It offends my sensibilities that Israel, as a state, does not allow numerous Jews to marry as they wish, or to be considered Jewish by the State. The minimum standards for “Jewishness” have traditionally been set by the Orthodox establishment with the blessing of the Israeli government. It is this partnership which has allowed and enforced the egregious discrimination against secular Jews that, for example, compels them to serve in the IDF and risk their lives, while those who identify themselves as devoutly Orthodox can evade service by “studying Torah.”

A number of years ago the Conservative and Reform movements in the US made a big push to assist their sister organizations in Israel to receive more credibility and improve the legal status of their members. Large portions of the active Jewish organized community in the US were asked to apply pressure on the Israeli government, while a simultaneous push within Israel also gained momentum. For a short while it began to appear that this mobilized effort would achieve some success and there was talk of accepting Reform and Conservative conversions that were done in Israel.

A compromise of sorts was struck whereby the Orthodx agreed to consider conversions made in Israel by a joint institute, but overall, the status quo remained unchanged.

Secular Jews received new hope when Shinui won 15 seats in the previous elections and promised to restrain some of the Orthodox influences upon Israeli society.


Years later, Shinui has proven itself quite ineffective (alternatively, the Orthodox have proven themselves firmly entrenched), and as Sharon indicates that he’ll fire any Shinui ministers who vote against the budget while he simultaneously holds talks with religious party leaders, we have to assume that Shinui will not be around in the Cabinet for much longer.

Rabbi Ismar Schorch, Chancellor of the NY JTS, and a well respected figure in the Conservative movement speaks about discimination against Jews that exists in the Jewish State.

Update: Shinui Ministers have just been sacked by Sharon.

About the author

themiddle

91 Comments

  • bla bla bla – themiddle continues to foul up what would be an excellent blog. And it is not because of themiddle’s attempt to claim left is middle and right of middle is extreme – it is simply because themiddle is madly in love with everything cliche

  • Because, really, G-d forbid a website should be made interesting by having writers with different opinions making possible reader interaction and debate, as opposed to an echo chamber.

  • I dunno TM. Our opinions differ strongly in this matter. I’m a big fan of Judaism and am thankful that my people in Sephardicland never had to undergo enlightenment and emancipation. No one ever wanted us to become a regular part of the polity and we never had to compromise who we were in order to become more acceptable. Mind you, no one ever threw us into crematoria either, I guess “acceptance” is a dual edged sword.

    Conservative Judaism and by extension, Reform Judaism grew out of the emancipation. The early leaders sought to retool Judaism into something less foreign and eastern, removing all reference to Israel from their liturgy, making their places of worship more Church-like and their religious leaders more priestly. No surprise they are having a hard time making headway in Israel, where practicing Jews have been established for centuries. I seriously feel more at home in a mosque than in a Reform temple.

    So you are once again bellyaching about what you consider to be the undue influence excercised by religious Jews in Israel. But as far as I recall, none of the benefits they have received have been acquired illegally. It’s all part of the democratic process, in much the same way kibbutzes received reams of government shekels in the form of loan guarantees, grants and other benefits. If you don’t like it, tough titty. Move to Israel and vote for Shinui for all I care.

    As far as the touchy conversion issue, I lead a pretty secular life really, yet I’d like to know that the person I or a member of my family is going to marry is in fact Jewish and not the spawn of some quickie bogus reform conversion. No branch of Judaism has any problem with Orthodox conversions and as the lowest common denominator, that’s the one I’d go with. I would never marry anyone converted by a Reform or Conservative Rabbi. If you want to, that’s your business and I won’t begrudge you that right. But you need to acknowledge the deep divisions this will cause amongst Jews in the future. I sure don’t cotton to the Edgar Bronfman school of thought that dictates that anyone that wants to be a Jew IS a Jew. Screw that, we need some standards people.

    Having said that though, I’d like to note that Orthodox Rabbis, even the hard core, have taken a more realistic approach to conversion when the person involved shows demonstrable committment to Halachah and Judaism. One acquaintance of mine managed to convert in just 5 months with a beit din made up of some of the scariest Orthodox misnagid rabbis I have ever seen.

    Anyhow, I hate this whole post. I think as Jews we have more pressing issues to concern ourselves with than this sort of incessant whining. No offense T_M, but you know how I feel on the subject and I respectfully but forcefully reject everything you’ve said.

  • I’m also Sephardic, so I laughed a bit at what CK said about
    being more comfortable in a mosque than in a Reform temple,
    since I agree with him to an extent. However, it saddens me that we Jews
    are so polarized on theology. Surely can’t we agree to some
    baseline beliefs and attitudes such as for example belief in
    an ineffable Creator of the Universe who is always merciful,
    and with whom there is no negotiating, and acceptance of the 10 commandments and the requirement to act ethically and kindly toward all, whether Jewish or not. I see Orthodox people who cannot accept anyone who is not as observant as them, and I see some/ many Reform and Conservative people who think that belief in G-d is some sort of optional extra of Judaism. Both approaches are not constructive.
    Also I notice that nowadays we are becoming inward looking/ tribalistic, which is not helpful to us in our relations with non-Jews.

  • What the hell kind of Sephardic Jew is called Dave Marshall? Is that from the long lost Sephardic Jews of Kenosha, Wisconsin?

    Just kidding of course. Yes, I think that regardless we need to be cool to people we don’t neccesarily see eye to eye with. That’s why I didn’t delete T_M’s post 😉

    And some of my best friends are sheygetzes!

  • A historical clarification, CK-leh:

    Reform Judaism didn’t grow out of Conservative Judaism, Conservative Judaism appeared largely in response to Reform Judaism. You’re right, the German Reform was an attempt to de-easternize and Protestanize Judaism. The seeds of Conservatism were planted when Rabbi Zechariah Frankel got fed up with the sweeping changes (such as removing Hebrew liturgy) of the Reform Jewish seminary, said “You guys have gone way too far,” and started his own “positive-historical” seminary in Germany, but the movement didn’t really take off until it was transplanted to America and became popular with second generation immigrants, making it at one point the largest of the three movements in the US.

    I agree with you that people should get Orthodox conversions, but the Conservative movement (although it varies) is often pretty frum — and furthermore, don’t assume that just because non-Western European Jewry wasn’t touched by the Reform movement it didn’t exhibit a slackening of tradition. In Israel and in lot of Diaspora countries, almost all the religious Jews are technically traditional/”Orthodox” by virtue of synagogue membership, but that doesn’t mean they’re not pretty much secular in their day to day activities. The synagogue itself does not necessarily the Jew make.

    That being said, I’d still be way more comfortable in an Orthodox shul, or a Sepharic traditional shul, than a Reform one. But, you know, gotta play devil’s advocate.

  • Hey E, nice to see you’re still lurking around here and have even deigned to troll a bit. Come by any time and feel free to join the debate, I promise to treat you with the same respect as in the past.

    PS Sorry to have ruined the blog for you. CK has the power to remove me from this place, so you should lobby him aggressively (send him money, flowers, or a single, intelligent, funny Jewish woman who was not converted by a Reform or Conservative rabbi and who likes really nice guys…).

  • Also, let it be said that I absolutely despise some of the actions of the Rabbanate in Israel, such as giving the Ethiopian Beta Israel such a terrible time and often rejecting their Jewishness because (and here’s a terrible crime) they didn’t follow rabbinic Judaism. Because, of course, a bunch of isolated Jews in an extremely remote region of Ethiopia whose Jewish roots date back arguably to the very pre-rabbinic First Temple period had access to rabbinic law.

    So, really, none of the movements has a monopoly on suckiness.

  • Michael, you are correct. I think that is my point, that none of the movements has a monopoly on suckiness, but one of the movements has a monopoly on social/religious life in Israel.

  • Okay, seriously, this post has nothing to do with “comfort level” in mosques.

    This post is about respect for other Jews. I am a Jew.

    I am a Jew.

    Let me repeat that: I am a Jew.

    You, CK, cannot claim that I’m not a Jew.

    Some of the finest Jews I’ve met belong to the Conservative and Reform movements. They are devout, observant, good people. They believe in a Jewish God, the worship as Jews with a link to centuries-old types of worship. The behave Jewishly in the sense of concern for the community, for their heritage, and for their traditions.

    I guess the critical element that differentiates them from Orthodox Jews which are the end all and be all for you, CK, is that they do not believe the Torah was written by God. As we’ve discussed once before, they believe that it was either inspired by God or written by inspired men (Conservative and Reform, respectively).

    But you and I began a telephone conversation once that was cut short by time where we began to discuss whether Orthodox Judaism is also a man-made construct. I took the position that it is; that all of Rabbinic Judaism is essentially man-made interpretation and therefore has no more or no less validity in terms of authoritativeness than different permutations of Judaism such as Reform or Conservative movements.

    You could argue that Orthodox Judaism predates Reform or Conservative by centuries, and that is a valid argument, but it doesn’t change the fact that mortal men, who are no less or no more prone to errors than rabbis of today, are those who created these traditions.

    CK, we are fallible. We are mortal. We are not Gods. Those rabbis from the 3rd Century were just as fallible and as prone to mistakes. THEY, TOO, WERE A PRODUCT OF THEIR TIMES. How did the idea of Olam Haba enter our world of Jewish ideas? It entered because of the influence of Christian theology. Yet you would give that not only greater validity, but sole validity, while excluding the Reform movement with its Christian influences. Does that make any sense to you?

    I don’t get many aspects of Orthodox Judaism today. I don’t. When the Orthodox members of my family go to pray on the grave of a deceased rabbi in Poland on an annual basis, I cannot believe the “pulhan” they have created around this MAN. When they tell me with a straight face that they’re willing to have my son go to the army but their sons cannot because they might be tainted by the experience and seek to leave their narrow world (yes, that is what they said), I cannot fathom how they could disrespect my son’s life as they do. When they wear clothes from 16th century Poland, I cannot understand how that became the garb of a people from the Judean Desert. When they determine that another Jew is not as good as they, as they did with the centuries-old Ethiopian Jewish community, I cannot believe that anybody would be so disrespectful to another’s JEWISH faith.

    And that is what it boils down to. You are saying that the man-made customs that have come to predominate Orthodox Judaism are more valid than those that came via a different route. So if your Sephardic ancestors who join Orthodox circles in Israel begin to wear shtreimels, that is perfectly okay by you and doesn’t smack of ridiculousness. You say that these MEN can choose who is a valid and real rabbi and who isn’t. That those people who were coached and taught by these rabbis are lesser Jews (if Jews at all) than those who were coached by these descendants of Polish and Eastern European rabbis.

    Fine. You can say that.

    But it makes no sense. It is merely a belief that you hold, that gives you an anchor and a sense of comfort.

    What I am saying is that it’s fine to have standards, but those standards need to respect other strands of Judaism.

  • Duuuuude! I never said Reform or Conservative Jews aren’t Jews! Anyone posessed of a Jewish mother or who has been converted according to the age old norms and standards of Judaism, is a Jew. You could goose step up and down the street while singing La Marseillaise and eating a Ham, Shrimp and cheese sandwich and if you meet those standards, you’d still be a Jew.

    Judaism, as I am often fond of saying, is not, to my understanding, a monolith. Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai can’t both be right, and yet they are – Judaism acknowledges the fallibility of even its most learned members and demands only a consistent adherence to a particular school of rabbinic thought and tradition (no cherry picking unless you’re a convert or Baal Tshuvah) as well as a respect for the underlying Torah-based fundamentals. Your concerns are thus duly addressed – as long as you don’t try to mold Judaism into somerthing it’s not so that it fits more comfortably with your modern liberal ways. Judaism predates Western society, that’s a fact, and if you’re not comfortable with that, you’re not comfortable with Judaism. Look, putting on tefilin every day often is difficult and I admit that I don’t do it as often as I’d like to. But I would never say that that is permitted!

    And yeah, Shtreimel wearin’ Jews weird me out, especially when they are Sephardic, but what the hey – if it floats your goat (baaaah*), go for it. As far as going to Eastern Europe to commune at the grave of a Rabbi, Sephardic Jews have long held holy men in great reverence – nothing culturally odd about that. Your focus on extreme sects of Orthodoxy is a bit disengenuous already!

    As for Orthodox Jews and the Army thing, lots of stuff in Israel is unfair. Is it fair that by mere dint of connections and shenanigans, certain ashkenazic Israelis have enriched themselves tremendously with various shady arms deals to various shady regimes, while my good honest hard working (and orthodox) cousins who did the Army and do their reserve duty continue to toil at shit ass jobs and will never be able to jet off to Paris for a weekend frolic? You whine about the Chassid who lives off welfare and has the state support his 12 kids (at least someone’s having kids!) but you never talk about the secular chazer who makes millions of dollars selling surplus AK-47s to African rebels, or missile technology to the Chinese, or tank parts to the Iranians and gets away with it because he went to the same high school or served in the same unit as some bureaucrat in the Ministry of Defense. Or what about the stock manipulator or money launderer and his buddy in the Ministry of Finance. Please nigga. Some balance!

    Anyhow, you know I love you right? Brakha says thank you for the kind words about her shakshouka recipe, but next time, make it Thursday night, it keeps well and is at its best when 4 days old (refrigerated of course…)

    * Ed. Note: The UppityShiksa and self appointed guardian of the English language prefers “float your goat” to the more traditional “floats your boat,” so it stays. You never wanna mess with Japanese School girl vampire chicks. Trust me.

  • re. #1 by E – sorry dude. I never knew T_M was such a sheygetz when I first asked him to post on Jewlicious. I only knew him as an articulate and tireless defender of the State of Israel, Judaism and Zionism. Had I known of the trauma he suffered as a result of the French Hill spitting incident, I may have been more on my guard. But otherwise, good to see you back! I hope this comment of yours is not an isolated one. Feel free to weigh in any way you like.

    In the meantime I am going to have to dig up a story on Jewish boobies or something. We’re getting a tad heavy here…. lemme see if there’s something fun I can steal from Jewschool….

  • PLEASE, TM, for my sake, please don’t say ‘orthodox’ in instances when you are really refering to Heredim. You are making a massive generalization and it bothers me. I and many in my circle of friends would be considered ‘orthodox,’ (ie shomer mitzvot) of one variety or another, and our guys join the army and we pay our taxes (when we have jobs, anyway) and no one i know would ever, ever spit on your wife.
    Thanks

  • Frig. Does anybody Haredi read Jewlicious? If so could you please, on behalf of the entire Haredi community, apologize to T_M’s wife for the notorious French Hill spitting incident? Please??

  • Laya, I am focusing on the Haredim here because they dominate the State/Religious combo and are the primary proponents of this division between secular and Orthodox. As I’ve stated before and will state again, I have nothing against the practice of Judaism, have a great deal of respect for Modern Orthodox practice and would never seek to cause offense.

    Now please all of you, this has nothing to do with the infamous spitting incident…

    CK, duuuuuuuuuuude, you have the keys to shut me down…whatever goats your moat.

  • All I’m asking is that when you mean Heredim, specify Heredim. People who don’t read the blog well enough to know of your respect for modern orthodoxy may get the wrong idea.
    Thanks dude

  • i converted through a conservative rabbi after a year of study. i teach at an orthodox jewish high school. and i have taken on the jewish people’s fate as my own. it saddens me that i receive any less consideration or respect from any part of the jewish continuum.

  • Aww man. I knew some otherwise really nice person would post and make me feel bad and stuff. Hey Beth, please understand, I admire your connection and dedication to the Jewish people. But you do know that if you decided to marry an Orthodox man, or join an Orthodox congregation you might need to have your conversion OK’d by an Orthodox Rabbi. The same applies to your children and grandchildren etc. and that sucks. You might say its the fault of the Orthodox for being close minded, or you might say its the fault of the reformers for messing with thousands of years of tradition. In any case, none of that matters. You could have gotten angry with what I wrote, you could have called me names etc. but you didn’t. Your response was calm and touching and I appreciate that. But what can you do, eh?

  • Just for clarification’s sake, wanted to mention that I am not “E.” I mean, I am, to an extent, an “E”–and I think a pretty cool one at that–but this “E” is not me.

    CK hates this whole topic, and with good reason. None of us wants to tell another Jew that they’re “doing it wrong,” especially when there is no real “right” or “wrong” because (beyond murder and a few select other ethical codes) it’s all up to interpretation.

    I actually was at a dinner the other week where this was a substantial, and heated, topic of conversation. The bottom line seems to be that even in an environment where we can be pluralistic in approach and err on the side of inclusiveness, for something to be accepted by the group, it has to be accepted by those with the most stringent standards. An example: a community-wide program will buy only strictly kosher food–even if 90 percent of those people “eat dairy out,” the 10 percent who have stricter standards are actually the controlling factor when it comes to food selection.

    I believe there are a certain number of Conservative rabbis whose “hashgacha” is approved by the Israeli Central Rabbinate, so that’s a good step. But if it’s important to be absolutely sure that the person is universally accepted for the dedicated Jew s/he is, then obviously the most stringent standard must be met.

    It’s a hard issue. I’m impressed with the grace that everyone’s employing in their responses. It’s all about the love, people.

  • ck – i’m glad that my response disarmed what could have become an ugly exchange. i responded to this discussion with calm and composure because that’s what i truly feel. it was not contrived or controlled.

    one of the worst things about religion (all religions!) is the judgmentalness that many practitioners feel about those who don’t observe in the exact same way. i don’t want to judge you any more than i want to be judged myself. what could i possibly gain from judging someone else’s idea of spirituality? anyway, when i converted i honestly felt that judaism was unified and welcoming of me.

    although it saddens me to think that my jewishness is discredited by some, i try not to let it bother me because i am being the best jew i can be in my heart. in fact, some may say that i’m more “jewish” than many people who were born jewish. among my friends, i am the one causing arguments about why it’s important to marry jewish. i’m the one who does shabbat every week with my family. i’m the one working at an orthodox school, actively striving to learn more each week about judaism. i don’t celebrate xmas with my family any more. i broke my little kansas grandmother’s heart when i converted. don’t these conscious actions show a clear devotion and commitment worthy of acceptance?

    To the people that matter in my life, i am jewish. they don’t want to exclude me. i truly don’t understand why – in a world filled with hate – a religion would not want to embrace someone who comes to it with a true and full heart. but it doesn’t make me mad. it’s just not how i would run things if i were in charge, ya know?

    anyway, i know you all come from a different perspective, many of you living in israel, etc. don’t think for a second that I’m naïve enough to believe that what I say could change any one’s mind. I guess the best I could hope for is that maybe next time the topic of excluding non-Orthodox converts comes up, you will think of me and the purity of my intentions and the lifelong dedication to judaism that i have taken on willingly and wholeheartedly. there are a lot of us out there and we are good people that could be an asset to the religion.

    (one last thought – when i procreate with my husband, i will be increasing the jewish people’s numbers whether you think so or not. i will feel good about that and i won’t let anyone take that feeling of contribution away from me.)

  • Esther, it is not up to anybody else to determine whether I, or the gracious Beth, are dedicated Jews. I don’t sit around and question whether a man who declares a pulsa denura against another Jew (namely, Sharon or Rabin) is a dedicated Jew. I don’t question whether Yigal Amir is a dedicated Jew.

    By CK’s standards, and by the standards of Orthodox (no, I don’t just mean Haredim) Jewry, Amir and Dayan are better Jews than I and certainly far better than Beth who wasn’t born a Jew and wasn’t converted by, say, a very observant Orthodox rabbi who advocates Orthodox soldiers disobeying their IDF commanders even if it undermines Israeli sovereignty, legitimacy and existence.

    By any standards they are dedicated Jews, even if they are scum.

    By the standards set out by the Orthodox, Beth and many others like her have a problem being accepted.

