the Judaism of Christendom?  The answer would be somewhat positive. To be precise, it should be a Judaism of Catholicism, since the cradle of western European Judaism was early medieval Northern France and Germany.

For scholars these are purely academic issues, but for the practicing Jew, identifying significant areas of cross-cultural fertilization might change his or her worldview and behavior.

Consider some questions:

  • Can we attribute the different approach to martyrdom among Sephardic and Ashkenazi rabbis to the centrality of that concept in Christian ideology?
  • Is the Sephardic early renaissance, marked by the pursuit of knowledge without boundaries, connected to Islam’s encyclopedists and scholars who promoted free thinking and heresy (in Arabic zandaqa)?[2]
  • Until recently Sephardic rabbis did not espouse the concept of Daat Torah, or the infallibility and absolute knowledge of the religious leader. Is this because this essentially Christian dogma was alien to them?
  • How much is Kabbalah, which has pervaded all forms of Judaism today, influenced by Sufism?

On the other hand, it is not clear whether there ever was a uniform Sephardic practice. We cannot derive a “Sephardic practice” from either Herbert Dobrinsky’s work, A Treasury of Sephardic Laws and Customs, or its precursor Rabbi Shem Tov Gagin’s comprehensive anthology of Sephardic practices, Keter Shem Tov. Besides those, a plethora of books fall under the “Minhag” category, with great diversity. I have visited many Sephardic communities and witnessed more than once arguments in Sephardic shuls regarding the Nusach and laws of service.  It is clear to me that one cannot speak of a Sephardic Nusach or Siddur.

Rabbi Bouskila and I will carry forward this discussion on July 17, at our seminar “A Sephardic Vision for the Jewish World.” What common denominators do the many diverse Sephardic (or non-Ashkenazi) communities share?   Could our answers contribute to the creation of a better form of Judaism, leading to Tikkun Olam?

Haim-Ovadia-headshotRabbi Ovadia is the rabbi of Magen David Sephardic Congregation of Rockville, MD, “the Sephardic synagogue of the nation’s capital,” and Professor of Rabbinics at AJRCA. He is teaching a summer session course on Midrash.

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