Sephardi Judaism Straining to Stay Non-Denominational

Embracing a ‘big tent’ approach to religion, the non-Ashkenazi Diaspora has managed to avoid splitting into Orthodox, Conservative and Reform

The interior of the S&P Bevis Marks Synagogue (photo credit: COURTESY SHIMON COHEN)
The interior of the S&P Bevis Marks Synagogue
On a recent summer’s day, an observant man who routinely worships in a modest Yemenite congregation in Dimona strolled into the chapel of an imposing Sephardi synagogue in upscale Herzliya Pituach. There he joined a dozen waiting men to recite the evening service. Only after a local Chabad rabbi walked in did prayers commence. No one found the courtesy odd. The Sephardi ethos is openness toward the wide spectrum of Jewish experience – from Chabad, the Hasidic movement rooted in Belarus, to the Yemenites, who are neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi. Sephardi Judaism eschews denominationalism.
“We Sephardim have no Reform or Conservative or Orthodox streams. That’s an Ashkenazi development,” a Sephardi hakham who asked that he not be quoted by name tells The Jerusalem Report.
Today’s Sephardim are the descendants of Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula before 1492 when those who would not accept forced conversion to Catholicism were expelled. Some went to Italy; most made their way to the lands controlled by the Ottoman Empire from Salonika (in northern Greece) and Anatolia (today’s Turkey) to the Mideast and North Africa. Subsequent migrations took Sephardim to Holland, Western Europe and the New World. Wars, the Holocaust and the antagonism of Arab and Muslim rulers to the creation of a Jewish state in 1948 caused further dislocations. Oriental communities – the Diasporas of Iraq, Iran and Yemen – which did not originate in Iberia, are commonly classified as Sephardi to distinguish them from Ashkenazim.
Although Sephardi Judaism has no denominations, that doesn’t mean Sephardim are monochromic. How, then, do they deal with the kinds of theological clashes over modernity that, in the past, spurred the creation of different streams among the Ashkenazim?
Take, for example, the tensions exposed in May 2017 when Joseph Dweck, the senior rabbi of the S&P (Spanish and Portuguese) Sephardi Community – which includes Bevis Marks, arguably Britain’s most venerable synagogue – spoke at the Ner Yisrael synagogue in London’s Hendon neighborhood. During his heartfelt, wide-ranging 90-minute talk, he said same-sex attraction should not be seen as remarkable.
“The problem of homosexual union is specifically the act of intercourse – nothing else. I am not saying ‘nothing else’ is permitted,” he averred, but the tenor of the homily was a call for broadmindedness. Dweck seemed to imply that Orthodoxy’s stridently negative attitude toward same-sex love was obsessive.
This story does not begin with Dweck’s lecture on homosexuality, a source familiar with his thinking tells The Report. It began with his vision that a new generation of Sephardi young people need to be offered options beyond reconciling themselves to doing things the musty old way; embracing right-wing Orthodoxy; or abandoning the Sephardi community for alternatives available only in Ashkenazi institutions – or perhaps forfeiting Jewish life altogether. Dweck wants to create choices for Millennials and post-Millennials that employ, for instance, Mizrahi-style pop-up minyans in northwest London to invigorate Sephardi Jewish life.
Dweck had every intention of rattling London’s Sephardi old guard, which he feels has shifted too far in the direction of Haredi insularity, adopting the garb of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox and even their Yiddish expressions – stiebel for beit knesset and gut shabbos for shabbat shalom.
His aim is to construct a forward-looking, halachic, Sephardi alternative. The Hendon talk, however, galvanized his London enemies, who goaded their well-heeled allies in the US to pressure Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, into denouncing Dweck. The ensuing tsunami of criticism forced Dweck to grovel to keep his job.