    Now if you were to tell me that the conversion process by the Orthodox in Israel was a fair one, your case might be a little better, but the fact is that it is rife with corruption. Even when it’s not corrupt, standards are not the same among all the rabbis. Moreover, the demands made of the converts are vastly different than what is expected of people who were simply born of a Jewish woman’s womb. I mean, for god’s sake, my mother’s womb is superior to Beth’s mother’s womb?! I don’t think any of us want to go down that particular road…

    If rabbinic Judaism was not a man-made construct, y’all would have a much better case. Seeing as rabbinic Judaism is the product of regular men (and I urge you all to consider the constellation of rabbis you know personally or through the media and decide whether these people are so intelligent and wise that you would allow them to dictate the course of your life with rules and declarations that affect the parameters of what is allowable to you and what is not), your suggestions that somehow other streams of Judaism are lesser, simply don’t hold water.

    The reason this is such a painful topic to discuss – and I do feel bad for bringing it up, but I feel more badly for those who are harmed by these stringent and unreasonable rules – is that it touches the core of our beliefs. CK believes that tradition is more than just tradition, it is the foundation for the faith. I believe the faith fails us when it treats people who lack power and authority with disrespect and ostracism. I don’t think Ruth had to undergo a stringent Orthodox conversion. Her passion and love for the Israelite faith were sufficient to make her the ancestor of King David. Why would we invent rules or allow invented rules to place different and much more vigorous barriers between those people who want to grow into their Judaism but come to it from love and dedication?

  • I thought I would post just to comment (as others seem to) that other people are reading the blog and comments. I teach post bar and bat mitzvah students, and we were just discussing this very thing.

    The only synagogue in a three hour radius is Reform, so that is the one to which I belong. This is the synagogue through which I converted, though I had to work with a rabbi from another city because we don’t have enough money to pay a rabbi. Do I realize I would not be accepted in Orthodox circles as a “real” Jew? Yes. Does this sadden me? Yes, but I understand the reasoning.

    I tried to work with a Conservative rabbi in another city for my conversion, but he was antagonistic and did not belief in my adherence to or desire for Judaism. (I approached him more than the traditional/legendary three times, and was still rebuffed. I believe he thought I was getting converted for my husband, who was raised in a Conservative synagogue, never mind that I’ve been married for years and was the instigator in our current synogogue-going and activities in the Jewish community). But, I digress.

    Although the discussion/palaver/argument may be distasteful, it is important. People do not need to agree or even accept, but they should tolerate. The comments about going to the least common denominator (as mentioned with the excellent 10% kosher analogy) is right on.

    Hahahha, it made me think, though: my husband and I keep kosher. As I was working for some things for a Chanukah gift sale, I eagerly wrote a sign declaring that one kind of cookies was Pareve. The President looked at me and said “that’s all well and good; but so few of our congregants observe kashrut that it isn’t really a selling point.” She was right, but I was so personally excited by the Pareve label that I forgot. I redid the sign to note other values of the cookies (c’mon, some of these things really need PR), but did continue to note the Pareve-ness for the people who would/do care.

    Ok—I’m going to suppose that this comment works to note that people are reading and are interested in the comments on the blog—-from everyone.

  • Yikes. There is no such thing as one Jew who is better than another. I am not making that kind of determination. All I am saying is that one simply is or is not a Jew. The standards and laws for that assessment have been with us for much longer than Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist Judaism have been in existence and given that we are still around, seem to have served us well.

    I know very well how the convert can come into Judaism and appreciate it far more than the person born into it – I can certainly tell you that I probably take my Judaism for granted far more than either Beth or Ziva Lehava and many of my coreligionists even more so.

    But once you’ve broken from your past, and fully embraced Judaism in a demonstrable and significant way, isn’t it hard to reconcile with the fact that a portion of the Jewish people, not out of hatred or lack of tolerance, cannot consider you Jewish simply because your conversion process did not meet the standards that they follow?

    I mean look – I don’t hate either of you. I do not doubt your dedication to Judaism and readily acknowledge that you demonstrate a commitment to it that is way above average. However, I follow the Traditional / Orthodox practice of Judaism. I and many of my fellow congregants (none of whom wear shtreimels or pay attention to pulsa denuras or spit on people’s wives btw) cannot despite everything marry you or your children without a nod of approval from one of our Orthodox Rabbis.

    Seriously. Given that fact, what would you have me do? Reject my tradition that is thousands of years old in order to accept someone who has converted under a system that is less than 200 years old? I’d love to be more tolerant but look at what you are asking me and others like me to do.

  • CK–I’m actually agreeing with you on some points! I just wanted to give my situation which is very unusual. You should not deny what you believe or your traditions.

  • I was on a panel recently with a representatives of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism. In front of us sat 300 teenagers and their parents. We were to answer several fundamental questions. 1) What happened on Mt. Sinai? and 2) Who is a Jew? You can guess what everyone said about Sinai. “If the Jews were ever in the desert – not certain that is true – then they had some kind of mass transcendent experience which they must have thought was revelation. However revelation did not occur.” (I mused, maybe they had all drank psychedelic tea, but could not say that in front of the teens’ parents.) Next who is a Jew? I said, “Adam Sandler…Jewish. Madonna…not Jewish!” I sat down. Then I said in a more serious tone that “a Jew is anyone that has a Jewish neshama (soul).”

    Some angry parents came up to me afterwards. “I thought you said you were an Orthodox Rabbi! How can you say this?”

    I explained that his was the most fundamental answer to the question. It was not “How to become a Jew?” but “WHO” is a Jew right now.

    One of the things I learned on this panel shocked me. The other participants naturally answered the question of “Who is a Jew?” by telling how they convert people, and that Reform _accept_ patrilineal descent. A person in the audience asked, “I know someone who was born Jewish, but was not raised Jewishly, but rather as a Christian. They grew up going to church, and even studied to be a priest. Are they Jewish and how can they become Jewish?” The Conservative Rabbi answered that they would have to undergo a conversion to Judaism, to see hat they had accepted Jewish beliefs. The Reform said that they would need to go to classes and have a conversion too. I answered that if this man were to show up in my synagogue I would give him an aliyah on the spot. He doesn’t need to do anything to BECOME Jewish, he is a Jew.

    Pardon my naivite, but this was a major moment in my understanding where Reform and Conservative have gone wrong. If a Jew, born to Jewish parents, but raised as a gentile, needs conversion, then they have made Judaism into a something closer to another religion.

    In Poland where I worked in the Jewish community for much of the 1990’s we had people in their 60’s who discovered when their parents were dying that they were not really their parents. On the deathbed the parents confessed that he/she was the child of Jewish neighbors. “We took you when you were only a few months old in order to save you until your Jewish parents could return. But they never came back…” The child grew up, married, had kids, all the while thinking they were a Catholic. Some of these kids, called Dzieci Holocaustu, Children of the Holocaust, became priests. They came to us wanting to learn about being Jewish. We helped them pick Jewish names, have bar/bat mitzvahs, learn Hebrew, etc. Some of them decided never to tell their spouses, out of fear. Some brave ones told decided to start observing Jewish tradition, stopped going to church….

    Can you imagine, that a Reform Rabbi would tell them you are not Jewish? This person is as Jewish as I am. Their parents were burnt in Auschwitz. They didn’t even make a decision to leave the Jewish people. They are a “tinok she nishbar” an abducted child. They have no guilt because they made no choice. And I will take this discussion about Jewishness to another level. Even if they HAD a choice as a young child or adult, and decided to him their Jewishness, and stay undercover. THEY ARE STILL JEWISH. You cannot erase this. Because being Jewish is soul thing. It has to do with you and your connection to God and the entire Jewish people. You can go to your ashram, to your mosque, to the church, or a cult. And you are still a Jew.

    For Reform and Conservative, being Jewish is a conscious decision that a person makes. It is a commitment. If you leave us, or never made the commitment, then you are not Jewish. This is part of the reason so many Jews decide to marry non-Jews, and live lives isolated from Jewish practice and tradition. ‘Because if being Jewish is just a commitment, and I never really made the commitment, I feel that I am not really good Jews. I am somehow lacking in my Jewishness.’

    That is why Reform have Commitment ceremonies. Who invented this? Why? Because reform as it originated in Germany wanted to make Judaism look like Christianity. Christians have confirmation, so Jews made one up. There are no historic models for this, it was copied. But this is a new definition of being Jewish. This is not the definition that has gotten us through 2000 years of exile, and 3800 years since Abraham.

    Rabbis do not make Jews. Rabbis do not really convert people. Rabbis on a beit din are trying to establish, has this person taken on the yoke of Torah, the mitzvahs, does she see her fate and life inseparable from the Jewish world. She/he goes into the Waters of Life, the mikvah, and comes out with a Jewish soul. It is metaphysical friends. It is transcendent, and it is awesome, as in awe inspiring. It is not a commitment ceremony, it is a birthday.

  • Rabbi Yonah—beautifully worded. One of my rabbi friends says that “being Jewish is all about courage; it isn’t about what you do or do not do or ‘how’ Jewish you are; it is about being courageous enough to accept your Jewish soul and being true to it.”

  • TM, my intent was not to state or in any way imply that you or Beth was not a dedicated Jew. I’ve known a whole host of Jews from varying backgrounds who were extremely committed, even if they were completely unaffiliated. And one of my current issues that I struggle with is the divisiveness between the denominations and the fact that Jews my age are so complicated that the old labels don’t seem to apply (I’ve got an article coming out next week about this subject, from a singles perspective…)

    Even if Yigal Amir considers himself a dedicated Jew, because his claim to fame (although consistent with Judaism if you apply the construct of the rodef (which I believe he invokes to justify his crime) is as a political assassin, I think we can all agree that there are other better role models of dedication to Judaism to be found and followed.

    As far as conversion in Israel is concerned, I don’t know enough to comment about it. You guys are all much smarter than I am.

    I have the utmost respect for people who choose to become Jewish or who opt to increase their observance even as they live modern lives in the contemporary world.

    I’ll go one step further: sometimes, I wish I were a convert. That way I’d have chosen Judaism and would be more authentically committed from having found my religious bliss than I probably am having been born from my mother’s Jewish womb into a traditional home and yeshiva education. But don’t tell my mom I said that.

    I hope we’re all still friends.

  • Rabbi Yonah,

    Forgive me, but I have to disagree with you on a number of points.

    First of all, I don’t know who the Conservative and Reform rabbis on your panel might have been, but the answer they gave is actually the answer Orthodox Judaism gave to Ethiopian Jews. Unlike what you say, they were not able to come to Israel and have aliyahs. They were forced by the rabbinical courts, with the blessing of the government, to convert to Judaism.

    Second, it is the Orthodox rabbis who determine that a person who may have been practicing as a Jew for 30 years is not Jewish because he was converted by a non-Orthodox rabbi. It doesn’t matter to them how observant the person might be, how long they’ve been practicing Judaism, whether the rabbi was Ismar Schorch or Stephen Wise. All that matters to them is that the individual was not converted by one of them.

    Third, I hate to repeat myself, but these same rabbis are going to accept a conversion conducted by an Orthodox rabbi like the one who declared the pulsa denura over that of a devout, observant Conservative rabbi. They will do this any day of the week, every day of the week, regardless of the source; an Orthodox rabbi is kosher no matter what while a Conservative rabbi is a heretic.

    Fourth, Christian customs are found in many of our customs. Olam haba is a Christian construct. The messiah that Lubavitch is claiming has descended upon them and left although he shall return seems to be a Christian construct, as were other false messiahs. Monogamy seems to be something we’ve picked up from the gentile world. The list goes on, but my point is that Reform has picked up things, but so has traditional Judaism going back many centuries.

    Fifth, you say that for Reform and Conservative Judaism, being Jewish is a decision and commitment one makes. How is that different than choosing a commitment to be Orthodox? If you are trying to say that Reform and Conservative Judaism are more stringent in their demands from Jews and commitment to Judaism than Orthodox Jews, I simply have to very strongly disagree. We are having this debate, in part, because those movements are far more inclusive of who is a Jew, in terms of their level of participation and commitment to Jewish life, than the Orthodox. I mean, just above you have CK telling all women who are converts but were not converted by an Orthodox rabbi, that they simply don’t cut it. Do you see Reform rabbis rejecting the commitment of a Conservative or Orthodox convert? Also, let’s be frank about the fact that Orthodox Jews look down upon other streams and consider them to be the cause of destruction of the Jewish people. The majority of Reform and Conservative Jews, as well as secular Jews in Israel who are unaffiliated with these movements, were born Jewish to Jewish mothers. And yet, they are called names, their beliefs are denigrated, and they are considered inferior Jews.

    Now if you truly believe that a Jew is anyone who had a Jewish neshama, how can you deny the devout Jew who was converted by another stream of Judaism? Their neshama isn’t Jewish? Or do you mean their genes aren’t? If it’s the latter, I point you to Ruth. If it’s the former, I point you to Ruth.

  • Esther, of course we are all still friends. The idea is that we should all be friends regardless of religious affiliation.

  • Geeeezz T_M. Get it right. There is no such thing in Judaism as degrees of Jewishness when it comes to identity. One either is or is not a Jew. Anyone that says differently is simply wrong. Conservative, Reform, unaffiliated or any other non-traditional Jews born of a Jewish mother are not less Jewish. Judaism simply questions or takes issue with the appropriateness of their practice, not the validity or degree of their Jewishness.

    For instance, some Chabad friends of mine follow the tradition of Cholov Yisroel, a practice that requires an extra level of supervision in the preparation of dairy products. This tradition dictates that a dairy product that is not Cholov Yisroel is not kosher for them. Unlike regular and Glatt kosher, a utensil used in the cooking of non Cholov Yisroel products becomes treiff to them. Thus they cannot eat at my house because I don’t follow that tradition. Does that make me less Jewish? No because Cholov Yisroel is simply not part of my tradition. Now if I wish to entertain these people in my home, I would convert my kitchen to Cholov Yisroel kosher. But I would never fault them from having a tradition that is different from mine, nor would I expect them to give up that tradition in order to have dinner with me. In a similar vein, my Mom does not employ kitniot (or legumes ie rice, beans etc) in Passover meals because we often have ashkenazic guests who cannot consume these.

    As for anyone that converts using a non Orthodox Rabbi – I did not make a flip statement and say that they simply “don’t cut it.” I think my response was a bit more nuanced and sensitive than that T_M. But I’ll ask you what I asked them – what would you have me and my fellow congregants do? We do not, cannot accept the validity of Conservative or Reform Rabbis. These traditions are completely foreign to us and in practice out and out expressly violate many of the rules and traditions that we cherish. I don’t want to discourage anyone who has an interest in Judaism, but what you T_M are asking us to do is to eat at a table where the food is treif so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities.

    I would never be so arrogant as to expect that from my Cholov Yisroel Chabad buddies, or my ashkenazic Passover guests, why do you expect that from me? Again T_M, what would you have us do?

  • It’s interesting that you bring up the issue of eating at another person’s house. I know a number of chozrei teshuva (baalei teshuva) who stopped eating at their non-Orthodox parents’ homes because the kitchens and homes were unkosher, and were encouraged to avoid those foods by their rabbis.

    I can’t imagine a more sordid and unacceptable form of behavior toward another person who has opened their home to you, much less your parents.

    I remember once, when a very good Orthodox friend of my parents came to visit them in France from Israel. He sat in my parents’ kitchen and ate my mother’s food. I was already in my 20s at the time and asked him openly why he did so. He explained that he was a guest in our home and did not wish to cause offense to his hosts who had prepared food (it was kosher food, by the way, and unkosher food has never entered the house, but they are secular and details are not maintained to the degree they would in an Orthodox kosher home). He went on to say that he believes that would be a greater foul than to eat food that is kosher but not “perfectly” kosher.

    What a noble thing to do! He took my parents, secular Jews but good people, and with his actions showed that he values them and that his friendship and respect for them overcome his zeal to obey the Word. This man, in his actions, embodied Jewishness for me. He lives in the Shomron, by the way.

    So what would I have you do, CK?

    I would have you judge the person by their neshama, as Rabbi Yonah so beautifully put it, let them know that you are Orthodox and then show them why you are Orthodox. If you are successful in explaining your passion and love for this form of Jewish life, they will be swayed and join you. If they are not, you have the choice of not marrying them, or you have the choice of respecting that they are intelligent people who are now knowledgeable and have been taught many relevant things by you, and choose to marry them anyway.

    You can maintain your Orthodox lifestyle and she can keep her choice of practice. If you plan to have children, and I wish many upon you my friend, then you beg her to accept that you wish to raise them in an Orthodox fashion in and out of the house. Again, she, an intelligent and thoughtful Jewish individual will choose one way or the other. If she chooses to forego this and you believe it is a deal breaker, you don’t marry. If you think that she is special enough that you will find ways around this, then you marry.

    The point is that it is unconscionable to reject people on the basis of the stream to which they belong. People are people and their goodness and their Jewish faith and love for Judaism do not have to be like yours. There are many ways to believe, and traditions have a way of evolving, particularly when they are man-made traditions. Don’t let those get in the way of what could be a holy union between two neshamas because THAT IS a sin.

  • Your friend in Shomron made a calculated decision to eat at your parents house, one that he felt did not contradict his core beliefs – the food itself is kosher and the details could be waved away so as not to cause embarassment, and that this course of action that he chose was exceptional. I assure you that had your parents offered him a bacon cheeseburger for dinner, he would politely decline to eat.

    You are telling me that I should marry a woman, who despite everything else, my tradition does not consider Jewish and that not doing so would be a sin. I politely submit that you are wrong. There are some standards that you can fudge with under exceptional circumstances, and some that you can’t. Marrying a woman who is not considered Jewish by my tradition, by my community and by my family is not something I can do. You’d have as much success convincing me of that than you would of convincing your Shomron buddy to chomp on bacon.

    This does not mean that should you decide to chomp on bacon you are neccessarily a worse Jew than me. I am in no position to make that kind of judgement and readily acknowledge the possibility that even a bacon chomping Jew may still live a life that brings him or her closer to God than me, whose lips have never tasted swine.

    I think that having said that, I have none the less been taught to be kind and sensitive with those whose beliefs and traditions do not conform with my own. For instance, my Rabbis taught me that if you are in public and witness a fellow Jew commiting a sin, you should only caution him of that fact in a way that will not cause him or her undue public embarassment. Yes, we are counseled to not prevent the sin, to allow it to continue to happen if in preventing it we cause offense or embarassment. That seems pretty sensitive and tolerant to me and those are the principles that guide me.

    But to ask me and people of my ilk to knowingly reject millenia old tradition? Not just to alter or modify it slightly, but to out and out reject it? Seriously dude, you’re dreaming in technicolor here. Your proposed solution is totally unrealistic and completely unworkable. I’d rather die cold and alone than do that.

  • I honour anyone who wants to become Jewish for being so courageous. Unfortunately the Orthodox don’t realize that when someone converts to Judaism to whatever stream- Reform,
    Conservative, Reconstructionist, the “outside world” is going to consider them as being Jewish and may discriminate against them as Jews, if they are going to discriminate against them, and the person who discriminates against them is not going to give two hoots as to which Rabbi converted them. This is a very unfair situation to be put in, so
    if I were in charge (which I am not, ha ha!) I would accept any of the above forms of Judaism as being valid, provided of course
    they affirm the absolute unity of Hashem and Hashem’s total omnipotence and mercifulness.

    By the way, I am not from Kenosha, ha ha! My family name was originally in Arabic- variously spelled in English as Mashaal, Mashal, so my grandfather changed it to Marshall. You might be amused to know that a guy called Khaled Mashaal is a member of Hamas, or Islamic Jihad, I can’t remember which. Of course he is absolutely no relation of mine since our family has been Jewish supposedly since the Babylonian exile 586 B.C., and lived in Baghdad until the 1920’s.

  • CK, you have posited that to you, anyone who is not Orthodox or converted by Orthodox rabbis is the equivalent of bacon. You mentioned cheeseburgers but that’s rabbinic kosher whereas bacon is Torah kashrut. In other words, to you such a woman is a priori trayf to the point where she resembles bacon. She may have had a year long conversion, be a devout Jew, be observant, keep kosher, and be smart, attractive and funny. But to you, the fact she was converted by a man who is not Orthodox means that she resembles bacon. Are you with me here, CK? Are you hearing the box into which you have placed yourself…by choice?

