The Sephardi mystique

When reading modern Jewish history, it often seems that Sephardi Jews and other Jews from Arab and Islamic lands are simply “off the radar.”

March 1, 2016 22:56
4 minute read.
Spain synagogue

Heads of Sephardi Communities visit a former synagogue, during the third Erensya Summit.. (photo credit: PEPE MENDEZ)


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In the past two centuries the Ashkenazi world has eclipsed the Sephardi world. The most important movements and religious denominations to emerge in modernity were from the Ashkenazi realm of Central and Eastern Europe. Reform, Conservative, neo-Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Hassidism, the Haskalah, Zionism and the Socialist Bund all emerged as a force in Europe. While Sephardi life and culture continued to thrive in Salonika, Baghdad and Istanbul, the failed Shabbetai Zvi messiah movement in the mid-17th century seems to have drained the power of Jews from Arab and Islamic lands to continue their influence on the development of Jewish life throughout the Old World and engage modernity.

When reading modern Jewish history, it often seems that Sephardi Jews and other Jews from Arab and Islamic lands are simply “off the radar.”

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Yet, the eclipse of the Sephardi world in modernity did not preclude the heritage of the Jews of that realm living on as an important influence in Ashkenazi imagination and scholarship. Ismar Schorsch, in his From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism (1994), describes how Ashkenazi intellectuals lauded the Sephardi image for its religious posture “marked by cultural openness, philosophic thinking, and an appreciation for the aesthetic. Like many a historical myth, it evoked a partial glimpse of a bygone age determined and colored by social need.” What Schorsch, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, calls “The Myth of Sephardic Supremacy” impacted the Jews of Germany in the 19th century in four ways – liturgy, synagogue architecture, literature and scholarship. I would like to focus on the last of these.

THE HISTORICAL study of Judaism and Jewish texts had its early origins with scholar Azariah dei Rossi in the Italian Renaissance but came to full flower in Germany centuries later. The movement that fueled this academic study of Judaism – a major departure from traditionalists’ interpretation of the texts of Judaism – was the Wissenschaft des Judentum, the Scientific Study of Judaism. One of the representatives of this movement was Eduard Gans, who in 1820 praised the Jews of medieval Spain for their integration into Muslim society, their investigation of the philosophies and science of their day, and employing in their writings not Hebrew but Arabic. They possessed “better taste” than Ashkenazi Jews, as well. (This, of course, ignores the reality that some of the greatest Hebrew poetry in history was composed in Muslim Spain.) Still, many of the scholars of Wissenschaft were impressed by a Sephardi willingness and daring to confront the world around them and not fear their disappearance through assimilation. They held their ground as Jews but produced great Hebrew poetry that employed Arabic meter, composed philosophical tracts in Arabic that reconciled Torah with Aristotelianism, and stood in contrast to the Ashkenazi Jewish communities’ insularity in the medieval and early modern period and their intense focus on Talmud to the exclusion of other great literature.

The importance of the Scientific Study of Judaism was not solely academic. Jews in the Germanic states in the mid-19th century were struggling for emancipation and equality. While most of the Christian world believed that the last great contribution the Jews made to Western civilization was the birth and subsequent career of Jesus Christ, the scholars of Wissenschaft attempted vigorously to demonstrate that, in fact, Jews were the composers of sublime and elegant literature that should be studied for its great contribution to the West. The scholarly study of medieval Judaism in Muslim Spain elevated Judaism to a higher plain and legitimized Jews being granted equality with German Christians. The Jews were not a people mired in tribalism and superstition but, rather, were the producers of a highly sophisticated civilization that reconciled Judaism with the philosophy of the day. This alone merited the respect of the non-Jewish majority to usher Jews into the mainstream of German culture and society.

The greatest figure of the Sephardi confrontation with the philosophy of the day was Moses Maimonides.

Aaron Wolfsohn, a teacher in the modern Jewish school of Breslau and a leading proponent of Jewish Enlightenment created a satire titled A Conversation in Paradise that imagined a meeting between Maimonides and Moses Mendelssohn in the afterlife. Mendelssohn was representative of the best the Jewish Enlightenment movement could offer in his capacity of a great Enlightenment thinker and advocate of religious tolerance. The followers of Mendelssohn imagined these two titans talking and criticizing the close-mindedness of the traditionalists.


Obviously, Maimonides was a traditionalist, but better to paint a mythical figure who would represent the battle German Jews were waging to reconcile Judaism with Kant and Hegel than to portray Maimonides as he really was – a philosopher but also a great halachic authority.

The great thinkers and poets of Muslim Spain also were a great influence upon the Zionist imagination.

The fact that the poets wrote their great works in Hebrew was a forerunner of its revival as a spoken language in the modern period and influenced the pantheon of modern Zionist poets. The foremost figure among the medieval poets was Judah Halevi, whose “Odes to Zion,” poetic yearnings to leave the comforts of Spain for the Land of Israel – and his subsequent attempt at aliya toward the end of his life – firmly place the medieval Sephardi Jew at the center of a movement dominated by Ashkenazim.

What both Wissenschaft and Zionism demonstrate is that without the contribution of Jews from Spain and all Jews from Arab and Islamic lands, Judaism would be severely impoverished in the 21st century.

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