He issued an abject apology, and the S&P Sephardi Community website posted a backtracking clarification in which Dweck kowtowed. On the matter of whether samesex attraction was something most humans are capable of – as he asserted in the homily – Dweck wrote in his clarification that he regretted his decision not to cite Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), the famed halachic “decisor” who in the mid-1970s declared that “there is no natural desire for homosexual intercourse; any desire for it is merely a deviation from the path of nature onto another path, and even the wrongdoers who do not avoid sin and transgression do not go there, because this evil inclination is motivated only by the fact that it is something forbidden and performed with flagrant intent… But with regard to the sin of homosexual intercourse, the wrongdoer who transgresses it has no argument to make and excuse himself, because the craving for this sin is unnatural… [it is] the greatest and most despicable abomination of all.”
Dweck was anyway compelled to relinquish his supervision of the Sephardi Beth Din (rabbinical court) and agreed to have his homilies on religious law vetted by an ultra-Orthodox oversight committee.
The kerfuffle encapsulates the dilemma: How can Sephardi Judaism, historically known for its halachic tolerance, balance 21st century sensibilities regarding sex and gender with a rabbinate that is seen to be heading in an increasingly more insular ultra- Orthodox direction.
“I think we need to differentiate between the substance of his lecture – which lacked nuance – and the rabbis’ response, which was malicious and downright mean,” says the hakham.
Devin E. Naar, the Isaac Alhadeff Professor in Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington, explains that the absence in Sephardi Judaism of Reform or Conservative- like streams doesn’t mean there are no differences in outlook, ideology and practice among Sephardi rabbis. Naar tells The Report that many hakhamim champion a big-tent approach to Judaism. Thus, while religious practices in a typical Sephardi congregation are traditional, the people who attend them may not consider themselves Orthodox.
“A Sephardi congregation’s parking lot would be more likely to fill up on Shabbat and holidays than an Ashkenazi Orthodox one,” says Naar. Plainly, the vast majority of members of the Ashkenazi congregation walk on Shabbat and holidays, while many members of the Sephardi congregation drive.
Denominationalism may have entered the Sephardi world through a back door.
“This happened once Sephardi synagogues and organizations began identifying as ‘Orthodox.’ The irony is that in the Ashkenazi world, Orthodox [and Conservative] Judaism emerged in response to Reform in the 19th century. Sephardi institutions that have embraced ‘Orthodoxy’ have adopted an Ashkenazi denominational category – without any other movements taking hold,” according to Naar.
A number of Sephardi congregations are affiliated with the (Ashkenazi) Orthodox Union.
Steve Golden, assistant rabbi at the Sephardic Temple of Cedarhurst, New York, puts it this way: Naturally dogmas developed in the Sephardi world, but usually not in reaction to some new idea, as was the case with the birth of Orthodoxy in Europe.
“We Sephardim don’t seem to grow up with denominationalism in our bones. Typically, we are deeply conscious of being Jewish but not of any narrower identity,” he tells The Report.
This sense of being “just” Jewish, along with their unique customs and rituals, may have been shaped by the experiences of ancient Babylonian Jewry – the first Diaspora after the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. Today’s Sephardim comprise 16 percent of the total Jewish population; most (about 1.4 million) live in Israel.
In the Diaspora, there are more than 20 thriving communities with those in France (300,000-400,00) and the US (200,000- 300,000) the biggest, followed by Latin America (approximately 103,000). In Britain, there are about 8,000 Jews of Sephardi heritage among a Jewish population of roughly 250,000; a 2017 study by the London- based Institute for Jewish Policy Research found Sephardi synagogue affiliation was diminishing. Dweck’s flagship Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London’s Maida Vale remains one of several vibrant institutions.
Sephardim maintain distinct sub-identities depending on where their antecedents originated. Though Sephardim of various stripes worship together, someone who traces his lineage to Damascus or Aleppo may hold onto that identity even as they chant their prayers alongside a congregant who might cleave to their Rabat or Baghdad heritage. There is no single authorized Sephardi siddur or prayer book any more than in the Ashkenazi Orthodox world.