    Whether you like it or not, you are passing judgement on me and on that mythical woman. More important, you are causing harm and discrimination for many people who are Jewish but don’t meet your standards. They are good Jews, and in fact no lesser Jews than many Orthodox Jews, but you close the door in their face.

    Think about the choice my parents’ friend made. It was done out of respect for them as people and fellow Jews. It was done because he was able to see gradations of what would be acceptable. Of course he wouldn’t bite into bacon. He would also never be offered bacon…just as you wouldn’t be offered an inferior Jew if you were to consider a traditional but non-Orthodox Jewish woman.

    Nonetheless, we’ve hashed this out and I’d like to get back to posts where we actually have some fun so E can return and participate in this wonderful blog.

    I just want to point one last thing out, CK. Your final comment in that post is, um, quite Darwinian. I cannot imagine that any rabbi, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Chabadnik, Satmarik, Modern Orthodox or any other form of Jewish Orthodoxy would think that it is a greater sin to marry a Jewish woman and have a Jewish family than to forego that because of stringent and uncompromising values. Please avoid extinction.

  • Dave Marshall wrote: the “outside world” is going to consider them as being Jewish and may discriminate against them as Jews, if they are going to discriminate against them, and the person who discriminates against them is not going to give two hoots as to which Rabbi converted them.

    You are correct Dave. But Judaism is not in the habit of allowing our oppressors to decide for us who is and is not a Jew.

    And sorry about the Kenosha thing – Dave Marshall sounds like the least Sephardic name ever, rivalled only by this woman I met once, S_ Ashkenazi, who was in fact hard core Syrian Sephardic. Go figure.

  • TM wrote:

    Anyway, you have posited that to you, anyone who is not Orthodox or converted by Orthodox rabbis is the equivalent of bacon.

    I was making a loose analogy. Also I never questioned the Jewishness of anyone possessed of a Jewish Mother, regardless of their practice – please do not embellish my words. To me and my otherwise well meaning congregants, a person converted by a non-Orthodox Rabbi is not an abomination! They are simply not Jewish. Having said that, I do not look with disapproval upon those Rabbis, cognizant of the realities of the day, who allow Conservative or Reform converted Jews to undergo a relatively simple Orthodox conversion once a few simple things have been determined.

    One acquaintance of mine whose Jewish identity was at issue but whose commitment to Judaism was clear, and was living a fully Jewish life, managed to convert with a beit din of 3 scary Orthodox Rabbis in less than an hour (not including the dip in the mikvah). Capish? Less than an hour. This wasn’t some Joe Blow beit din either – these were three mega orthodox Jerusalem Rabbis. This convert was asked some basic questions about Judaism, Halachah, prayer and beliefs and that was pretty much it. Less than an hour.

    Doesn’t sound like the intolerant, backwards, head-up-their-asses Orthodoxy that you T_M relish in describing.

    As far as my committment to die cold and alone, well what can I tell you? If I marry a non-Jewish woman, our children will not be Jewish. That’s the point I am making. The second I decide that it’s more important for me to have human companionship than to keep looking for my bashert, I have in fact closed the door on the possibility of ever having Jewish spawn – after all, given my constitution and family background, I ought to be able to reproduce well in to my 90s and beyond 😉 – that’s one of the undocumented side benefits of garlic rich shakshuka by the way ….

  • Ashkenazi (or its variant Eskenazi) is a fairly common and almost always Sephardic name, particularly present among Syrian Jews. Why? Because a lot of Ashkenazim wound up in the Middle East for one reason or another during the years of the Diaspora and were nicknamed by their new Jewish neighbors “Ashkenazi,” and the name stuck, but these people’s children being born in Syria or wherever were no longer Ashkenazic.

    Of course, we know that to CK, nothing is of greater importance than the great and deep and oh-so-meaningful schism between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. 😉

    TM, I disagree, I think Orthodox rabbis, especially the Satmarnik you mentioned, would rather CK forego marriage than marry a woman who would not be Jewish by their own “stringent and uncompromising values.” It’s not an issue for them of CK marrying a Jewish woman and having a Jewish family because to them the woman is not Jewish and the children would not be Jewish. I mean, they would be probably be more than willing to convert her according to those standards if she had proven a desire to be a committed Jew, but the facts are the facts: a Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist conversion will not satisfy an Orthodox or Chassidic rabbi, even if the issue is “extinction.”

    Is it fair? Maybe not. Personally, I agree with CK that converts should have to fulfill the maximum standards, but hey, that’s just me…

  • I just want to say that this is an incredibly interesting conversation going on here, and I wanted to thank everyone for their comments. Threads like this are one of the reasons that I really, really love this blog.

    But at the risk of highlighting yet another rift in the community, I think I should emphasize the distinction between Reform and Conservative Jews, since I feel we’re all getting lumped together on the secular side of a secular/non-secular divide. I’m Conservative, my beloved husband is Reform, and our friends growing up have been a mixture of both. (Er, the Jewish ones, of course. The Christian, Muslim, and Hindu ones have spanned from hardcore Lutheran to secular Shiite to atheist-but-still-a-vegetarian Hindu, with a large number of lapsed Catholics thrown in for good measure. Living in America rocks.) We are both committed to our Judaism and vocal about our Zionism, yet we remain in most respects pretty secular. But the gap between our religious traditions and the things we take for granted about them are far more different that I would have, at first, believed.

    I moved to Los Angeles, my husband’s hometown, following our marriage (yes, we technically followed the “no living together” rule, but mostly because of logistics, not out of any pretensions to morality). And so I settled into his family’s religious routines–Reform–which consist basically of attending synagogue just a few times a year, mostly just for the High Holidays. That’s okay, that’s what my Conservative family did too, in New York. And we don’t keep kosher in our home. That’s okay, my Conservative family kept kosher at home, but I stopped at college and after college. So with that level of non-particpation in mitzvot, how different could we be, right?

    Wrong. The first time I went to Temple with him was for his cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, a few months after our marriage. Sometime between the *organ music*, the prayerbooks printed in *90% English* (and paging “backwards” to my eyes, meaning English-style) with *photos* of Judaica (kiddush cups, etc.) on nearly every left-hand page, the translations of the prayers being sanitized and whitewashed, and the Bar Mitzvah boy not even reading from the Torah (!!! just the haftorah, from what I could tell, and even that seemed like it may have been abbreviated, unless maybe he had a short parsha)–well, I was kind of sitting there slack-jawed. My husband noticed, and whispered to me, jokingly, “oh, that’s nothing; wait until they bring out the ham.” But by then I was too busy reeling from hearing his cousin reference not just John F. Kennedy but Stokely Carmichael in his “today I am a man” speech…

    To be fair, this synagogue, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, is the Los Angeles version of New York’s (in)famous Temple Emmanu-El: two of the most beautiful-but-church-like synagogues in America, populated by some of the most secular Jews in the world. And so it is an extreme case to use when talking about the American Reform movement, and its divide from the American Conservative movement. And the rabbinical and cantorial staff, mostly young men and women, are lovely people, pasionate about Judaism. But it’s Judaism as social activism and social justice, not halacha. It’s Judaism as having your Rosh Hashannah service held in a converted-for-the-overflow-crowds art deco theatre in downtown Los Angeles, led by a young openly gay rabbi who sounds distractingly like Mr. Moviefone, and having to scrupulously throw in a v’Sarah for each and every mention of Abraham. It’s not the things I naively took for granted were part of everyone’s core, central values about being Jewish.

    I suppose I can stretch my tolerance levels to say that none of the syngogue’s idiosyncracies are wholly “bad”, per se, just different. I am thrilled by egalitarianism, my American soul (Judaism doesn’t get an exclusive claim on this here neshama) loves diversity, and as already mentioned, kashrut and I have parted ways and shabbat and I never officially hung out in the first place. So what’s the big deal? But taken together as a lump, this world is a culture shock (or lack-of-culture shock) to my Conservative ideal of Judaism. There is a gulf here, and I am starting to understand why so many American Conservative synagogues are drifting towards “Conservadox”, including my family’s former long-time synagogue back in New York, whose rabbis refused to officiate at my marriage because my husband and I did not plan to have kosher food at the reception. (No pork or obvious treyf, mind you, but not officially kosher either.)

    To add in another layer of complexity, my husband’s mother is Sephardic; her father came over from Rhodes circa 1935, and her mother was born in the US to immigrants from Rhodes. But alas…his mom doesn’t attend synagogue. And as much as I want to learn about my husband’s half-Sephardism and make it a part of our eventual children’s culture and spiritual life, I find I have little to hang onto beyond a rice dish on the Seder table.

    So, to sum up: there are indeed big differences between Reform and Conservative Jews, on a cultural level, and in our comfort with our Judaism, if not always in a day-to-day level of practice. And I spent my morning today browsing the web looking at not just LA-area Conservative synagogues for us to join (my husband is fine with that), but actual Hebrew day schools in the area for our future-kids to possibly attend, ten years from now. If the Conservative/Masorti movement was founded as an allergic reaction to the excesses (or deficiencies, depending on your point of view) of the American Reform movement, consider this Jew covered in hives.

    (And I’m equally in hives at the way the Orthodox and Haredim act towards Reform and Conservative converts. And at the way that the Conservative rabbi who we found to perform our marriage, from a different synagogue, insisted that our ketubah be signed by two Jewish males, whose denomination he asked about, whose parents’ denominations he asked for, who had to assure him that there were no conversions *of any kind* in their recent lineage–*NOT* because *he* cared about that, but because an Orthodox rabbi might care about it, someday, somehow. And thus do Reform and Conservative hold hands and merge into Voltron again, when faced with that kind of “our interpretation is the *only* interpretation” ossified crap.

    Oh, and I basically had to force the guy to list both my parents’ names as part of my Hebrew name on the ketubah. Look, buddy, you’re an awfully nice rabbi to agree to do this marriage on such short notice, but listing me as Zehava Edena Bat Moshe ***v’Chana*** is not being cutesy or pedantic or throwing crumbs to feminism, *it’s my name*. And when my husband tells you that his (Sephardic) mother’s Hebrew name *is* Hannoula, don’t force us to argue you out of writing it down as a gentrified “Chana” because you think it’s probably “more real”. Dude, Rhodes had a native Jewish population going on since before the fall of the Second Temple, and while we’re not sure if her direct ancestors were Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition by way of Italy, or Turkish Jews “imported” in as wives, or the native Romaniotes, don’t think there only one way to Be Jewish.)

  • But there is also the historical consideration. Obviously, Judaism is not a monolith, but the kind of Judaism as generally practiced by the Orthodox Jewish community had become essentially the world standard for the Diaspora Jewish communities that remained in contact with each other (that is, most of them) since at least the Middle Ages on down to today. Look at the widespread acceptance throughout North Africa, the Middle East and Europe of the Shulchan Arukh. And for more than a thousand years, this was basically the only Judaism (and in many parts of the Diaspora still is). What CK is, I think, saying, and I agree, is that it is a very bitter pill to swallow for a lot of world Jewry to accept the legitimacy of conversions of movements that were created fairly recently and almost entirely as a result of concession to the non-Jewish world. I realize that rabbinic Judaism also borrowed some major concepts, like the olam haba, but even that it its roots in the pre-Christian age — look at the disputes between the Pharisees and Saducees. The Christians didn’t just make up an afterlife, after all. And more importantly, the olam ha-ba is a fuzzy concept and belief in it is not truly required to be a “kosher Jew” by Orthodox standards — yet, say, observing kashrut certainly is, and things like kashrut have been discarded by some of the more liberal movements. I’m not saying a Reform convert cannot be a good Jew on Reform terms, but Reform terms are a product of assimilationists in Germany two hundred years ago and, frankly, that’s not good enough for much of the Jewish world. Someone cannot expect to be accepted as a Jew by the Orthodox community if they do not demonstrate a commitment to follow an Orthodox way of life — because, ultimately to the Orthodox community, and history would seem to lend credence to this, Orthodox Judaism is Jewish Judaism and Reform Judaism is goyische Judaism (or Yiddishe goyishness…?). And they shouldn’t have to accept converts who do not ascribe to their own long-standing religious traditions. The simple fact remains: if a convert wants to be accepted by Orthodox Jews, they should get an Orthodox conversion (even if they later plan to be more lax in their practice). If they don’t want to get an Orthodox conversions, they can still be committed Jews according to their own movement’s traditions, but they can’t complain about their lack of total acceptance.

  • T_M wrote: They had to take on a lifestyle that they were not going to maintain subsequently, and they were asked to do things that their Jewish-born spouses had never done and will never do.

    You’re right. I take it back. Those Orthodox fanatics are out of control! Imagine the temerity, the gall! To insist that someone who seeks to convert to their religion, actually practice that religion too!!

    And it doesn’t end with the Jews either! Apparently, if I want to become Muslim, they won’t convert me if I tell them that I flat out refuse to give up pork and liquor! What a bunch of Islamofascists I tell ya!

    And the Catholics? No baptism for me unless I accept Jesus Christ as my lord and saviour. I mean what if I really dig those Catholic Church services? What if I totally groove on the concept of confession and original sin? I wanna be Catholic but I’m just not into that Jesus dude. As a result they won’t convert me! Can you believe that? Have they not learnt the lessons of the Spanish Inquisition? Who would have thought that such intolerance could persist in this day and age!

    And its not just religions either! I am a confirmed male chauvinist pig, but I wanted to join the National Organization of Women because they have the most clever bumper stickers. Really! But they were like, no. I was stunned, let me tell you. Similarly I tried joining the Harvard Club and they refused me on the mere technicality that I didn’t go to Harvard and uh… had no money to pay the fees. I’m tellin’ ya, it just goes on and on and I am sick of it!

    Thanks for opening my eyes T_M. You and Edgar are right. Anyone who wants to be Jewish, ought to be able to marry me and my children, make up a minyan at my shul, act as a witness for religious ceremonies, serve on the board of my synagogue’s religious committee, hand out their own brand of rabbinic ordination, whatever. If to you being Jewish means watching Seinfeld and eating bagels and you do not have the benefit of a Jewish Mother but want to join the tribe, then go right ahead! Consider yourself a Jew! You are most welcome for we will not be like all those other nasty organizations and religions that saddle you with like rules and standards. We’re going to be open and inclusive!

    Anyhow, I have to go to my Jewish Witchcraft group meeting now. We’re learning how to incorporate Beelzebub into traditional Chanukah celebrations.

  • Michael, the problem is not lack of acceptance. If CK does not wish to get together with intelligent women like Asparagirl and have asparagii together, that’s his problem. I’m talking about a country that has a government which allows the Orthodox to dictate aspects of life that affect people from birth to marriage to death to people who are not Orthodox.

  • Come on CK, how many people get converted in an hour?

    Most people I know who had to convert in Israel had to wait at least one year and in some cases, two. They had to take on a lifestyle that they were not going to maintain subsequently, and they were asked to do things that their Jewish-born spouses had never done and will never do.

    Michael, the whole issue of maximum and minimum standards is one to which I don’t subscribe because standards suggest quality. I don’t believe you have superior and inferior quality Judaism. I also don’t accept that the choices one strain of Judaism has made is of a higher standard than another. There is no doubt that Orthodox Judaism demands more discipline. So how about we use the term, “more disciplined form of Judaism.”

    If you are right about that Satmar rabbi, and now that you’ve presented the logic, I fear you are right, it makes me sad that certain Jews would go to that degree.

    To my knowledge, my French Ashkenazi grandfather never tasted shakshouka and the man lived to 100. With a girlfriend until the very end. And yet, I wish you many shared shakshoukas with the woman of your dreams.

  • Oy T_M. AGAIN. I am not doubting the Jewishness of anyone that practices different forms of Judaism! There is no theoretical problem with my marrying aspargirl (if she wasn’t already married), regardless of her particular religious level of observance. I just question certain things done in a non orthodox manner.

    For instance, I was shopping and I saw these fish sticks with a hechsher on ’em from a liberal Jewish organization. I looked at the ingredients and right there on the box it listed shrimp. Shrimp! Dude that’s deoraytah! And yet some “rabbi” determined that these fish sticks were kosher anyway. Well, I’m sorry. They are not kosher no matter what anyone says. When TORAH standards like that are messed with, is it any wonder traditional Jews are a little leery about other aspects of non-traditional practice?

    I mean look, do what you want to do, be what you want to be, follow whatever spiritual path you want to. Or don’t. All I ask is that I be granted the same privilege without being derided. And if you don’t like the situation in Israel, then go there and vote.

  • What, exactly, is so terrible about Orthodoxy controlling Jewish religious life and marriage in Israel?

    Probably more than 95% of the religious, practicing Jews in Israel are Orthodox. The religious institituions of a country should reflect the religious practice of its people, nu? If a Reform convert wants to make aliyah, he or she is just going to have to do it on Israel’s terms, and since religious Israelis are Orthodox, those terms are Orthodox.

    Like I said earlier, the Israeli Rabbinate has its share of problems and I realize for the half of Israeli society that is not religious, it can be frustrating. But, then again, if they’re Jews, they can still get married in Israel, or hop to Cyprus for a civil marriage and still have it recognized. A Jew can also marry a non-Jew in this way — yes, even a Reform convert. They just won’t be recognized as Jews by the Rabbinate, and if they’re non-Orthodox anyway, why do they care whether the Orthodox establishment will recognize them? Israel won’t deport them. They’ll be allowed to work. They’ll be allowed to worship as they see fit. But, again, they won’t be seen as Jews by the religious community — but how is that the fault of the Israeli government?

    Ultimately, Israel is concerned about maintaining the Jewishness of the state, and for most of its people, Jewishness will continue to be defined by Orthodox terms, to the Orthodox religious establishment has the power.

  • And also, like CK said about voting, UTJ and Shas and the other religious parties are in the Knesset and therefore in the coalitions because, well, people voted for them. Democracy. Shinui is there too, and it hasn’t been doing a very good job of selling voters on the secular agenda, it would seem.

  • To make a very geeky analogy here, regarding web browsers and Judaism: in America, Orthodox Judaism is like Mozilla/Firefox, Conservative Judaism is like IE 6.0, and Reform Judaism is like IE 5.2 on a Mac.

    The (Mozilla/Firefox users | Orthodox) recognize that there must be a set of (web | religious) standards, around which to build your (website, code | life, community). They should be adhered to as closely as possible, because it is only with a strong foundation of agreed-upon and correctly-working standards can there be the diversity and creativity of (websites | Jewish thought and practices) that will endure the test of time, avoiding obsolence caused by (not being backwards compatible | falling away from Judaism and intermarrying). They represent a relatively small number of the (browser market | American Jewish community), but are disproportionately influential and rapidly gaining (acceptance | adherents).

    The (IE 6.0 | Conservative) and (IE 5.2/Mac | Reform) movements may be recognizably similar to one another, and much more widely adopted than (Mozilla/Firefox | Orthodox Judaism), but (IE 6.0 users | Conservatives) are convinced, with some good reason, that their version comes closer to sucessfully (implementing web standards | following halacha), and thus is somehow superior. They resent being lumped in with their (IE 5.2/Mac | Reform) brethern just because they’re both (made by Microsoft | pretty darn secular). In reality, the two are indeed quite similar.

    All three (broswers | denominations) will help you look at (websites | life), but (IE 6.0 | Conservative Jews) and (IE 5.2/Mac | Reform Jews) are usually more fault-tolerant. This is both good and bad, because while it helps more people (browse | get closer to God), who might otherwise be discouraged from (using the web | practicing Judaism), it can also be said to encourage a lowering of (web-wide | community-wide) standards by not enforcing pickiness about (W3C standards | halacha).

    Okay, so it’s an imperfect analogy, but you get the idea. 🙂

  • CK and Michael, I can’t change the fact that 30% of Israelis identify themselves as observant, with about 20% of the Jewish voters voting for Orthodox parties. I can go vote all I want but it won’t matter because of the way their democracy is structured. If you two want to live life as you’ve described, that is fine with me. It’s not fine when you impose it upon others. And to add insult to injury, a large segment of those who wish to impose it upon other Jews don’t even join the IDF while the others and their offspring do.

    And still, I wish upon both of you as many offspring as there are stars in the sky.

  • Far be it from me to argue with Asparagirl, who’ll no doubt cut me up and serve me with that Sephardic rice dish. But I also live in the LA area and attend a Reform shul and her impression is just that — an impression. Here’s mine:

    I grew up Conservative too, in Connecticut, and the congregation was mostly New York commuters who took everything seriously. Even so, very few people kept kosher, they allowed organ music on Erev Shabbat and hired the first woman cantor in the Conservative movement (prompting a sizeable number of congregants to leave).

    My mother always referred to the Reform as Unitarians, which brought a knowing smirk to all us smug Conservatives.

    Well, I also followed my hubby to LA, but all the way out to the profoundly Christian, Jesus-loves-you outer suburbs. Here, the Chabad rents out a conference center at an airport hotel for the High Holy Days. What’s wrong with that? They charge $20, which includes Rosh Hashanah dinner. I’m thinking of going next year.

    As for the Reform shul where my son goes to pre-school, I can honestly tell you that at age two I didn’t know hamotzi, as he does. He knows more Hebrew now than I do as an adult, and is more insistent about lighting the Shabbat candles. The shul’s entire Shabbat service is in Hebrew, except the sermon, and, okay, the cantor plays guitar. So shoot him.

    I’ve been to other Reform shuls and it’s much the same. Reform has been reforming itself to strengthen Jewish education and ritual observance, which prompted a complaint I overheard recently about the rabbi becoming “too Jewish.” Hah!

    We’re also thinking of a day school, one that’s run jointly by Reforms and Conservatives. And no, they don’t serve bacon in their cafeteria. It’s kosher.

    By the way, no one’s addressed the argument about whether ck’s mythical Reform convert would even give him the right time of day after he savaged her faith and belittled her spiritual journey as a janie-come-lately and dilettante.

    Personally, I’d tell ck thanks for thinking of me, but I’m, ah, busy. Permanently.

    (Now look what you’ve done, TM, you told me to stop lurking … )

  • Anne, your intelligent posts are more than welcome. Otherwise, I have to read CK’s “wisdom” all the time.

  • Asparagirl, that was geeky beyond description. But not bad as far as analogies go. If I’m IE 6.0, can I just buy Firefox?

  • I stand in awe of Asparagirl’s extremely wacky analogy, that is.

    I don’t think CK is belittling anyone’s spiritual journey. He said that he and his rabbi and his shul would not consider the person to be halachically Jewish. And, hey, that’s a fact. It’s not belittlement. And he’s definitely not savaging anyone’s faith — he never said a Reform convert couldn’t believe in Hashem just as strongly as the Lubavitcher Rebbe or someone did.

  • Hey Asparagirl,

    Have you ever seen “Rhodes Forever?” It’s a very fine film and certain to bring tears to your family’s eyes.

    Rhodes Forever
    Belgium 1995 60 minutes B&W/Color 16mm rental / video $90
    Spanish, French, Italian and Greek with English subtitles
    Director: Diane Perelsztejn

    From the director of Escape to the Rising Sun comes this first-ever documentary devoted to the Jews of Rhodes, whose ancestors found refuge there after their expulsion from Spain in the 15th century. For five centuries, the Juderiya, the Jewish quarter of Rhodes, rang with the work, songs, and celebrations of Ladino-speaking Jews, many of whom traded with Salonika, Alexandria, Cairo, and Palestine. Rhodes Forever is a contemporary portrait that ties the Jews of Rhodes with their descendents. It tells the remarkable but largely unknown story of these people who despite the physical destruction of their community during WWII, managed to transplant their unique Jewish culture elsewhere, notably in the Belgian Congo and Europe. The film is filled with wonderful archival footage of the bustling Jewish quarter (including a traditional Rhodes wedding) as well as intimate interviews with the survivors of Rhodes, still speaking and singing in Ladino.

    Scroll down to Rhodes Forever.

  • Aspargirl, that was probably the best comment ever anywhere of all time. Like Michael, I stand in awe.

    Firefox is free for the asking T_M 😉 you just gotta want to go and, you know, get it … as far as my “wisdom” goes, I never claimed to be wise, and readily acknowledge that I have much to learn. I let you post here, don’t I?

    Anne, I don’t recall savaging or belittling anything. I’ve simply tried to foster a respectful attitude without compromising my faith. You are free to not date me but you might be surprised to learn that I have managed to enter into and sustain several relationships despite the existence of all sorts of differences of opinion, religious vs. secular, apple vs. pc, beatles vs. rolling stones and even sephardic vs. ashkenaz (gasp!). Any good relationship requires compromise and respect and I am all about that. Believe me Anne, you could do worse.

  • Well, I don’t know about Beatles vs. Rolling Stones, since Mick Jagger makes my flesh crawl. That would be an insurmountable turn-off for me.

  • Have you ever seen “Rhodes Forever?”

    No, and there’s another documentary about the migration of Rhodes Jews specifically to Los Angeles, CA that I want to see, too. (For some reason, a lot of Greek-Jewish Sephardim ended up coming to the West Coast of the US, including Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, as opposed to the Ashkenazim, who typically came into the US via New York). Both movies sound fascinating.

  • Asparagirl, I’ve seen the other film as well and I liked it, but I liked this one more. You should really make an effort to get your hands on a copy. If you can’t afford the $90 for the video, call that distributor and ask to rent a copy for a smaller amount.

  • …and on further reflection, I guess equating IE 5.2/Mac with the Reform movement is a bit harsh, since that browser is no longer being developed, but the movement is still vital and growing by leaps and bounds (though hemmoraging away via intermarriage at about an equal rate…). Let’s call it IE 5.5 minus some of the security patches. 🙂

  • Dearest T_M The devout Jew who you mention, underwent a ceremony officiated by people who are unqualified to determine a persons commitment and knowledge, because they themselves do not have that commitment. They claim to represent the Jewish people, but clearly and categorically deny God and God’s Torah, in favor of an ever-evolving ethical monotheism pegged to the political correctness of the day. It has NOTHING to do with the convert, it has everything to do with the people who claim to be the arbiters of Judaism. Once a potential convert has entered into a kosher mikvah, their status is changed regardless of the “rabbis” officiating. The use of the mikvah for Reform conversions is new. This was not required for the majority of the last century. Most reform Jews simply had to pass the test. They never entered the mikvah. They never became Jewish. It is a hard pill to swallow.

    If I felt like you do that all of Judaism is man made social control, I too would be skeptical about those things that just don’t seem fair. But the Jewish people, their Torah, and the Oral law, were not created on the open source project.

    If a man shows up in Canada, can he claim Canadian citizenship? If a baby is born to Canadian parents in the USA, does the child need to convert to being Canadian? Every society in the world maintains the right and obligation to determine who belongs. Is this immoral? Is it immoral to have to take an oath of citizenship in the USA and Canada? You’re indignant that traditional Jews maintain a system, passed down from the Torah, on how to organize membership (and membership is determined by having a Jewish soul). What if someone says that I want to be Norwegian, but you know, only on my terms. Can they still get citizenship? You know, I want so bad to be English, but I think that queen should pack it up and move to Hollywood – will they cut it in the UK? The officials appointed to conduct citizenship exams are trained to gauge the sincerity of the individual. If they pass, the person takes an oath, and viola, they become an American, a Brit, a Spaniard, a Dane…

    Citizenship determines so much, so of course, they want to regulate it. Do they do a good job? A bad job? That is immaterial. They have a job and do it.

    In your universe, the individual is almighty, a king, and decides which country she should belong too. Life is just not like that.

    Our Nation’s “citizenship” has a prerequisite, determined not by allegiance to borders, but by allegiance to God and the Torah. After that, their journey into the mikvah is a transformation that is metaphysical.

  • PS. Ethiopian Jewry separated from the rest of the Jewish world so long ago, that they didn’t have the Talmud bavli. Without this, and the subsequent codes, and their adherence, they were not following Jewish law for nearly two thousand years. As a way of re-uniting them with rest of the Jewish world, they underwent simple conversions. This was done in order that there should be no borders between Jews, no Jewish caste system, and that Ethiopian Jews would be able to marry amongst the rest of the Jews in Israel. Reform authorities insisted on creating and maintain a caste system by which they knew and determined that the children would no long er be acceptable to traditional Jewry. I believe that was an attempt to sabotage the future of the Jewish people which didn’t work. It backfired, and they came to the realization that the mikvah was essential to being Jewish. However the damage was done.

  • PPS
    Reform definitions of who is a Jew are NOT inclusive. Inclusivity is an attituted, not a number. They rejected the rest of Jewry for following superstition. They opposed Zionism and erased all mention of Zion from their prayers. They threw out the Torah, the Talmud, and everything else…how is that inclusive? Halacha maintains that no matter how far a person has gone away from Jewish practice, they are still Jewish, But not the Reform! They maintain a conversion system for a Jew that does not follow their nominal laws and traditions. What is inclusive and what is exclusive? The Reform if anything are exclusive of anyone not thinking the way they do, whereas the Orthodox do not not revoke a person’s Jewishness based on practice or belief, so long as they were born a Jew (or accepted the Torah through conversion).

  • And lastly,
    In the USA there is a system of accreditation for medical colleges. T_M may argue that this system is exclusive as it I does not recognize many non-traditional educational institutions.
    Let me restate your earlier point: ‘The point is that it is unconscionable to reject doctors on the basis of the stream to which they belong. Doctors are doctors and their goodness and their Hippocratic faith and love for medicine do not have to be like yours. There are many ways to be a doctor, and medicine has a way of evolving, particularly when they are man-made traditions. Don’t let that get in the way of what could be a great doctor because THAT IS a sin.’

    But I am sure that when you are sick, you pray that the doctor who comes to help and heal you has a degree from a school that is credited, and not a self-appointed quack.

  • Rabbi Yonah, I don’t have the time to respond today (have to make a living and all that). I’ll try to respond another day. Shabbat shalom.

  • About reform/conservative lack of influence in Israel. I’ll liken it to warfare; you can’t conquer territory with missiles. You will always need troops on the ground.

    Given that, and short disclaimer that I’m ‘orthodox’, I challenge those millions of frustrated reforms and conservative Jews in America to make aliyah and try to really make a change instead of just whining about it or ignoring it.

  • I am a Conservative Jew who made aliyah from America in 1988. I ‘m sure I don’t agree with Josh about everything, but I do agree that living here is making a change (and whining too…it’s the national sport, y’know!)

    As far as the Israel marriage debate, check out the following Jerusalem Post article from November 30, 2004 (it may require a subscription, but it’s free)

  • It’s much easier to live there when your faith isn’t denigrated by the powers that be. Again, this entire post stems from the fact that the Orthodox have the power of the government behind them.

  • T_M,
    Shavua Tov,
    I have faith, that you have faith.
    However, don’t place much faith in mortals, God knows how often they mess up.

  • T_M wrote: this entire post stems from the fact that the Orthodox have the power of the government behind them.

    Again, it’s the nature of democracy – the Orthodox are not the only special interest group that have insinuated themselves into the government and arguably they don’t benefit any more than anyone else.

  • Rabbi Yonah,

    I have had time to consider your previous posts. I think they are well thought out and point up a divide between us that cannot easily be bridged.

    Perhaps it’s because I’ve known rabbis who are not of the Orthodox movement on a personal level, and know what their beliefs were, how devout they were, the goodness of their heart, and their efforts on behalf of the Jewish people. To hear you say that they do not have a commitment to Judaism is sad. It’s also completely incorrect. Perhaps they do not have a commitment to certain interpretations that dominate the various Orthodox landscapes, but their commitment to Judaism is total and absolute. I say that without any hesitation or equivocation.

    I do agree with your comments about citizenship and joining a nation. However, once again we are at an impasse because the gates to that nation in Israel are controlled by the Orthodox. If the Conservative or Reform movements were allowed to participate on an equal footing, then many people in Israel would feel as if they belong to this nation whereas right now they feel cut off – even if they’re Jewish by birth. Moreover, many devout Jews who nonetheless do not subscribe to the notion that the Torah is written by god, would also be able to participate in Jewish life and as part of the Jewish nation. In other words, your analogy only works because your stream is the gatekeeper.

    As for the Ehtiopian Jews, I believe you are turning things on their head. Reform and Conservative Jews were willing to accept these ancient Jews back into the fold without any demands. Orthodox Jews demanded they convert. Thus, it were they who were creating a caste system. Why would there be any difficulty in a Jew marrying an Ethiopian Jew? They are both Jewish. They are both born to Jewish mothers. You yourself wrote earlier that on that basis alone, if they were to come to Israel or to you, you’d give them instant aliyahs. That is far from what happened. You have to hedge by talking about the Talmud Bavli. However, the Talmud Bavli was written by men, not by god. Even within the Land of Israel, there were many who didn’t follow that Talmud. So those millenia-old customs which the Ehtiopians didn’t practice had nothing to do with the Torah’s laws, and everything to do with men’s interpretations of the Torah. Thus, one group of Jews is saying to another, “We are superior to you, and you must adapt to become true Jews like us.” This is not goodness of heart, Rabbi. In my humble opinion, this is chutzpah.

    I actually agree with your attacks on the Reform movement. I believe they had made tremendous mistakes over many decades. However, they have made strong efforts to incorporate Israel into their liturgy, their movement, their educational system, etc. I notice you don’t mention the Conservative movement, and I’m glad you don’t because they do not have a history of similar failures.

    As for your comment about exclusivity and inclusiveness, I’m afraid that I disagree again, although the manner in which you pose your point scares me enough to know never to challenge you to a talmudic debate. You claim that numbers are not the issue with inclusiveness, but rather it is attitude that counts. First of all, you completely ignore Conservative Judaism in your comments, which is unfortunate. Second, Reform Jews do not reject the Torah at all. They do, however, view it as a historical document rather than a god-given one. You say they reject the “superstition” of the Orthodox, but I don’t think that this is true. They go to synagogue and pray to god just as you do. That alone suggests a belief in the supernatural and in a Jewish god. However, they refuse to accept that the Torah is more than a book written by men.

    Surely you agree that to believe that the Torah is god-given or not is a point of faith, not an idea proven by any available facts. And yet, they respect the Torah as the basis for their faith and practice. Also, most Reform Jews are born to Jewish mothers, which qualifies them as Jews although you wouldn’t know it listening to many Orthodox. In fact, they are now being blamed by the Orthodox movements for the destruction of Judaism, as if the enlightenment, the advent of science, the openness of societies that had been closed to Jews before WWII, an all-pervasive media, a Shoah that sowed serious doubts in the existence of god, religion-hating Marxism and Communism in the USSR, etc., etc., have nothing to do with the breakdown of Jewish life as we know it. Ah yes, it’s all the fault of the Reform Jews.

    Finally, in post 69, I would say that my point still stands. I don’t subscribe to the notion that there is a parallel between doctors and Jews or doctors and rabbis. We are talking about faith and practice of traditions here, not specialties and not of science.

    Please do not take anything I’ve written in a harsh way, because I do not intend it to be harsh.

  • Jonathan – was it an issue? Did the administration at Concordia ask if you were T_M? Should we expect similar messages from users known as “Taliban Momma” or “Texas Man” etc.?

  • Maybe the administration at Concordia read my responses to Sam and John Brown and decided I was a menace.

  • Shalom all… I just went through a bout of discipline and read the entire blog from 1-81. So I’m an official blogger now? This seems to be like a place that would let me under their wing immediately.

    OK, I’ll tell you a bit about myself as I have already learned much about you by just reading 80 very interesting posts. CK, you remind of my friend Nir, an American Jew, Iraqi parents, but you are a bit smarter (or perhaps less lazy) than he is. You have some of that same Israeli Mizrachi skepticism and stubbornity (made up word), yet that awesome Jewish traditionalism. TM, you remind me of my friend Aron in your seering analytical skills, conservative views (not a negative characeristic in the least), and sensitive heart. Everyone else, you are just as charming and I will enjoy talking to you all and saving some of your posts. Asparagirl, my ex-roommate, Cliff, a Jew and a Levi (although completely secular and infatuated by his computer) will enjoy reading your computer analogy, although if it DOES move him spiritually, I probably won’t have a clue.

    A tad about me. I was born in Israel in a relatively unknown city named Tzfat! This was just an accident though, if you believe in them, but it turns that it was the Hasgachah of the Creator (in my book). My parents lived in Kibbutz Kfar Blum, a secular kibbutz up north by the Syrian border, but I was born in Tzfat at the Rivka Ziv hospital, for reasons that I do not really know. So I guess that makes me a kibbutznik with a tad of mysticism in his blood.
    When I was five, we moved further south because my parents got sick of being bombed by Ketyushot (missiles) and we “settled” in Yavne, and then later in Rechovot, visiting Ashkelon many times because my grandma and grandpa lived there. I remember Ashkelon better than any of the other places. My sister was born in Rechovot five years after I was and we then moved to Arizona.
    My dad is an Ashkenazi American, 3rd generation American Jew I believe, his great grandparents came here off the boat I believe. Turns out that they were Orthodox Jews, before it was considered Orthodox, but my grandparents and their three children were basically traditional yet unaffiliated.
    My mom was born in Israel, both of her parents are from Libya (Tripoli and Benghazi, the Jewish cities of Libya) and moved to Israel some time right before its coming-into-being as the State. They were also not specifically observant, traditional I would say, but Orthodoxy soon became the normative Jewishness (thank G-d) in Israel. As a result, Mizrachiness, but specifically Libyanite Jewry was my first inculculation into the world of Judaism, which is why I was delighted to hear people speaking about shakshuka, which as far as I know is specifically a Libyan dish. This could be my “Libyan pride” speaking. You can take the Jew out of Libya, but, OK, yah, you can definitely take the Libya out of the Jew, I don’t garner a specific sense of pride for having Libyan ancestry. I would like to go there one day though.
    As for me, I have been to Israel many times, but two years ago I went on Birthright, had an experience at the Kotel, and five months later “officially” became the first ba’al tshuva of this generation in my family. I would love to get involved in some of these conversations that ya’ll were having. Until then, good night, gut nacht (?), buenas noches, sabaH il’heer, and layla tov.

  • You can take the Jew out of Libya, but, OK, yah, you can definitely take the Libya out of the Jew

    BWHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

    Welcome aboard and nice introduction. There is lots more to read on our site so visit some more posts and comments and feel free to add your own.

  • oops, my bad.

    T_M = The Middle (now I know)

    Somebody has gone to various jewish websites and posted a lot of crap, either using my name or nickname. I have been very politically outspoken in the past, and seem to have made some enemies.

    Shalom everybody.

  • I want to leave a quote from one of the greatest rabbinical scholars the 21rst century has ever seen.. -Rodney Kingsteinbloomenfeld, “can’t ve all just along? OY!”

  • I personally think the reform movement conversions are too stringent as they are. The jews should adopt Elvis style chapels to make it easy for everyone who wants to be a jew or have right of return. Elvis believed he was a jew or from the lost tribes so there you have it – Elvis is alive and dishing out conversion cerificates at the Las Vegas Synagogue Chapel.

    Essentially to say that the whole notion of orthodoxy (or the religion in general) should succumb to any movements based on their popularity in another country is absurd. No one says non observant jews do not have right of return or are considered less jewish by Israel, but when it comes to certain fundamental practices, it has to be done right. The way someone like, oh say, that stuffy old jewish guru of years gone by, Rashi might say it has to be done. Oh right, I’m sorry, someone should have told Rashi or Maimonides to get with the times. Its not chic in the new millenium to approach conversion to a new religion with respect and reverance.

    Who the hell wants to be a jew anyways!! You have to have something wrong with you!!

    Iggy Pop lives and breathes in the hearts of all men.