A community’s identity tends to hinge on language, culture and religion. Past generations of Sephardim maintained Ladino – Judeo-Spanish – as the language spoken at home, synagogue and in sacred writings; that is seldom the case today. In the Middle East, too, many Sephardim spoke and wrote in what Is now moribund Judeo-Arabic.
The desire to preserve cultural heritage remains strong among many Sephardim – even those whose religious fervor has waned – and this may explain the increasing popularity of Sephardi music from traditional piyyutim to the Judeo-Spanish songs of singer-songwriter Yasmin Levy, as well as the cuisine made famous by Claudia Roden and Yotam Ottolenghi.
The food and music were influenced by Islamic tradition. Clearly, Sephardi Judaism, compared to the Ashkenazi variety under Christendom, was less insular from the surrounding society. Moreover, Sephardi hakhamim were not full-time clergymen ‒ they engaged in the arts, sciences and commerce in addition to their Torah scholarship. This meant they were seldom out of touch with their flock or the sensibilities of the day.
Perhaps this contributed to making some of their religious strictures more lenient. Sephardim, for example, are permitted to eat rice and legumes such as hummus on Passover, and one renowned rabbi was said to have looked the other way when confronted with community members carrying on Shabbat. Generally, though, differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi liturgy, customs and ritual are unconnected to religious leniency.
Today’s diverse Sephardi Diaspora includes those on the theological Left who affiliate with Conservative synagogues. In July, Haim Casas was ordained as the first-ever progressive rabbi born in Spain by the Leo Baeck College in Europe – and those on the Right who turn to Chabad. Nor is it unusual for religiously liberal Sephardim to be members of a Sephardi synagogue led by a strictly Orthodox rabbi.
At either of these religious boundaries, any sense of Sephardi exceptionalism – or uniqueness – tends to be undermined, according to Dr. Margalit Bejarano, an expert on Latin American Jews at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Typically, this might lead to a “religious regression” in which Sephardim from Turkey and the Balkans would explore alternative avenues for maintaining their cultural heritage, while those from Syria might head in a more ultra- Orthodox direction.
In Israel, it is not uncommon for Sephardim to attend Shabbat morning services and an afternoon soccer match. Paradoxically, the singular political party in the Knesset that claims to champion Sephardi interests is the ultra-Orthodox Shas. It recently forced one of its Knesset members to resign because he attended the wedding of a gay nephew, and Shas Party leader and Interior Minister Arye Deri fervidly denounced a September 12, 2017 Israel Supreme Court decision that lifted the automatic deferments of draft-age yeshiva students. Oddly enough, the 58-year-old politician and other Shas MKs did, in their day, serve in the IDF. He also served a three-year prison sentence on a 1999 conviction of bribe taking and is now under investigation related to fresh allegations of corruption.
Shas politicians are guided by an ultra-Orthodox council of sages that nowadays advocates the kind of social, gender and religious insularity (banning smartphones, for example) conventionally associated with the Ashkenazi Haredi world. The rabbis’ hard line against “immodest” dress and their restrictive approach regarding the place of women in synagogue life is the subject of “The Women’s Balcony,” a 2016 Israeli movie set in Jerusalem.
Golden sees an “Orthodox-ization” of Sephardi communities in America as partly attributable to Sephardi parents sending their gap-year age children to study in Israel at Ashkenazi yeshivas where “there is a super-heightened divide between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy. Israeli Sephardi yeshivot also largely mirror the Ashkenazi institutions. The situation is exacerbated because there is no separation of synagogue and state in Israel. The Haredi influence upon the Sephardi world in Israel is palpable and has borne fruit that to purists such as me is distasteful and worrying,” Golden says.
At the same time, says Naar, there are Diaspora Sephardi rabbis who are trying to channel the historically moderate approaches of Sephardi Judaism to temper the rightwing drift characteristic of contemporary Orthodoxy. He points to Rabbi Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of Shearith Israel in New York and his Institute for Jewish Ideas, as the most prominent voice in this campaign. For instance, Angel says Orthodox synagogues should treat gays, contingent on them not making a public issue about their homosexuality, as they would other worshippers – by not asking personal questions about levels of observance.