  • well, i’ve followed this discussion closely and found it to be both fascinating and disturbing at times. I will try and partake in the discussion and wish to share this article with you for the sake of diversifiying the debate. My quickie 2 cents for now would be that Judaism within the Sephardi and Mizrahi traditions(sephardi and mizrahi aren’t the same) has never experienced the severe schisms that took place among European Jewry that resulted in definitions like orthodox, conservtive, reform, reconstructionist…etc etc Its not uncommon to find within Mizrahi communities and families varying degrees of Jewish observance without that entailing a conflict of terms, tags and identifications of ‘orthodox’, ‘conservative’ and so on. These divisions have largely been a historical process within European Jewry and though one today can find many Sephardis or Mizrahis adopting such modes of classification, they are by and large a relatively new and foreign phenomenon. My own family which hails from North Sudan, has quite an eclectic history. Part Turkish from Crete Island, part Hungarian, part Sudanese, raised in a moderate quite secular Muslim environment and with Jewish roots. As someone who identifies strongly with Jewish beliefs and specifically with the largely underrepresented Middle-Eastern Jewish tradtions, beliefs, culture and practices, i feel that we could all benefit from paying a little more attention to the various and diverse strands of Judaism that have existed in the past and continue to exist today (though with diminshed influence and vibrancy) and their approaches to living Jewishly, which are valid as any.

    A Jewish Voice Left Silent: Trying to Articulate “The Levantine Option”
    By David Shasha

    A Jewish Voice Left Silent: Trying to Articulate “The Levantine Option”

    The Jewish state of Israel is composed of Sephardim, Jews who emanate from Arab-Islamic lands, and Ashkenazim, Jews who hail from Christian Europe. These groups have developed historically within different cultural milieu and have traditionally espoused divergent worldviews. Occidental Jews have taken on many of the traits of Western culture, while the Oriental Jews, many of whom continued to speak Arabic and partake of a common Middle Eastern culture until the mass dispersions of Jews from Arab countries after 1948, have preserved many of the folkways and traits of Arab civilization.

    Though all of us are deeply aware of the calamitous ethno-cultural situation in Israel – exacerbated by the demographic preponderance and social repression of its Sephardic Jewish population, who when coupled with the native Arab population would form a clear majority of indigenous Middle Easterners as against indigenous Europeans – we can also see that the Sephardic presence in America is just as complicated a factor in contemporary Jewish life.

    Sephardim once wrote the first page in American Jewish history even as they have now seemed to be written out of that very history.

    In 1654 the first Jews who stepped on the shores of this country were Sephardic while the first Synagogues of Colonial America, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island and Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam, were also founded by Sephardim. Perhaps the most outstanding rabbinic figure that ministered in the early days of the United States was the now-forgotten Sabato Morais of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. Morais brilliantly exemplified the Levantine Religious Humanism of the Sephardim whose rich legacy was subsequently occluded by the emergence of an Ashkenazi immigrant majority which brought many of its own internal schisms to the United States; schisms that have haunted Jews and the Jewish faith to this very day.

    The Religious Humanism of the Sephardic Jews preserved the parochial Jewish legal and literary traditions under the rubric of a much wider sense of universal ethics and morality. These two components – particularistic religion and universal humanism – often seen by religious people as contradicting one another, were soldered together along the lines of the Maimonidean paradigm which had been a crucial part of the harmonious development of religious scholasticism in the heart of Middle Ages.

    But because of the stigma against all things Arab propounded by classical Zionism and Ashkenazi modernism under a Eurocentric bias, the Sephardim have become an invisible presence in modern Jewish life. Many Arab Jews have surrendered their native Levantine perspective in favor of the ruling ideology in Israel; some Israeli Sephardim in frustration have divorced themselves from the mainstream of the traditional Jewish community; and still others have submerged their ethnic rage in a thunderous barbarity vis-à-vis the Arab Muslims.

    And in America the situation is worse: Sephardim have almost completely disappeared as a cultural entity on the Jewish stage. Many Sephardim now almost completely identify with the Ashkenazi mentalities of a malignant Jewish exclusivity and have harbored a passionate ethnocentric identification with the state of Israel; a state which has, ironically, been less than generous with its Sephardic population.

    The issue of anti-Arab prejudice among Israeli and American Sephardim has made many observers question the very propriety of even raising the issue of the Levantine nativity of Arab Jews; many of whom have become among the most militant followers of the Likud and other Right Wing parties in Israel. The movement of Jews out of the Arab world and into the orbit of the Jewish state has greatly disrupted the traditional ethos and bearings of Arab Jewry. This has translated not merely into Sephardic political intransigency, but a complete abandonment of the traditional Sephardic cultural and religious legacy.

    But we can indeed recall a time when Jews lived productively in the Middle East and developed a material and intellectual culture that proved amazingly durable and robust. This culture, what I have called “The Levantine Option,” if adopted as a discursive model in the current dialogue, could speak in a sophisticated and humane manner to many of the underlying civilizational and ideological barriers that frame the culture of brutality permeating the region and in the complex web of factors that haunts the development of a positive Jewish self-affirmation in Western culture.

    Keeping in mind the lamentable erosion of Sephardic cultural history since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, “The Levantine Option” might be identified as a radically new perspective based on a very old way of seeing things.

    Sephardim have for many centuries practiced a form of Judaism that has sought a creative engagement with its outside environment. In the Middle East this meant an acculturation to the Arabic model as articulated in the first centuries of Islam. Prominent Sephardic rabbis, such as Moses Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra, acculturated to the Greco-Arabic paradigm, disdaining clericalism while espousing humanism and science, composed seminal works on Jewish thought and practice. Sephardic rabbis were not merely religious functionaries; they were poets, philosophers, astronomers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, linguists, merchants, architects, civic leaders and much else. Samuel the Nagid, the famous polymath of Granada, even led troops into battle in the 11th century to fight off the Christians.

    Traditional Sephardic Judaism provided for a more tolerant and open-minded variant of Jewish existence than an Ashkenazi counterpart continually living in a world apart, utterly disconnected from European civil society. The Hatam Sofer, one of the most prominent Ashkenazi rabbis of the 19th century, boldly reformulated the Talmudic slogan for modern Orthodox Ashkenazi thinking: “He-hadash asur min ha-Tora” – “The Torah prohibits the new.”

    Religious humanism was endemic to the Sephardic cultural tradition. When the Enlightenment came in the 18th century the Sephardim were able to make a seamless transition to the new culture (the Sephardic chief rabbi of London David Nieto was the first Jew to examine the scientific works of Isaac Newton while Isaac Abendana taught Newton Hebrew at Cambridge University) while European Judaism was torn by deep internal schisms, many of which continue to play out in the modern Jewish community through movements such as Zionism and Orthodoxy – each practicing a form of cultural exclusion that is predicated upon a narrow interpretation of the Jewish tradition.

    While Ashkenazi Jews in the modern period broke off into bitter and acrimonious factions, Sephardim preserved their unity as a community rather than let doctrine asphyxiate them. A Jewish Reformation never took place in the Sephardic world because the Sephardim continued to maintain their fidelity to their traditions while absorbing and adapting the ideas and trends of the world they lived in. We can point to the rabbinical figures of Sabato Morais and Elijah Benamozegh, two Sephardim born in Italy, who typified the Sephardic ability to construct a Jewish culture that preserved the parochial standards of Jewish tradition while espousing the science and humanism wrought by the massive changes of the 19th century.

    Until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 Arab Jews created a place for themselves in their countries of origin by serving in government, civic affairs, business, and the professions: James Sanua, an Egyptian Jew who wrote for the theater and press, was at the forefront of the nascent Egyptian nationalist movement at the turn of the 20th century. The last chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire and then of Egypt (who died in Cairo in 1960), Haim Nahum Effendi, was elected as a member to the Egyptian Senate and was a founder of the Arabic Language Academy. By request from the Egyptian civil authorities Rabbi Mas’ud Hai Ben Shim’on composed a voluminous three volume compendia of Jewish legal practice written in precise classical Arabic, Kitab al-Ahkam ash-Shariyyah fi-l-Ahwal ash-Shaksiyyah li-l-Isra’ilyyin, which served as a primary source for Egyptian Muslim lawyers dealing with Jewish cases. Elijah Benamozegh of Livorno composed his seminal work Israel and Humanity in the spirit of the 19th century European modernism as a work that promoted the universal religious values of Noahism; a faith that could unite all humanity under a single compassionate framework.

    In spite of the long record of accomplishment in the Sephardi world, the Levantine Option has resolutely not become a central factor in the larger context of contemporary Jewish civilization.

    The suppression of Levantine Humanism as a political paradigm is asserted most emphatically in Bernard Lewis’s recent best-seller What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, where Professor Lewis makes a telling statement in his interpretation of the East/West ethno-cultural impasse. Professor Lewis, in a manner that reaffirms his infamous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, maintains that the primal battle between Judaism and Islam is also reflected in miniature by the cultural split between Ashkenazim and Sephardim:

    The conflict, coexistence, or combination of these two traditions [i.e. the Judeo-Christian and the Judeo-Islamic] within a single small state, with a shared religion and a common citizenship and allegiance, should prove illuminating. For Israel, this issue may have an existential significance, since the survival of the state, surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned by neighbors who reject its very right to exist, may depend on its largely Western-derived qualitative edge.

    It is Lewis’ belief, as it was for David Ben-Gurion and the Zionist founding fathers decades earlier, that Oriental culture would ultimately drag Israel down into the horrifying abyss of an “unnatural” Levantinism. Israel, according to this logic, must become a representative outpost of Western civilization in a brutal and barbaric region of culturally inferior Arabs.

    Arriving in the state of Israel from the Arab world in the 1940’s and 50’s, Sephardim underwent a forced process of de-Arabization, losing their native tongue, Arabic, which ultimately led to a complete abandonment of the deep ties they once had with the rich civilization of the Middle East. This cultural de-Arabization has left the Sephardim in Israel bereft of their own nativity and led to massive social and economic inequalities that have not been fully redressed by successive Israeli governments.

    The forceful opposition between East and West promoted by Lewis and his Orientalist cohorts, a permanent feature of the discourse on the conflict as reproduced by the Western media, is a dangerous mechanism that has occluded the voice of Jews whose culture and native standing once maintained a crucial connection to the organic world of the Middle East. The silencing or marginalizing of the Arab Jewish voice has had a profoundly deleterious affect on the rhetorical process that has been a salient feature of the conflict.

    What if the future of the Middle East, contrary to Lewis and his partisans, lay in the amicable interaction of the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in a symbiotic formation that lays out the commonalities in culture and politics rather than the deep-seated differences that are rooted in the Ashkenazi experience?

    If such a symbiosis were desirable, the cultural memory of Moorish Spain (Hebrew, Sepharad, Arabic, al-Andalus) where the three religions were able to coexist and produce a civilization of great worth, would take prominence. The Sephardic voice would be central in articulating what in Spanish was termed Convivencia, the creative cultural dynamic that fired medieval Spanish civilization, until its untimely destruction in 1492, but which continued through the glorious epoch of Ottoman civilization, until its degeneration in the 19th century.

    The Sephardic voice could unfold the delicate strands of the Levantine memory and construct a cultural model that would be more appropriate to the current situation than the spurious binarism promoted by the concept of Israel as an outpost of Western civilization.

    The model of Levantine Jewish historical memory would serve to collapse the alienating cult of persecution harbored in classical Zionist thought and omnipresent in the rituals of the state of Israel, replacing it with a more positive view of the past that would lead us into a more optimistic present. The nihilistic “realism” of the current Israeli approach filtered through the rigid orthodoxies of American Jewish institutional discourse, centered on the institutionalized perpetuation of the twin legacies of the Holocaust and European anti-Semitism, would then be countered by memories of a Jewish past that was able to develop a life-affirming and constructive relationship with its surrounding environment.

    Current models of the conflict and ways to resolve it, from the Left as well as the Right, ignore the very valuable fact of the centuries of Jewish nativity in the Middle East. We see Right Wing settlers imposing a romantic version of Jewish history on the conflict that has precious little to do with the organic realities of those who have lived in the region over those many centuries. And Left Wing groups, such as Peace Now, promote a resolution from within the same Western mindset and construct ineffective “peace” programs that have historically done very little to engender a stable set of relationships between Jews and Arabs.

    Both positions, firmly rooted in Ashkenazi Jewish culture, have failed because they have not seriously engaged the traditional ethos of the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the region; they have merely adopted Western models of conflict resolution, violent and non-violent, arrogantly assuming that Jews are culturally different from Arabs. “The Levantine Option,” if adopted, would become a means to create a shared cultural space for Jews and Arabs rather than the establishment of walls and barriers that are endemic to these Ashkenazi approaches.

    And current Jewish institutional discourse has completely shut out this deeply resonant Levantine voice.

    Quite often, I find myself becoming ever more angry and despondent over what I see as the lack of Sephardi participation in the ongoing dialogue within the Jewish community; a dialogue which may more accurately be identified as an Ashkenazi-only discussion. I have seen many Sephardim, having lost their ability to articulate their views in a free and open manner, make due with affiliating with one or another Ashkenazi groups – and this can be from the Left or the Right, Religious or Secular.

    But in my own life I have resisted and rejected any notion of affiliation with the current centers of Jewish power – all of which are Ashkenazi.

    For some, my constant barrage of criticism of Ashkenazim is a bit too much to swallow. They criticize me on a regular basis, telling me that if only I worded my essays differently or simply laid off the issue of attacking Ashkenazim and Ashkenazi interests that I would be far better off.

    The problem with this attitude is that there have been many before me who have traveled that road and who have ended up becoming mere functionaries for a Jewish world that simply ignores the very presence of Sephardim. Such an eliding of Sephardi realities, past and present, has been mitigated by the proposition that this has been a mere oversight rather than something malicious.

    I have not been convinced that Ashkenazi writers, activists and scholars can be deemed completely innocent in this regard.

    The few Ashkenazi scholars who work on Sephardic issues have understood this point very well. They do their work humbly and without much fanfare, yet they too understand that there is a matrix which devalues and militates against the promotion of Sephardic culture and tradition. These scholars have not only not ignored Sephardic culture, but have seen the salient and relevant aspects in this culture and have applied their research findings to some of the most contentious issues of the day.

    Judaism has for many centuries been suffused with the schism between the two traditions – the European and the Middle Eastern. Sephardi sages and writers were responsible for the lion’s share of Jewish intellectual attainment and developed a scientific and rationalist culture that was famously rejected by their Ashkenazi brethren. Sephardic writers were the ones who originally furnished the Jewish world with a classic and brilliant literature that has now been occluded by an Ashkenazi hegemony that has narrowed its perspective in an overzealous manner and cannot see beyond its own parochialism.

    Scholars would do well to investigate the rich and variegated literature of Sephardic culture; in the case of Feminism, inter-ethnic tolerance and other issues of great import to the progressive Jewish community it may be seen that the Sephardim have critical rabbinical sources – unknown to all but a very select few – that are far more expansive than those of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy.

    But sadly, Jewish progressives, even when presented with this material, tend to continue on their own Ashkenazi trajectory as that is the standard operating language of the institutional world in which they work and live.

    While Sephardic music and food are seen as quaintly exotic, the ideas and texts of the Sephardi tradition are quaintly yet resoundingly ignored.

    Internal to the Jewish organizations there is a publicly unspoken yet privately understood belief that Sephardim are less capable and not as intelligent as Ashkenazim. This is not merely sour grapes; it is the most logical reason which might account for the exclusion of Sephardic issues from the mainstream of Jewish discourse.

    There is thus a logical conundrum that a Sephardi such as me faces: become an Ashkenazi or get out of the Jewish world.

    But I think that we would all agree that the job of the writer is to speak out and communicate to others, in a sincere and thoughtful fashion, what is in his heart and mind. And this is most certainly not an easy thing for an independent scholar to do – especially when one lacks the institutional affiliation that affords a regular salary, staff support, collegial interaction as well as the ability to apply for grants and scholarly stipends.

    In essence, my personal life – the part of my life that is hidden by the work that I do as a scholar and activist – has been deeply intertwined with the issues of process and institutional affiliation that I am discussing. In addition, the very manner in which I approach the work that is produced by the institutional Jewish world is grounded within my perspective as a Jewish professional struggling to survive.

    This perspective has led me to critically assess the functioning of the world around me and develop linguistic conventions and rhetorical stances that are frequently inflammatory.

    It would seem that Jewish progressives are happy to promote the views of non-Jewish radicals but not Jewish radicals who would force them to examine their own relationship to what might well be their own ethnocentrism and prejudice.

    Jews as a group seem to support affirmative action for minorities, yet they do not look into the way their own community is structured to see whether or not there is inclusion and pluralism – for other Jews – in their own institutions. And while ignorance is a possible excuse, my own personal experience in seeking institutional positions and funding is that there is an endemic and brutal racism that exists in the Ashkenazi community that can only be appropriately countered through the harsh tonality of my own arguments.

    The basic idea I am operating with is to expose this racism for what it is and to have others outside the Jewish community see that there are double standards operating within the Jewish community itself that make it perfectly clear that what is happening in Israel and all over the world with regard to Jewish self-perception does not lack context. I sometimes ask myself: “If this is how Jews treat each other, is it any wonder that this is how they would treat non-Jews?”

    From the New York Times to Tikkun Magazine to the Forward to well-known institutional magnates in the Jewish world and their many representatives and the vast army of professionals that are affiliated with this hermetically-sealed Jewish world, there is a vast Sephardi-phobia that is encased within an Ashkenazi-centrism.

    I understand that what I am saying will continue to be anathema to those who I am accusing of persecuting my own community, but such is the way of activism. My own purpose is to break down the walls of racism in the Jewish community and to expose the hypocrisies that have led the Jewish community to remain incapable of self-criticism and self-analysis.

    Indeed, the most urgent problem that now faces the Jewish community at present does not come from the outside – it is the very internal fascistic mechanisms that have served to sever the Sephardic Jews from being involved in the process of articulating their own voice within the larger framework of Jewish discourse.

    The silencing of the Sephardic voice, internally by the self-censoring mechanisms imposed by Zionism (and all-too-willingly adopted by Arab Jews themselves) as well as by the cultural blindness and insensitivity of the Western media, makes little sense at the present moment. We should be seeking new and more creative ways to identify what has gone wrong in our world rather than continuing to insist on the same conceptual mindset that has led us to recycle the same options. We hear a constant stream of repetitive rhetoric that has done little to break the impasse that enslaves Jews and Gentiles to lives of mutual incomprehension and a seemingly endless reserve of ethnic hatred.

    Until we develop ways to talk to one another in a substantial and civilized way – from within a shared cultural space that exists for those of us (becoming fewer and fewer) who still espouse “The Levantine Option” – the questions surrounding Israel and Palestine, as well as the endemic violence that is a malignant cancer in the region, will continue to haunt Jews, Arabs and the rest of the world. The promotion of such a discourse is not merely a romantic exercise in nostalgia; it is perhaps the most progressive and civilized option that we now have to bring a rational order to what appears to be an utterly intractable inter-cultural dialogue.

    David Shasha
    Center for Sephardic Heritage
    Brooklyn, New York

    Appendix

    Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, (Oxford University Press, 2002), page 155

    …Inevitably the Jews who created Israel brought with them many of the political and societal standards and values, the habits and attitudes of the countries from which they came: on the one hand, what we have become accustomed to call the Judaeo-Christian tradition, on the other, what we may with equal justification call the Judaeo-Islamic tradition.

    In present-day Israel these two traditions meet and, with increasing frequency, collide. Their collisions are variously expressed, in communal, religious, ethnic, even party-political terms. But in many of their encounters what we see is a clash between Christendom and Islam, oddly represented by their former Jewish minorities, who reflect, as it were in miniature, both the strengths and the weaknesses of the two civilizations of which they had been part. The conflict, coexistence, or combination of these two traditions within a single small state, with a shared religion and a common citizenship and allegiance, should prove illuminating. For Israel, this issue may have an existential significance, since the survival of the state, surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned by neighbors who reject its very right to exist, may depend on its largely Western-derived qualitative edge…

    Books to Help You Learn More about “The Levantine Option”

    Elijah Benamozegh, Israel and Humanity (Paulist Press, 1995)

    Benamozegh, whose family originated in Morocco but who lived his life as a rabbi in Italy, was a towering figure who composed works on Kabbalah, comparative religion as well as a massive Bible commentary. But it is this work, an opus that was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1900, which stands as the chef d’oeuvre of his distinguished canon. Israel and Humanity, written before the author’s death but not published until 1914 (originally in French by his Gentile/Noahide disciple, Aime Palliere) is a work that is marked by its universalism (expressed by Benamozegh’s avowal of a Biblical religion called “Noahism” which is the universal component of Judaism) and by its humane attitude toward the marriage of religion and science. Benamozegh was a true Levantine, a Jewish Sage who was equally at home discussing passages of the Talmud, Darwin, Renan, Mill, Plotinus and the Qur’an. With all of the schisms that have torn Judaism asunder in modern times, this book is perhaps the last document of a truly Levantine faith which is elevated by its focus on Man and Reason while never sacrificing the rigors of a traditional Jewish praxis and spirituality.

    Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (University of Washington, 1982)

    The finest study ever published on the relationship between Jewish history and memory. Contains a good deal of material on Sephardic historiography.

    José Faur, Golden Doves With Silver Dots: Semiotics and Textuality in Rabbinic Tradition (University of Indiana, 1986)
    José Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity (SUNY, 1992)

    Seminal works which examine Sephardic Rabbinical tradition and the role of Sephardim in the creation of modernity. Golden Doves displays great literary sense of the venerable Sephardic culture and creates a vital model of understanding that has yet to be integrated into a modern humanistic Judaism. In the Shadow of History promotes the thesis that the disintegration of Jewish life in Spain led to the culture of modern Humanism. Links thinkers in the Jewish/Converso tradition to the Renaissance. Both books are unequaled that emphasize the Sephardic origins of modernity.

    Norman Stillman, Sephardi Religious Responses to Modernity (Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995)

    With the seminal work of Zvi Zohar left untranslated, this slim volume covers a bit of ground in trying to lay out Sephardic Rabbinical thinking in the realm of Halakhah, Jewish law. While Stillman has proven himself to be utterly insensitive and somewhat inept in dealing with Sephardic culture and history in his other writings this book is an adequate appraisal of its subject.

    George Foot Moore, Judaism: The Age of the Tannaim (Harvard University, 1927, Reprint, Hendrickson, 1997)

    The greatest book ever written on the Rabbinical tradition, still at the very epicenter of Sephardic life. A synthesis of old-school historical scholarship (jargon-free and objective) with a profound love of Rabbinic learning. Moore, a non-Jew, is perhaps the most vociferous partisan of the Sages in modern times. There is no better place to begin Talmudic study than here.

    Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Schocken, 1946)

    The best single volume survey of Kabbalah by the dean of all Judaica scholars. There is no other work that can equal its scope – historically or methodologically. All Scholem’s work in translation is essential, particularly his Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah and Origins of the Kabbalah.

    James Kugel, The Bible As It Was (Harvard University Press, 1997)

    Epic revisionary reading of the Bible, out of the eyes of its Rabbinical interpreters. Kugel is a Sephardic scholar who has made the mass of Bible interpretation known as Midrash accessible to a new generation of readers. In this cycle of studies of the tales of the book of Genesis he masterfully reconstructs a shared Levantine cultural tradition that has seen itself wounded in our own times.

    Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Harvard University, 1991)

    Epic, authoritative one-volume history of Arab civilization and history. Less dense than Marshall Hodgson’s equally definitive The Venture of Islam, Hourani’s opus, published to unanimous acclaim and commercial success during the Gulf War, is rich in detail and generous in scope.

    Edward Said, Orientalism (Random House, 1978)
    Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (Knopf, 1993)

    Groundbreaking volumes that expose the “Orientalist” stance taken by European scholars and historians during the colonial period. Essential in trying to understand how the Europeans have created a certain stereotype of the Arab and how that stereotype has affected so-called “objective” studies of Oriental civilization. In his follow-up to Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, Said discusses works of both Eastern as well as Western writers and how they impact on the Imperialist project. Two books which have redrawn the map of Middle Eastern studies.

    Nissim Rejwan, Israel’s Place in the Middle East (University Press of Florida, 1998)
    Nissim Rejwan, The Last Jews in Baghdad (University of Texas Press, 2004)

    Upon its first publication in 1998 I thought Rejwan’s study of Arabs and Jews to be a beautifully written work that lacked a certain gravitas. A few years later, after writing and lecturing extensively on the subject of Arab culture and its relation to Anti-Semitism, I now find the book to be the most outstanding example of a sanely humane approach to the current acrimony that permeates discussion of the conflict. The recent publication of Rejwan’s memoirs provides a more complex view of Arab Jewish history and is one of the rare glimpses into what is now a lost world.

    Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (Beacon, 1965)
    Albert Memmi, Pillar of Salt (Beacon, 1955)

    The Colonizer and the Colonized is Memmi’s still-relevant study of colonialism. Though outstripped by Frantz Fanon, it still is a classic of its kind. New edition (1991) contains a valuable introduction by Susan Gilson Miller, a top scholar in this emerging field of post-colonial studies. Pillar of Salt is Memmi’s memoir-novel of a young Jew growing up in the inferno of the colonial Tunisia. Though in certain ways it is beholden to the “French is better” Francophone mentality, it is a pure reflection of a seminal period in Sephardic history.

    Aron Rodrigue, French Jews, Turkish Jews: The Alliance Israelite Universelle and the Politics of Jewish Schooling in Turkey 1860-1925 (Indiana University, 1990)
    Aron Rodrigue, editor, Images of Sephardi and Eastern Jews in Transition: The Teachers of AIU, 1860-1939 (University of Washington, 1993)

    French Jews is perhaps the most important book written on the AIU by a scholar who possesses all the methodological tools to assess its influence. Its companion book of documents Images of Sephardi and Eastern Jews in Transition is a compendium of the most important sources that we have on Jewish education in the Middle East during the late 19th century.

    Esther Benbassa ed., Haim Nahum: A Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Politics, 1892-1923 (University of Alabama, 1995)

    Compilation of letters from the last Hakham Bashi of the Ottoman Empire. Besides being a committed anti-Zionist modern Jew, Nahum displays the breadth of culture of the Arab Jew. A portrait of the last true leader of the Sephardic Jews in the 20th century.

    Joelle Bahloul, The Architecture of Memory: A Jewish-Muslim Household in Algeria 1937-1962 (Cambridge University Press, 1996)

    Mighty portrait of Jewish life in Algeria by a sociologist who is sensitive to the nuances of the culture of the Levant. It serves as a history of a lost community as well as a memorial to a way of life that struck deep roots among Jews and Arabs until the outbreak of destruction that has now becoming endemic to the region.

    Joel Beinin, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry (University of California Press, 1998)

    Deeply significant work which reviews the history of Egyptian Jewry in the 20th century, from the decolonizing period until the dismaying exile of the late 1950’s. Beinin is conversant with modern Egyptian culture and history and provides the reader with a sensitive portrayal of the most vibrant Levantine Jewish culture in the region and its untimely demise.

    Ammiel Alcalay, After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture (University of Minnesota, 1993)
    Ammiel Alcalay, editor, Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing (City Lights, 1996).

    After Jews and Arabs is a brilliant synthesis of Faur and Said that has become the definitive work on modern Sephardic culture. Makes the case that Jewish and Arabic cultures are thoroughly intertwined. This is simply the most vital work written on Judaism in the past century. Keys to the Garden continues to be the only anthology of modern writing by Sephardim in Israel that maps out a voice for the voiceless.

    Victor Perera, The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey (Knopf, 1995)

    A memoir by a gifted Sephardi journalist that is perhaps the most accessible and lucid introduction to Sephardic culture we currently have. Criss-crosses a family memoir with historical ruminations. Elegantly written for the popular reader, it gets the point across in high style.

    Lucien Gubbay, Sunlight and Shadow: The Jewish Experience of Islam (Other Press, 2001)

    Another wonderful volume for the general reader, Gubbay reconstructs Levantine Jewish history through the prism of its Islamic context. The book serves to dispel many misconceptions and myths about Jewish life in the Islamic world. Quite a readable volume.
    Haim Beinart ed., The Sephardi Legacy (Magnes Press, Two Volumes, 1992)

    Published to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Spanish Expulsion, this work collects essays on all aspects of Sephardic history and culture and is the ideal introduction. No work is as thorough.

    Salma Khadra Jayyusi ed., The Legacy of Muslim Spain (E.J. Brill, 1992)

    As above, the most complete source of information on a vital subject for our history. Essays on every conceivable aspect of Muslim Spain. Vital and dense.

    Ross Brann, The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain (Johns Hopkins, 1991)

    One of the rare monographs on Jewish literary culture in Spain, this is a masterwork of interpreting the poetic traditions of Al Andalus. Brann is an expert of medieval Sephardic poetry and masterfully places that literature into its proper historical and cultural context.

    Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World (Little, Brown, 2002)

    Menocal’s first book The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History made the claim that Europe derived its literary and philosophical culture from the Arabs. That book was a groundbreaking work that forced Hispanists to look more carefully at the arguments of Americo Castro who refused to divorce Spanish culture from its Moorish origins. Her more recent book presents the Spanish concept of convivencia, the interrelation of the Christianity, Judaism and Islam, in a highly readable and spirited format that is the perfect introduction to the rich culture of Medieval Spain.

    Arthur Kiron, Golden Ages, Promised Lands: The Victorian Rabbinic Humanism of Sabato Morais (Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1999)

    The most striking book ever written about the Sephardic experience in America. Kiron has composed a masterful biography of the most important rabbi who ever ministered in this country. Morais is presented as the seminal figure in the development of a Humanist Judaism that would have become, if adopted as the central religious philosophy of American Judaism, a beacon of hope in the regeneration of Jewish culture on these shores. That the brilliant legacy of Morais has been lost to us is even more reason to seek out this dissertation. [Copies can be ordered from UMI Dissertation Services in Ann Arbor.]

    Janet Abu Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (Oxford University, 1989)

    From a systematic study of the world economy in the late Middle Ages, this work proclaims the interconnectedness of the East and West. Adds a good deal of information to the manner in which the world system functioned prior to the Industrial Age.

    S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza (University of California, 5 Volumes and Index, 1967-1994)

    As magisterial and exacting as scholarship gets, Goitein reconstructs the world of the Arab Jewish communities of the Levant with painstaking accuracy and erudite brilliance. Their world has never been, and will never be, as fully illuminated. One of the greatest feats of scholarship in this, or any other, century.

    Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (Harper and Row, 1972)

    The seminal study of the Mediterranean by a master. Every bit as dense as Goitein, Braudel’s work is its fitting companion. No scholarship can be done in this period without these two works.

    Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (New Directions, 1964)

    Borges, according to José Faur, is the last great converso writer. His work, published in essay and short story form, is perhaps the oddest literary creation among the great moderns. The texts of Labyrinths are elliptical, dream-like and poetic meditations on knowledge and memory. Borges, like Kafka, is such a unique writer that his style is known as a variant of his own name (Borgesian). Once you’ve read Borges you’ll understand.

    Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions (Wesleyan University, 7 Volumes, 1976-1984)

    Jabès, a French poet of Egyptian origin, writes mystical aphorisms that are linked by the use of imaginary Rabbis as leitmotivs. His work is deeply tied to the Jewish literary tradition as well as the French Surrealistic tradition. Jabès is a Jewish writer of rare urgency and his work reads like a liturgy for our (fallen) times. A continuation of the Book of Questions was written called The Book of Resemblances and there is a very important book of dialogue with Marcel Cohen called From the Desert to the Book (Station Hill, 1990) that condenses much of Jabès’ poetics within its historical and literary framework. Jabès is a Jewish writer unlike any other Jewish writer known in the West.

    Yitzhaq Shami, Hebron Stories (Labyrinthos Press, 2000)

    Shami, perhaps the last authentic Levantine writer among Jews of the Middle East, is the missing link between the Genizah of Goitein and the Cairo of Mahfouz. In his short stories and novellae he explores the everyday lives of simple Levantines, Jews and Arabs, that bespeak simplicity and a deeply abiding understanding of the rootedness of both peoples in the region.

    Elias Canetti, Auto-Da-Fe (Continuum, 1982)

    Brilliant modernist novel written in German by a Bulgarian Sephardic Jew. The subject of the novel is the disintegration of a great intellectual mind. Canetti, like Borges, makes knowledge and culture the very substance of his prose. The great chain of culture begun in Spain flows from the pens of these writers who hearken back to a different time and place and level a ringing critique of modernity.

    Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy (Doubleday, 3 Volumes, 1990-1992)

    The masterpiece of modern Arab letters, the Trilogy is a work of epic proportion that has but little company in the West. The story of a bourgeois Arab family from World War I until the Revolution, the Trilogy richly details a world that is of vital significance. A few sentences could not do justice to it. In addition, the world of Mahfouz’ writings is quite vast. Other important works are Midaq Alley, The Harafish and Fountain and Tomb among many, many others.

    Ronit Matalon, The One Facing Us (Metropolitan Books, 1998)

    A maverick Israeli novel on the subject of Levantine Jewry in the modern age. A story about an Egyptian family that moves to sub-Saharan Africa for business reasons, this book encapsulates the deep emotions and resonates with the feelings of Levantine Jews in the 20th century. Framing her understanding with the philosophy of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, a “lost” Levantine author resurrected in the work of Ammiel Alcalay, Matalon defines an oppositional model to the Eurocentric culture of modern Israel.

    Karen Armstrong, A History of God (Random House, 1993)

    The first book written on theology from a post-colonial perspective. This means that the Arab and Jewish God(s) are given ample space next to Christianity. This book is the most brilliant work of religious scholarship after nearly 300 years of partisan bickering. Armstrong has emerged as the great religious historian of our time, on a par with George Foot Moore. Her other works on Jerusalem and the Crusades are just as impeccable.

    Adonis, An Introduction to Arab Poetics (University of Texas, 1990)

    A writer who has redefined the very essence of Arab civilization by attempting to re-read it in a rather stringent manner, Adonis (Ali Ahmed Sa’id) is the Gershom Scholem of Arab letters. In a world of zealots and suicide-bombers, Adonis has written poetry narrating the destruction of his society and scholarship that has sought to bring it back. He is that rare breed of artist: The writer/poet/scholar. His model is the medieval cleric but his ethic is passionate skeptic. There is perhaps no writer or scholar that is as impassioned a partisan of his heritage than Adonis. He is a literary master of rare skill and insight.

    Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Let Jasmine Rain Down: Song and Remembrance Among Syrian Jews (University of Chicago, 1998)

    A loving and richly sketched portrait of the living tradition of songcraft and culture of the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn. The work is framed by the multiple voices of the members of the community who recount stories and history that have been eroding over the past number of decades. A deeply resonant model of Levantine culture that carefully details the relevance of the past to the present.

    Moses Angel, Three Texts on Religious Humanism, taken from his book The Law of Sinai and its Appointed Times (London, 1858)

    Statement on Tradition

    Blessed are they who can look back, and thereby learn how they should go forward. Blessed are they whose parentage knows no higher duty than to hand down what it received; who can point to the deeds of their fathers as the basis on which they have founded their own honor for their children. Theirs is the true immortality, which outlives all the more glittering show of lighter flame. As the earth absorbs heat from the sun and radiates it on all created things, so virtue receives vitality from ancestors, and transmits it to descendants.

    Commentary to Persahat Beshallah, Exodus 13:17 (Law of Sinai, pp. 121-122)

    Our ancestors, frequently as they murmured, often as they tempted Providence, were at least worthy of imitation in their manner of receiving these commandments. Satisfied with the infallible wisdom from which the laws were to emanate, conscious of the all-seeing eye which not only beheld the very thoughts of living men, but reviewed the imaginations of all coming ages, reliant on the mercy which through creation had done so much for mankind and through redemption so much for them, the Israelites were content beforehand to give their implicit faith to the Divine mandates. “We will do; we will understand,” was their expression to Moses; it was approved by God, and it was a lesson too salutary not to be followed. Because, as we have before observed, blind obedience is generally the result of early teaching or of ignorant imitativeness; it may arise from faith, but it is faith of so undignified a character that it scarcely rises above superstition. On the other hand, the faith which is based on reason, acquires all the majesty of self-sacrifice and all the beauty of devotion; it is unshakable because it is not capricious, it is unerring because it is founded on principle. True, faith, as our ancestors taught us, must precede reason, but also true that reason must follow faith. Faith without reason is like those golden fruits which are tempting to the eye but rotten at the core. Reason without faith would resemble that motion into eternal space which depended on projection without attraction; it would be aimless and endless. Reason and faith conjoined form that lovely combination which resembles the pure mind in the pure body; the inner life is as unsullied as the outward frame is consistent with harmony.

    Commentary to Perashat Emor, Leviticus 21 (Law of Sinai, pp. 208-209)

    Beautiful dispensation of Heaven! “How manifold are thy works, O Lord, all of them in wisdom hast thou made”; but none of thy works is so comprehensively good as that all-serving revelation which thou gavest to man from Sinai. The animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds supply his wants of food and of clothing, they contribute to his necessities, and pamper him with luxuries. The higher world of science gratifies the loftier cravings of the mind; it forms the reason and strengthens the intellect. But the Sinaitic code surpasses all these; it nourishes the moral faculties, it sustains the soul, and it teaches man the true way to enjoy benefits derived from other sources, by turning his course heavenward. Let the sensual abandon themselves to enervating and perishable pleasures; they will live without credit to themselves, without profit to their fellow-creatures. Let rationalists dream away existence in vain theories and perplexing speculations; they will live without satisfaction, because they aim at something unknown to themselves, and they will die, to be despised, because at the last moment they but too often confess the inanity of their career. The religionist alone is happy; he alone is blessed himself and, by his teaching and example, blesses others. Not he who gives up his body to forms, and neglects principles; not he who knows of no excellence but his own, and is intolerant of the opinions of others; not he who observes precepts because his father observed them, without striving to become impressed with their saving excellence; not he who converts faith into an idol, and dresses it in a livery entirely the creation of selfishness, ignorance, bigotry, or priestcraft; but he who sees in religion only the connecting chain between one all-merciful God, and the millions of his failing children; who is happy in having one link of that chain extended to him, and gladly sees his fellow-creatures of all climes and all colours, holding on by other links; who walks the earth, having charity and love in his heart, and with his eyes turned heavenward – but in his heart there is shrined the image of human kind, and on his retina is imprinted its miniature; who aspires to imitate the ineffable goodness of the Eternal by cherishing all created things; who regards this life as a preparation for a future state, and, therefore, so numbers his days, that he brings his soul to wisdom; who has ever before him the behest addressed to the patriarch, “Walk before me and be perfect”; the rescript addressed to Israel, “And ye shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy people.”

    Commentary to Perashat Va-Ethanan, Deuteronomy 3:23 (Law of Sinai, pp. 288-289)

    Then, charity, which in the doctrine of abstract faith, means love for universal mankind, shall cease to be what concrete religion made it, love only for self and self’s imitators. Then, man shall acknowledge that true God-worship consists not in observance of any particular customs, but in the humble, zealous cultivation of those qualities by which the Eternal has made himself known to the world. The members of one creed shall not arrogate to themselves peculiar morality and peculiar salvation, denying both to the members of other creeds; but they shall learn that morality and salvation are the cause and effect of all earnest endeavors to rise to the knowledge of revelation. Men shall cease to attempt the substitution of one set of forms for another set of forms; they shall satisfy themselves with being honest and dignified exponents of their own mode of belief, and shall not seek to coerce what heaven has left unfettered – the rights of conscience. They shall strive to remove all obstacles to the spread of God-worship, by showing how superior the happiness, the intellectuality, the virtue of its professors; but they shall stop there, not even for the sake of securing their object preferring their own faith for that of another. This was the original combination under which Christianity was called into existence; this was the power which enabled it to survive the shock which had destroyed all else, and to this must it return before its mission can be perfectly accomplished. What the teachings of Sinai were to the children of Abraham, the teachings of the other mount were to be to the rest of the world; one was not to supersede the other, but to render it accessible.