Naar calls attention to the “irony” that Sephardi Jews have been involved in other denominations for generations. The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York – the Conservative academy that saw itself as part of the not-Reform bloc – “counted two Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi rabbis, Sabato Morais and H. Pereia Mendes among its main founders in 1886. An Ottoman- born Sephardi, Albert Amateu, from a town near Izmir, received rabbinic ordination at JTS in 1920,” Naar tells The Report.
In the US, there are Jews of Sephardi backgrounds who serve as rabbis in Conservative and Reform congregations and Sephardi Jews who as individuals and families belong to Reform and Conservative congregations.
“In a sense, many Sephardi Jews have dealt with denominationalism in the last century, especially in the US, by leaving the Sephardi ‘Orthodox’ congregations and joining ‘Ashkenazi’ Conservative or Reform ones rather than establishing non- Orthodox Sephardi congregations,” says Naar.
At the same time, pointing to synagogues in Atlanta and Long Island, New York, Naar sees some Sephardi congregations taking on features of the non-Orthodox denominations.
“Several congregations, especially those established by Ladino-speaking Jews from Greece and Turkey, have adopted tripartite men, women and mixed-seating along with various styles and sizes of mehitzot.”
Experiments with mixed seating sections in Sephardi congregations in the US began in the 1960s. “What’s more, some Jewish institutions have hosted Sephardi-style Shabbat morning services, which might include mixed seating or egalitarian prayers,” Naar says.
On the pushback Dweck faced after his lecture on homosexuality, Naar points to scholarly research on Ottoman Jewish life that underscores how the concept of homosexuality as a fixed identity emerged only in the 19th century.
“There may be interesting parallels to be explored here with regard to denominationalism and expressions of power. Just as Orthodoxy emerged in response to Reform, so, too, was the term ‘heterosexual’ coined after ‘homosexual,’” says Naar.
One study that examined the responsa of the time suggests that there was a gap between the demands of Jewish law and how people actually behaved. The rabbis did not make a major issue of homosexual sex, which was fairly prevalent in some communities – it was a sin that did not demand outof- the-ordinary opprobrium.
Indeed, research published in the Journal of Early Modern History in 2005 by Yaron Ben-Naeh, a Jewish history professor at the Hebrew University, found that, in Ottoman urban society, the “Jewish and general public had no interest in the individual’s sexual practices and showed a certain degree of tolerance to the point of de-facto legitimization as long as social order and norms were kept.”
Naar finds it intriguing that the rabbis played down same-sex sex unless the behavior was brazen or violated broader social sensibilities in a way that might whiplash against the Jewish community.
“As long as, for example, a Jewish man and a Muslim man engaging in sex preserved the social hierarchy, the Muslim being in the position of power, the rabbis, according to Ben-Naeh, did not appear to fret too much,” he says.
Sephardi observers acknowledge that religious fanaticism and the pushback against it has become a problem facing their community.
“The 20th century saw the dissolution, displacement and migration of hundreds of communities, and so the highly organized communal structures are gone,” says the hakham. “Simply put – everybody does whatever they want. Synagogues are being organized based on ideology, not geographical needs as was always the case. The European model of a ‘rabbi’ as a profession has taken hold, even among the Sephardi communities. This has led professionally trained rabbis to seek jobs and pulpits by trying to create ‘followings,’ which necessitates them carving out some sort of niche for themselves, which is inevitably divisive.”
He sees Ashkenazi-style extremism as having seeped in over the last 40 years and contributed to a progressive backlash that – so far – has not crossed the line into outright denominationalism.
“Let’s hope we never do,” says the hakham.
Elliot Jager’s new book is ‘The Balfour Declaration: 67 Words, 100 Years of Conflict’ (Gefen). Twitter #JagerFile