  • ok not sure if my response was posted but here it is again

    well, i’ve followed this discussion closely and found it to be both fascinating and disturbing at times. I will try and partake in the discussion and wish to share this article with you for the sake of diversifiying the debate. My quickie 2 cents for now would be that Judaism within the Sephardi and Mizrahi traditions(sephardi and mizrahi aren’t the same) has never experienced the severe schisms that took place among European Jewry that resulted in definitions like orthodox, conservtive, reform, reconstructionist…etc etc Its not uncommon to find within Mizrahi communities and families varying degrees of Jewish observance without that entailing a conflict of terms, tags and identifications of ‘orthodox’, ‘conservative’ and so on. These divisions have largely been a historical process within European Jewry and though one today can find many Sephardis or Mizrahis adopting such modes of classification, they are by and large a relatively new and foreign phenomenon. My own family which hails from North Sudan, has quite an eclectic history. Part Turkish from Crete Island, part Hungarian, part Sudanese, raised in a moderate quite secular Muslim environment and with Jewish roots. As someone who identifies strongly with Jewish beliefs and specifically with the largely underrepresented Middle-Eastern Jewish tradtions, beliefs, culture and practices, i feel that we could all benefit from paying a little more attention to the various and diverse strands of Judaism that have existed in the past and continue to exist today (though with diminshed influence and vibrancy) and their approaches to living Jewishly, which are valid as any.

    A Jewish Voice Left Silent: Trying to Articulate “The Levantine Option”
    By David Shasha

    A Jewish Voice Left Silent: Trying to Articulate “The Levantine Option”

    The Jewish state of Israel is composed of Sephardim, Jews who emanate from Arab-Islamic lands, and Ashkenazim, Jews who hail from Christian Europe. These groups have developed historically within different cultural milieu and have traditionally espoused divergent worldviews. Occidental Jews have taken on many of the traits of Western culture, while the Oriental Jews, many of whom continued to speak Arabic and partake of a common Middle Eastern culture until the mass dispersions of Jews from Arab countries after 1948, have preserved many of the folkways and traits of Arab civilization.

    Though all of us are deeply aware of the calamitous ethno-cultural situation in Israel – exacerbated by the demographic preponderance and social repression of its Sephardic Jewish population, who when coupled with the native Arab population would form a clear majority of indigenous Middle Easterners as against indigenous Europeans – we can also see that the Sephardic presence in America is just as complicated a factor in contemporary Jewish life.

    Sephardim once wrote the first page in American Jewish history even as they have now seemed to be written out of that very history.

    In 1654 the first Jews who stepped on the shores of this country were Sephardic while the first Synagogues of Colonial America, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island and Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam, were also founded by Sephardim. Perhaps the most outstanding rabbinic figure that ministered in the early days of the United States was the now-forgotten Sabato Morais of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. Morais brilliantly exemplified the Levantine Religious Humanism of the Sephardim whose rich legacy was subsequently occluded by the emergence of an Ashkenazi immigrant majority which brought many of its own internal schisms to the United States; schisms that have haunted Jews and the Jewish faith to this very day.

    The Religious Humanism of the Sephardic Jews preserved the parochial Jewish legal and literary traditions under the rubric of a much wider sense of universal ethics and morality. These two components – particularistic religion and universal humanism – often seen by religious people as contradicting one another, were soldered together along the lines of the Maimonidean paradigm which had been a crucial part of the harmonious development of religious scholasticism in the heart of Middle Ages.

    But because of the stigma against all things Arab propounded by classical Zionism and Ashkenazi modernism under a Eurocentric bias, the Sephardim have become an invisible presence in modern Jewish life. Many Arab Jews have surrendered their native Levantine perspective in favor of the ruling ideology in Israel; some Israeli Sephardim in frustration have divorced themselves from the mainstream of the traditional Jewish community; and still others have submerged their ethnic rage in a thunderous barbarity vis-à-vis the Arab Muslims.

    And in America the situation is worse: Sephardim have almost completely disappeared as a cultural entity on the Jewish stage. Many Sephardim now almost completely identify with the Ashkenazi mentalities of a malignant Jewish exclusivity and have harbored a passionate ethnocentric identification with the state of Israel; a state which has, ironically, been less than generous with its Sephardic population.

    The issue of anti-Arab prejudice among Israeli and American Sephardim has made many observers question the very propriety of even raising the issue of the Levantine nativity of Arab Jews; many of whom have become among the most militant followers of the Likud and other Right Wing parties in Israel. The movement of Jews out of the Arab world and into the orbit of the Jewish state has greatly disrupted the traditional ethos and bearings of Arab Jewry. This has translated not merely into Sephardic political intransigency, but a complete abandonment of the traditional Sephardic cultural and religious legacy.

    But we can indeed recall a time when Jews lived productively in the Middle East and developed a material and intellectual culture that proved amazingly durable and robust. This culture, what I have called “The Levantine Option,” if adopted as a discursive model in the current dialogue, could speak in a sophisticated and humane manner to many of the underlying civilizational and ideological barriers that frame the culture of brutality permeating the region and in the complex web of factors that haunts the development of a positive Jewish self-affirmation in Western culture.

    Keeping in mind the lamentable erosion of Sephardic cultural history since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, “The Levantine Option” might be identified as a radically new perspective based on a very old way of seeing things.

    Sephardim have for many centuries practiced a form of Judaism that has sought a creative engagement with its outside environment. In the Middle East this meant an acculturation to the Arabic model as articulated in the first centuries of Islam. Prominent Sephardic rabbis, such as Moses Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra, acculturated to the Greco-Arabic paradigm, disdaining clericalism while espousing humanism and science, composed seminal works on Jewish thought and practice. Sephardic rabbis were not merely religious functionaries; they were poets, philosophers, astronomers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, linguists, merchants, architects, civic leaders and much else. Samuel the Nagid, the famous polymath of Granada, even led troops into battle in the 11th century to fight off the Christians.

    Traditional Sephardic Judaism provided for a more tolerant and open-minded variant of Jewish existence than an Ashkenazi counterpart continually living in a world apart, utterly disconnected from European civil society. The Hatam Sofer, one of the most prominent Ashkenazi rabbis of the 19th century, boldly reformulated the Talmudic slogan for modern Orthodox Ashkenazi thinking: “He-hadash asur min ha-Tora” – “The Torah prohibits the new.”

    Religious humanism was endemic to the Sephardic cultural tradition. When the Enlightenment came in the 18th century the Sephardim were able to make a seamless transition to the new culture (the Sephardic chief rabbi of London David Nieto was the first Jew to examine the scientific works of Isaac Newton while Isaac Abendana taught Newton Hebrew at Cambridge University) while European Judaism was torn by deep internal schisms, many of which continue to play out in the modern Jewish community through movements such as Zionism and Orthodoxy – each practicing a form of cultural exclusion that is predicated upon a narrow interpretation of the Jewish tradition.

    While Ashkenazi Jews in the modern period broke off into bitter and acrimonious factions, Sephardim preserved their unity as a community rather than let doctrine asphyxiate them. A Jewish Reformation never took place in the Sephardic world because the Sephardim continued to maintain their fidelity to their traditions while absorbing and adapting the ideas and trends of the world they lived in. We can point to the rabbinical figures of Sabato Morais and Elijah Benamozegh, two Sephardim born in Italy, who typified the Sephardic ability to construct a Jewish culture that preserved the parochial standards of Jewish tradition while espousing the science and humanism wrought by the massive changes of the 19th century.

    Until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 Arab Jews created a place for themselves in their countries of origin by serving in government, civic affairs, business, and the professions: James Sanua, an Egyptian Jew who wrote for the theater and press, was at the forefront of the nascent Egyptian nationalist movement at the turn of the 20th century. The last chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire and then of Egypt (who died in Cairo in 1960), Haim Nahum Effendi, was elected as a member to the Egyptian Senate and was a founder of the Arabic Language Academy. By request from the Egyptian civil authorities Rabbi Mas’ud Hai Ben Shim’on composed a voluminous three volume compendia of Jewish legal practice written in precise classical Arabic, Kitab al-Ahkam ash-Shariyyah fi-l-Ahwal ash-Shaksiyyah li-l-Isra’ilyyin, which served as a primary source for Egyptian Muslim lawyers dealing with Jewish cases. Elijah Benamozegh of Livorno composed his seminal work Israel and Humanity in the spirit of the 19th century European modernism as a work that promoted the universal religious values of Noahism; a faith that could unite all humanity under a single compassionate framework.

    In spite of the long record of accomplishment in the Sephardi world, the Levantine Option has resolutely not become a central factor in the larger context of contemporary Jewish civilization.

    The suppression of Levantine Humanism as a political paradigm is asserted most emphatically in Bernard Lewis’s recent best-seller What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, where Professor Lewis makes a telling statement in his interpretation of the East/West ethno-cultural impasse. Professor Lewis, in a manner that reaffirms his infamous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, maintains that the primal battle between Judaism and Islam is also reflected in miniature by the cultural split between Ashkenazim and Sephardim:

    The conflict, coexistence, or combination of these two traditions [i.e. the Judeo-Christian and the Judeo-Islamic] within a single small state, with a shared religion and a common citizenship and allegiance, should prove illuminating. For Israel, this issue may have an existential significance, since the survival of the state, surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned by neighbors who reject its very right to exist, may depend on its largely Western-derived qualitative edge.

    It is Lewis’ belief, as it was for David Ben-Gurion and the Zionist founding fathers decades earlier, that Oriental culture would ultimately drag Israel down into the horrifying abyss of an “unnatural” Levantinism. Israel, according to this logic, must become a representative outpost of Western civilization in a brutal and barbaric region of culturally inferior Arabs.

    Arriving in the state of Israel from the Arab world in the 1940’s and 50’s, Sephardim underwent a forced process of de-Arabization, losing their native tongue, Arabic, which ultimately led to a complete abandonment of the deep ties they once had with the rich civilization of the Middle East. This cultural de-Arabization has left the Sephardim in Israel bereft of their own nativity and led to massive social and economic inequalities that have not been fully redressed by successive Israeli governments.

    The forceful opposition between East and West promoted by Lewis and his Orientalist cohorts, a permanent feature of the discourse on the conflict as reproduced by the Western media, is a dangerous mechanism that has occluded the voice of Jews whose culture and native standing once maintained a crucial connection to the organic world of the Middle East. The silencing or marginalizing of the Arab Jewish voice has had a profoundly deleterious affect on the rhetorical process that has been a salient feature of the conflict.

    What if the future of the Middle East, contrary to Lewis and his partisans, lay in the amicable interaction of the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in a symbiotic formation that lays out the commonalities in culture and politics rather than the deep-seated differences that are rooted in the Ashkenazi experience?

    If such a symbiosis were desirable, the cultural memory of Moorish Spain (Hebrew, Sepharad, Arabic, al-Andalus) where the three religions were able to coexist and produce a civilization of great worth, would take prominence. The Sephardic voice would be central in articulating what in Spanish was termed Convivencia, the creative cultural dynamic that fired medieval Spanish civilization, until its untimely destruction in 1492, but which continued through the glorious epoch of Ottoman civilization, until its degeneration in the 19th century.

    The Sephardic voice could unfold the delicate strands of the Levantine memory and construct a cultural model that would be more appropriate to the current situation than the spurious binarism promoted by the concept of Israel as an outpost of Western civilization.

    The model of Levantine Jewish historical memory would serve to collapse the alienating cult of persecution harbored in classical Zionist thought and omnipresent in the rituals of the state of Israel, replacing it with a more positive view of the past that would lead us into a more optimistic present. The nihilistic “realism” of the current Israeli approach filtered through the rigid orthodoxies of American Jewish institutional discourse, centered on the institutionalized perpetuation of the twin legacies of the Holocaust and European anti-Semitism, would then be countered by memories of a Jewish past that was able to develop a life-affirming and constructive relationship with its surrounding environment.

    Current models of the conflict and ways to resolve it, from the Left as well as the Right, ignore the very valuable fact of the centuries of Jewish nativity in the Middle East. We see Right Wing settlers imposing a romantic version of Jewish history on the conflict that has precious little to do with the organic realities of those who have lived in the region over those many centuries. And Left Wing groups, such as Peace Now, promote a resolution from within the same Western mindset and construct ineffective “peace” programs that have historically done very little to engender a stable set of relationships between Jews and Arabs.

    Both positions, firmly rooted in Ashkenazi Jewish culture, have failed because they have not seriously engaged the traditional ethos of the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the region; they have merely adopted Western models of conflict resolution, violent and non-violent, arrogantly assuming that Jews are culturally different from Arabs. “The Levantine Option,” if adopted, would become a means to create a shared cultural space for Jews and Arabs rather than the establishment of walls and barriers that are endemic to these Ashkenazi approaches.

    And current Jewish institutional discourse has completely shut out this deeply resonant Levantine voice.

    Quite often, I find myself becoming ever more angry and despondent over what I see as the lack of Sephardi participation in the ongoing dialogue within the Jewish community; a dialogue which may more accurately be identified as an Ashkenazi-only discussion. I have seen many Sephardim, having lost their ability to articulate their views in a free and open manner, make due with affiliating with one or another Ashkenazi groups – and this can be from the Left or the Right, Religious or Secular.

    But in my own life I have resisted and rejected any notion of affiliation with the current centers of Jewish power – all of which are Ashkenazi.

    For some, my constant barrage of criticism of Ashkenazim is a bit too much to swallow. They criticize me on a regular basis, telling me that if only I worded my essays differently or simply laid off the issue of attacking Ashkenazim and Ashkenazi interests that I would be far better off.

    The problem with this attitude is that there have been many before me who have traveled that road and who have ended up becoming mere functionaries for a Jewish world that simply ignores the very presence of Sephardim. Such an eliding of Sephardi realities, past and present, has been mitigated by the proposition that this has been a mere oversight rather than something malicious.

    I have not been convinced that Ashkenazi writers, activists and scholars can be deemed completely innocent in this regard.

    The few Ashkenazi scholars who work on Sephardic issues have understood this point very well. They do their work humbly and without much fanfare, yet they too understand that there is a matrix which devalues and militates against the promotion of Sephardic culture and tradition. These scholars have not only not ignored Sephardic culture, but have seen the salient and relevant aspects in this culture and have applied their research findings to some of the most contentious issues of the day.

    Judaism has for many centuries been suffused with the schism between the two traditions – the European and the Middle Eastern. Sephardi sages and writers were responsible for the lion’s share of Jewish intellectual attainment and developed a scientific and rationalist culture that was famously rejected by their Ashkenazi brethren. Sephardic writers were the ones who originally furnished the Jewish world with a classic and brilliant literature that has now been occluded by an Ashkenazi hegemony that has narrowed its perspective in an overzealous manner and cannot see beyond its own parochialism.

    Scholars would do well to investigate the rich and variegated literature of Sephardic culture; in the case of Feminism, inter-ethnic tolerance and other issues of great import to the progressive Jewish community it may be seen that the Sephardim have critical rabbinical sources – unknown to all but a very select few – that are far more expansive than those of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy.

    But sadly, Jewish progressives, even when presented with this material, tend to continue on their own Ashkenazi trajectory as that is the standard operating language of the institutional world in which they work and live.

    While Sephardic music and food are seen as quaintly exotic, the ideas and texts of the Sephardi tradition are quaintly yet resoundingly ignored.

    Internal to the Jewish organizations there is a publicly unspoken yet privately understood belief that Sephardim are less capable and not as intelligent as Ashkenazim. This is not merely sour grapes; it is the most logical reason which might account for the exclusion of Sephardic issues from the mainstream of Jewish discourse.

    There is thus a logical conundrum that a Sephardi such as me faces: become an Ashkenazi or get out of the Jewish world.

    But I think that we would all agree that the job of the writer is to speak out and communicate to others, in a sincere and thoughtful fashion, what is in his heart and mind. And this is most certainly not an easy thing for an independent scholar to do – especially when one lacks the institutional affiliation that affords a regular salary, staff support, collegial interaction as well as the ability to apply for grants and scholarly stipends.

    In essence, my personal life – the part of my life that is hidden by the work that I do as a scholar and activist – has been deeply intertwined with the issues of process and institutional affiliation that I am discussing. In addition, the very manner in which I approach the work that is produced by the institutional Jewish world is grounded within my perspective as a Jewish professional struggling to survive.

    This perspective has led me to critically assess the functioning of the world around me and develop linguistic conventions and rhetorical stances that are frequently inflammatory.

    It would seem that Jewish progressives are happy to promote the views of non-Jewish radicals but not Jewish radicals who would force them to examine their own relationship to what might well be their own ethnocentrism and prejudice.

    Jews as a group seem to support affirmative action for minorities, yet they do not look into the way their own community is structured to see whether or not there is inclusion and pluralism – for other Jews – in their own institutions. And while ignorance is a possible excuse, my own personal experience in seeking institutional positions and funding is that there is an endemic and brutal racism that exists in the Ashkenazi community that can only be appropriately countered through the harsh tonality of my own arguments.

    The basic idea I am operating with is to expose this racism for what it is and to have others outside the Jewish community see that there are double standards operating within the Jewish community itself that make it perfectly clear that what is happening in Israel and all over the world with regard to Jewish self-perception does not lack context. I sometimes ask myself: “If this is how Jews treat each other, is it any wonder that this is how they would treat non-Jews?”

    From the New York Times to Tikkun Magazine to the Forward to well-known institutional magnates in the Jewish world and their many representatives and the vast army of professionals that are affiliated with this hermetically-sealed Jewish world, there is a vast Sephardi-phobia that is encased within an Ashkenazi-centrism.

    I understand that what I am saying will continue to be anathema to those who I am accusing of persecuting my own community, but such is the way of activism. My own purpose is to break down the walls of racism in the Jewish community and to expose the hypocrisies that have led the Jewish community to remain incapable of self-criticism and self-analysis.

    Indeed, the most urgent problem that now faces the Jewish community at present does not come from the outside – it is the very internal fascistic mechanisms that have served to sever the Sephardic Jews from being involved in the process of articulating their own voice within the larger framework of Jewish discourse.

    The silencing of the Sephardic voice, internally by the self-censoring mechanisms imposed by Zionism (and all-too-willingly adopted by Arab Jews themselves) as well as by the cultural blindness and insensitivity of the Western media, makes little sense at the present moment. We should be seeking new and more creative ways to identify what has gone wrong in our world rather than continuing to insist on the same conceptual mindset that has led us to recycle the same options. We hear a constant stream of repetitive rhetoric that has done little to break the impasse that enslaves Jews and Gentiles to lives of mutual incomprehension and a seemingly endless reserve of ethnic hatred.

    Until we develop ways to talk to one another in a substantial and civilized way – from within a shared cultural space that exists for those of us (becoming fewer and fewer) who still espouse “The Levantine Option” – the questions surrounding Israel and Palestine, as well as the endemic violence that is a malignant cancer in the region, will continue to haunt Jews, Arabs and the rest of the world. The promotion of such a discourse is not merely a romantic exercise in nostalgia; it is perhaps the most progressive and civilized option that we now have to bring a rational order to what appears to be an utterly intractable inter-cultural dialogue.

    David Shasha
    Center for Sephardic Heritage
    Brooklyn, New York

    Appendix

    Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, (Oxford University Press, 2002), page 155

    …Inevitably the Jews who created Israel brought with them many of the political and societal standards and values, the habits and attitudes of the countries from which they came: on the one hand, what we have become accustomed to call the Judaeo-Christian tradition, on the other, what we may with equal justification call the Judaeo-Islamic tradition.

    In present-day Israel these two traditions meet and, with increasing frequency, collide. Their collisions are variously expressed, in communal, religious, ethnic, even party-political terms. But in many of their encounters what we see is a clash between Christendom and Islam, oddly represented by their former Jewish minorities, who reflect, as it were in miniature, both the strengths and the weaknesses of the two civilizations of which they had been part. The conflict, coexistence, or combination of these two traditions within a single small state, with a shared religion and a common citizenship and allegiance, should prove illuminating. For Israel, this issue may have an existential significance, since the survival of the state, surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned by neighbors who reject its very right to exist, may depend on its largely Western-derived qualitative edge…

    Books to Help You Learn More about “The Levantine Option”

    Elijah Benamozegh, Israel and Humanity (Paulist Press, 1995)

    Benamozegh, whose family originated in Morocco but who lived his life as a rabbi in Italy, was a towering figure who composed works on Kabbalah, comparative religion as well as a massive Bible commentary. But it is this work, an opus that was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1900, which stands as the chef d’oeuvre of his distinguished canon. Israel and Humanity, written before the author’s death but not published until 1914 (originally in French by his Gentile/Noahide disciple, Aime Palliere) is a work that is marked by its universalism (expressed by Benamozegh’s avowal of a Biblical religion called “Noahism” which is the universal component of Judaism) and by its humane attitude toward the marriage of religion and science. Benamozegh was a true Levantine, a Jewish Sage who was equally at home discussing passages of the Talmud, Darwin, Renan, Mill, Plotinus and the Qur’an. With all of the schisms that have torn Judaism asunder in modern times, this book is perhaps the last document of a truly Levantine faith which is elevated by its focus on Man and Reason while never sacrificing the rigors of a traditional Jewish praxis and spirituality.

    Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (University of Washington, 1982)

    The finest study ever published on the relationship between Jewish history and memory. Contains a good deal of material on Sephardic historiography.

    José Faur, Golden Doves With Silver Dots: Semiotics and Textuality in Rabbinic Tradition (University of Indiana, 1986)
    José Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity (SUNY, 1992)

    Seminal works which examine Sephardic Rabbinical tradition and the role of Sephardim in the creation of modernity. Golden Doves displays great literary sense of the venerable Sephardic culture and creates a vital model of understanding that has yet to be integrated into a modern humanistic Judaism. In the Shadow of History promotes the thesis that the disintegration of Jewish life in Spain led to the culture of modern Humanism. Links thinkers in the Jewish/Converso tradition to the Renaissance. Both books are unequaled that emphasize the Sephardic origins of modernity.

    Norman Stillman, Sephardi Religious Responses to Modernity (Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995)

    With the seminal work of Zvi Zohar left untranslated, this slim volume covers a bit of ground in trying to lay out Sephardic Rabbinical thinking in the realm of Halakhah, Jewish law. While Stillman has proven himself to be utterly insensitive and somewhat inept in dealing with Sephardic culture and history in his other writings this book is an adequate appraisal of its subject.

    George Foot Moore, Judaism: The Age of the Tannaim (Harvard University, 1927, Reprint, Hendrickson, 1997)

    The greatest book ever written on the Rabbinical tradition, still at the very epicenter of Sephardic life. A synthesis of old-school historical scholarship (jargon-free and objective) with a profound love of Rabbinic learning. Moore, a non-Jew, is perhaps the most vociferous partisan of the Sages in modern times. There is no better place to begin Talmudic study than here.

    Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Schocken, 1946)

    The best single volume survey of Kabbalah by the dean of all Judaica scholars. There is no other work that can equal its scope – historically or methodologically. All Scholem’s work in translation is essential, particularly his Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah and Origins of the Kabbalah.

    James Kugel, The Bible As It Was (Harvard University Press, 1997)

    Epic revisionary reading of the Bible, out of the eyes of its Rabbinical interpreters. Kugel is a Sephardic scholar who has made the mass of Bible interpretation known as Midrash accessible to a new generation of readers. In this cycle of studies of the tales of the book of Genesis he masterfully reconstructs a shared Levantine cultural tradition that has seen itself wounded in our own times.

    Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Harvard University, 1991)

    Epic, authoritative one-volume history of Arab civilization and history. Less dense than Marshall Hodgson’s equally definitive The Venture of Islam, Hourani’s opus, published to unanimous acclaim and commercial success during the Gulf War, is rich in detail and generous in scope.

    Edward Said, Orientalism (Random House, 1978)
    Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (Knopf, 1993)

    Groundbreaking volumes that expose the “Orientalist” stance taken by European scholars and historians during the colonial period. Essential in trying to understand how the Europeans have created a certain stereotype of the Arab and how that stereotype has affected so-called “objective” studies of Oriental civilization. In his follow-up to Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, Said discusses works of both Eastern as well as Western writers and how they impact on the Imperialist project. Two books which have redrawn the map of Middle Eastern studies.

    Nissim Rejwan, Israel’s Place in the Middle East (University Press of Florida, 1998)
    Nissim Rejwan, The Last Jews in Baghdad (University of Texas Press, 2004)

    Upon its first publication in 1998 I thought Rejwan’s study of Arabs and Jews to be a beautifully written work that lacked a certain gravitas. A few years later, after writing and lecturing extensively on the subject of Arab culture and its relation to Anti-Semitism, I now find the book to be the most outstanding example of a sanely humane approach to the current acrimony that permeates discussion of the conflict. The recent publication of Rejwan’s memoirs provides a more complex view of Arab Jewish history and is one of the rare glimpses into what is now a lost world.

    Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (Beacon, 1965)
    Albert Memmi, Pillar of Salt (Beacon, 1955)

    The Colonizer and the Colonized is Memmi’s still-relevant study of colonialism. Though outstripped by Frantz Fanon, it still is a classic of its kind. New edition (1991) contains a valuable introduction by Susan Gilson Miller, a top scholar in this emerging field of post-colonial studies. Pillar of Salt is Memmi’s memoir-novel of a young Jew growing up in the inferno of the colonial Tunisia. Though in certain ways it is beholden to the “French is better” Francophone mentality, it is a pure reflection of a seminal period in Sephardic history.

    Aron Rodrigue, French Jews, Turkish Jews: The Alliance Israelite Universelle and the Politics of Jewish Schooling in Turkey 1860-1925 (Indiana University, 1990)
    Aron Rodrigue, editor, Images of Sephardi and Eastern Jews in Transition: The Teachers of AIU, 1860-1939 (University of Washington, 1993)

    French Jews is perhaps the most important book written on the AIU by a scholar who possesses all the methodological tools to assess its influence. Its companion book of documents Images of Sephardi and Eastern Jews in Transition is a compendium of the most important sources that we have on Jewish education in the Middle East during the late 19th century.

    Esther Benbassa ed., Haim Nahum: A Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Politics, 1892-1923 (University of Alabama, 1995)

    Compilation of letters from the last Hakham Bashi of the Ottoman Empire. Besides being a committed anti-Zionist modern Jew, Nahum displays the breadth of culture of the Arab Jew. A portrait of the last true leader of the Sephardic Jews in the 20th century.

    Joelle Bahloul, The Architecture of Memory: A Jewish-Muslim Household in Algeria 1937-1962 (Cambridge University Press, 1996)

    Mighty portrait of Jewish life in Algeria by a sociologist who is sensitive to the nuances of the culture of the Levant. It serves as a history of a lost community as well as a memorial to a way of life that struck deep roots among Jews and Arabs until the outbreak of destruction that has now becoming endemic to the region.

    Joel Beinin, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry (University of California Press, 1998)

    Deeply significant work which reviews the history of Egyptian Jewry in the 20th century, from the decolonizing period until the dismaying exile of the late 1950’s. Beinin is conversant with modern Egyptian culture and history and provides the reader with a sensitive portrayal of the most vibrant Levantine Jewish culture in the region and its untimely demise.

    Ammiel Alcalay, After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture (University of Minnesota, 1993)
    Ammiel Alcalay, editor, Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing (City Lights, 1996).

    After Jews and Arabs is a brilliant synthesis of Faur and Said that has become the definitive work on modern Sephardic culture. Makes the case that Jewish and Arabic cultures are thoroughly intertwined. This is simply the most vital work written on Judaism in the past century. Keys to the Garden continues to be the only anthology of modern writing by Sephardim in Israel that maps out a voice for the voiceless.

    Victor Perera, The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey (Knopf, 1995)

    A memoir by a gifted Sephardi journalist that is perhaps the most accessible and lucid introduction to Sephardic culture we currently have. Criss-crosses a family memoir with historical ruminations. Elegantly written for the popular reader, it gets the point across in high style.

    Lucien Gubbay, Sunlight and Shadow: The Jewish Experience of Islam (Other Press, 2001)

    Another wonderful volume for the general reader, Gubbay reconstructs Levantine Jewish history through the prism of its Islamic context. The book serves to dispel many misconceptions and myths about Jewish life in the Islamic world. Quite a readable volume.
    Haim Beinart ed., The Sephardi Legacy (Magnes Press, Two Volumes, 1992)

    Published to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Spanish Expulsion, this work collects essays on all aspects of Sephardic history and culture and is the ideal introduction. No work is as thorough.

    Salma Khadra Jayyusi ed., The Legacy of Muslim Spain (E.J. Brill, 1992)

    As above, the most complete source of information on a vital subject for our history. Essays on every conceivable aspect of Muslim Spain. Vital and dense.

    Ross Brann, The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain (Johns Hopkins, 1991)

    One of the rare monographs on Jewish literary culture in Spain, this is a masterwork of interpreting the poetic traditions of Al Andalus. Brann is an expert of medieval Sephardic poetry and masterfully places that literature into its proper historical and cultural context.

    Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World (Little, Brown, 2002)

    Menocal’s first book The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History made the claim that Europe derived its literary and philosophical culture from the Arabs. That book was a groundbreaking work that forced Hispanists to look more carefully at the arguments of Americo Castro who refused to divorce Spanish culture from its Moorish origins. Her more recent book presents the Spanish concept of convivencia, the interrelation of the Christianity, Judaism and Islam, in a highly readable and spirited format that is the perfect introduction to the rich culture of Medieval Spain.

    Arthur Kiron, Golden Ages, Promised Lands: The Victorian Rabbinic Humanism of Sabato Morais (Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1999)

    The most striking book ever written about the Sephardic experience in America. Kiron has composed a masterful biography of the most important rabbi who ever ministered in this country. Morais is presented as the seminal figure in the development of a Humanist Judaism that would have become, if adopted as the central religious philosophy of American Judaism, a beacon of hope in the regeneration of Jewish culture on these shores. That the brilliant legacy of Morais has been lost to us is even more reason to seek out this dissertation. [Copies can be ordered from UMI Dissertation Services in Ann Arbor.]

    Janet Abu Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (Oxford University, 1989)

    From a systematic study of the world economy in the late Middle Ages, this work proclaims the interconnectedness of the East and West. Adds a good deal of information to the manner in which the world system functioned prior to the Industrial Age.

    S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza (University of California, 5 Volumes and Index, 1967-1994)

    As magisterial and exacting as scholarship gets, Goitein reconstructs the world of the Arab Jewish communities of the Levant with painstaking accuracy and erudite brilliance. Their world has never been, and will never be, as fully illuminated. One of the greatest feats of scholarship in this, or any other, century.

    Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (Harper and Row, 1972)

    The seminal study of the Mediterranean by a master. Every bit as dense as Goitein, Braudel’s work is its fitting companion. No scholarship can be done in this period without these two works.

    Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (New Directions, 1964)

    Borges, according to José Faur, is the last great converso writer. His work, published in essay and short story form, is perhaps the oddest literary creation among the great moderns. The texts of Labyrinths are elliptical, dream-like and poetic meditations on knowledge and memory. Borges, like Kafka, is such a unique writer that his style is known as a variant of his own name (Borgesian). Once you’ve read Borges you’ll understand.

    Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions (Wesleyan University, 7 Volumes, 1976-1984)

    Jabès, a French poet of Egyptian origin, writes mystical aphorisms that are linked by the use of imaginary Rabbis as leitmotivs. His work is deeply tied to the Jewish literary tradition as well as the French Surrealistic tradition. Jabès is a Jewish writer of rare urgency and his work reads like a liturgy for our (fallen) times. A continuation of the Book of Questions was written called The Book of Resemblances and there is a very important book of dialogue with Marcel Cohen called From the Desert to the Book (Station Hill, 1990) that condenses much of Jabès’ poetics within its historical and literary framework. Jabès is a Jewish writer unlike any other Jewish writer known in the West.

    Yitzhaq Shami, Hebron Stories (Labyrinthos Press, 2000)

    Shami, perhaps the last authentic Levantine writer among Jews of the Middle East, is the missing link between the Genizah of Goitein and the Cairo of Mahfouz. In his short stories and novellae he explores the everyday lives of simple Levantines, Jews and Arabs, that bespeak simplicity and a deeply abiding understanding of the rootedness of both peoples in the region.

    Elias Canetti, Auto-Da-Fe (Continuum, 1982)

    Brilliant modernist novel written in German by a Bulgarian Sephardic Jew. The subject of the novel is the disintegration of a great intellectual mind. Canetti, like Borges, makes knowledge and culture the very substance of his prose. The great chain of culture begun in Spain flows from the pens of these writers who hearken back to a different time and place and level a ringing critique of modernity.

    Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy (Doubleday, 3 Volumes, 1990-1992)

    The masterpiece of modern Arab letters, the Trilogy is a work of epic proportion that has but little company in the West. The story of a bourgeois Arab family from World War I until the Revolution, the Trilogy richly details a world that is of vital significance. A few sentences could not do justice to it. In addition, the world of Mahfouz’ writings is quite vast. Other important works are Midaq Alley, The Harafish and Fountain and Tomb among many, many others.

    Ronit Matalon, The One Facing Us (Metropolitan Books, 1998)

    A maverick Israeli novel on the subject of Levantine Jewry in the modern age. A story about an Egyptian family that moves to sub-Saharan Africa for business reasons, this book encapsulates the deep emotions and resonates with the feelings of Levantine Jews in the 20th century. Framing her understanding with the philosophy of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, a “lost” Levantine author resurrected in the work of Ammiel Alcalay, Matalon defines an oppositional model to the Eurocentric culture of modern Israel.

    Karen Armstrong, A History of God (Random House, 1993)

    The first book written on theology from a post-colonial perspective. This means that the Arab and Jewish God(s) are given ample space next to Christianity. This book is the most brilliant work of religious scholarship after nearly 300 years of partisan bickering. Armstrong has emerged as the great religious historian of our time, on a par with George Foot Moore. Her other works on Jerusalem and the Crusades are just as impeccable.

    Adonis, An Introduction to Arab Poetics (University of Texas, 1990)

    A writer who has redefined the very essence of Arab civilization by attempting to re-read it in a rather stringent manner, Adonis (Ali Ahmed Sa’id) is the Gershom Scholem of Arab letters. In a world of zealots and suicide-bombers, Adonis has written poetry narrating the destruction of his society and scholarship that has sought to bring it back. He is that rare breed of artist: The writer/poet/scholar. His model is the medieval cleric but his ethic is passionate skeptic. There is perhaps no writer or scholar that is as impassioned a partisan of his heritage than Adonis. He is a literary master of rare skill and insight.

    Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Let Jasmine Rain Down: Song and Remembrance Among Syrian Jews (University of Chicago, 1998)

    A loving and richly sketched portrait of the living tradition of songcraft and culture of the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn. The work is framed by the multiple voices of the members of the community who recount stories and history that have been eroding over the past number of decades. A deeply resonant model of Levantine culture that carefully details the relevance of the past to the present.

    Moses Angel, Three Texts on Religious Humanism, taken from his book The Law of Sinai and its Appointed Times (London, 1858)

    Statement on Tradition

    Blessed are they who can look back, and thereby learn how they should go forward. Blessed are they whose parentage knows no higher duty than to hand down what it received; who can point to the deeds of their fathers as the basis on which they have founded their own honor for their children. Theirs is the true immortality, which outlives all the more glittering show of lighter flame. As the earth absorbs heat from the sun and radiates it on all created things, so virtue receives vitality from ancestors, and transmits it to descendants.

    Commentary to Persahat Beshallah, Exodus 13:17 (Law of Sinai, pp. 121-122)

    Our ancestors, frequently as they murmured, often as they tempted Providence, were at least worthy of imitation in their manner of receiving these commandments. Satisfied with the infallible wisdom from which the laws were to emanate, conscious of the all-seeing eye which not only beheld the very thoughts of living men, but reviewed the imaginations of all coming ages, reliant on the mercy which through creation had done so much for mankind and through redemption so much for them, the Israelites were content beforehand to give their implicit faith to the Divine mandates. “We will do; we will understand,” was their expression to Moses; it was approved by God, and it was a lesson too salutary not to be followed. Because, as we have before observed, blind obedience is generally the result of early teaching or of ignorant imitativeness; it may arise from faith, but it is faith of so undignified a character that it scarcely rises above superstition. On the other hand, the faith which is based on reason, acquires all the majesty of self-sacrifice and all the beauty of devotion; it is unshakable because it is not capricious, it is unerring because it is founded on principle. True, faith, as our ancestors taught us, must precede reason, but also true that reason must follow faith. Faith without reason is like those golden fruits which are tempting to the eye but rotten at the core. Reason without faith would resemble that motion into eternal space which depended on projection without attraction; it would be aimless and endless. Reason and faith conjoined form that lovely combination which resembles the pure mind in the pure body; the inner life is as unsullied as the outward frame is consistent with harmony.

    Commentary to Perashat Emor, Leviticus 21 (Law of Sinai, pp. 208-209)

    Beautiful dispensation of Heaven! “How manifold are thy works, O Lord, all of them in wisdom hast thou made”; but none of thy works is so comprehensively good as that all-serving revelation which thou gavest to man from Sinai. The animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds supply his wants of food and of clothing, they contribute to his necessities, and pamper him with luxuries. The higher world of science gratifies the loftier cravings of the mind; it forms the reason and strengthens the intellect. But the Sinaitic code surpasses all these; it nourishes the moral faculties, it sustains the soul, and it teaches man the true way to enjoy benefits derived from other sources, by turning his course heavenward. Let the sensual abandon themselves to enervating and perishable pleasures; they will live without credit to themselves, without profit to their fellow-creatures. Let rationalists dream away existence in vain theories and perplexing speculations; they will live without satisfaction, because they aim at something unknown to themselves, and they will die, to be despised, because at the last moment they but too often confess the inanity of their career. The religionist alone is happy; he alone is blessed himself and, by his teaching and example, blesses others. Not he who gives up his body to forms, and neglects principles; not he who knows of no excellence but his own, and is intolerant of the opinions of others; not he who observes precepts because his father observed them, without striving to become impressed with their saving excellence; not he who converts faith into an idol, and dresses it in a livery entirely the creation of selfishness, ignorance, bigotry, or priestcraft; but he who sees in religion only the connecting chain between one all-merciful God, and the millions of his failing children; who is happy in having one link of that chain extended to him, and gladly sees his fellow-creatures of all climes and all colours, holding on by other links; who walks the earth, having charity and love in his heart, and with his eyes turned heavenward – but in his heart there is shrined the image of human kind, and on his retina is imprinted its miniature; who aspires to imitate the ineffable goodness of the Eternal by cherishing all created things; who regards this life as a preparation for a future state, and, therefore, so numbers his days, that he brings his soul to wisdom; who has ever before him the behest addressed to the patriarch, “Walk before me and be perfect”; the rescript addressed to Israel, “And ye shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy people.”

    Commentary to Perashat Va-Ethanan, Deuteronomy 3:23 (Law of Sinai, pp. 288-289)

    Then, charity, which in the doctrine of abstract faith, means love for universal mankind, shall cease to be what concrete religion made it, love only for self and self’s imitators. Then, man shall acknowledge that true God-worship consists not in observance of any particular customs, but in the humble, zealous cultivation of those qualities by which the Eternal has made himself known to the world. The members of one creed shall not arrogate to themselves peculiar morality and peculiar salvation, denying both to the members of other creeds; but they shall learn that morality and salvation are the cause and effect of all earnest endeavors to rise to the knowledge of revelation. Men shall cease to attempt the substitution of one set of forms for another set of forms; they shall satisfy themselves with being honest and dignified exponents of their own mode of belief, and shall not seek to coerce what heaven has left unfettered – the rights of conscience. They shall strive to remove all obstacles to the spread of God-worship, by showing how superior the happiness, the intellectuality, the virtue of its professors; but they shall stop there, not even for the sake of securing their object preferring their own faith for that of another. This was the original combination under which Christianity was called into existence; this was the power which enabled it to survive the shock which had destroyed all else, and to this must it return before its mission can be perfectly accomplished. What the teachings of Sinai were to the children of Abraham, the teachings of the other mount were to be to the rest of the world; one was not to supersede the other, but to render it accessible.

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