Rabbi Meir Mazuz and the battle for Orthodox Judaism

When see through Sephardic lenses, the fight over ownership of Orthodox Judaism, is largely between different Ashkenazi factions.

haredi men sitting 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
haredi men sitting 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
A very contentious battle is currently being fought over ownership of Orthodox Judaism.
When seen through Sephardic lenses, it is largely a battle between different Ashkenazi factions.
I have recently made note of articles by the historian of American Judaism Jonathan Sarna and Tehila Friedman-Nachalon on the bitter contentiousness in Israel over Rabbi Avi Weiss and his so-called “Open Orthodoxy”.
When we look at this divide, what we see are two streams of Ashkenazi Orthodox thinking; one from the haredi world of the Lithuanian-style yeshivot in places like Bnei Brak, Lakewood, and Monsey, the other representing the Modern Orthodoxy of Yeshiva University and its acknowledged leader Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.
Over time, the status of Modern Orthodox Judaism has declined as the Ultra-Orthodox world has assumed dominance in both Israel and the Diaspora. But recently we have seen a bitter controversy break out over issues such as military service, Kollel stipends, and conversion to Judaism in the context of Israeli society and government that pits the two groups against one another.
Rabbi Weiss has become a flashpoint in the discussion for his promotion of a more liberal Orthodoxy which is strongly nationalistic and open to Feminist currents.
It is interesting to note that in the Sephardic community this intra-Orthodox battle was waged during the 20th century as Ashkenazi influences began to consume the community.
It has been said that the late Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel (1880-1953) was prevented from giving classes on Judah Halevi’s classic philosophical work The Kuzari in Jerusalem’s Porat Yosef seminary.  Related to this is the tragic tale of Hakham Matloub Abadi (1892-1970), a prominent rabbi in the Brooklyn Syrian Jewish community, who was offered the position of Rosh Yeshiva in the same Porat Yosef and elected to go to minister and teach in Brooklyn instead rather than remain in the stifling fundamentalist environment there.
Ironically, Rabbi Abadi was eventually forced out of the Brooklyn rabbinate by the immensely wealthy and powerful lay leader Isaac Shalom (1886-1968) who put the community on a firmly Ashkenazi Orthodox footing. Years after the trauma of losing its greatest rabbinical figure, the Brooklyn Sephardic community remains locked in this same dilemma over Modern Orthodoxy vs. Haredi Orthodoxy – and the haredim are clearly winning.  Even more sadly, many in the community are unaware of this tragic history; a recent paper written by a young member of the community studying at Yeshiva University denies the Abadi-Shalom clash altogether, asserting that the rabbi never had any real intention of serving the community as an educator and religious functionary.
Related to this history is a fascinating article on the Tunisian-born Rabbi Meir Mazuz; a figure who is not widely known to the larger Jewish community.
The very technical discussion in Joseph Ringel’s article speaks to the ongoing dilemmas of Orthodoxy and its various discontents.  For those who are not conversant with the modalities of Yeshiva-speak the article will be difficult to parse, but there are a number of critical issues here that are important to Sephardim.
Over the past century Sephardic rabbis have been demoted from the larger Jewish discussion.  The interpretive methods and conceptual values of Ashkenazi rabbinical culture have overtaken religious Jewish discourse. The Maimonidean tradition which fuses ancient Biblical and Talmudic values with the Greco-Arab synthesis of science and philosophy has been simultaneously rejected and sharply transformed by the Ashkenazi rabbinical authorities.
With the emergence of Zionism the matter became even more complicated as the divide between religious and secular was heightened and the tensions between Religious Zionism and Haredi Orthodoxy simmered beneath the surface.
Anti-Maimonideanism took new and unprecedented – and very dangerous – forms.  From eschatological messianism in the settler enterprise to neo-Hellenistic pagan echoes in Spartan Zionist secular values, the heritage of Sephardic Religious Humanism was all but extinguished in what became the standard iteration(s) of Jewish culture.
Rabbi Meir Mazuz represents a fascinating variation of Sephardi accommodation to Ashkenazi Orthodox values.
For those who are not familiar with his debased and radical religious beliefs – themselves a sign of the current Anti-Maimonideanism, this interview provides the necessary context.
It is critical to note that Rabbi Mazuz plays a dangerous game of promoting Sephardic tradition when in reality he has internalized the deeply prejudiced anti-Arab and nihilistic values of the Ashkenazi Orthodox. His reactionary hatred of Arab civilization is apparent from his statements on the matter.
Now the vast concept of Sephardic ‘Iyyun – analytical Talmud interpretation – is beyond the scope of my comments here, but it must be said that the analytical framework that is being presented fits into the limited strictures of the current Haredi Yeshiva system.  The technical language and conceptual framework that Rabbi Mazuz uses reflects the vocabulary and internal thought process of the Lithuanian Yeshivas and the tensions that continue to exist between the Haredim and Modern Orthodoxy.
We do not see any real critical discussion of the Ashkenazi Tosafist tradition and its PILPUL methodology.  Rabbi Mazuz uncritically accepts the already-compromised formulations of the later Sephardic authorities who worked under the aegis of prominent Anti-Maimonideans like Nahmanides (RAMBAN) and Nissim Gerondi (RAN) and the German emigré Asher ben Yehiel (ROSH), all of whom transplanted the Ashkenazi PILPUL methodology into the Iberian Jewish world.
Those unfamiliar with the PILPUL tradition and the role of the Anti-Maimonideans in Jewish history, may refer to my articles on the matter.
The “secular” aspect of Sephardic Iyyun (study) is not relevant in a Lithuanian-Haredi context; what we see is an abstruse technical argument over Talmudic language and analytical method that is configured in such a way to reflect the agenda and conceptual framework of the Yeshiva world and its standard pedagogical practices.
Rabbi Mazuz is attempting to restore the older Sephardic tradition, but in a way that strips it of its intellectual vocabulary and its sense of cultural autonomy by setting aside the study of the Liberal Arts and Sciences.  His work speaks in “Yeshivish” discourse, using the most prominent figures of the modern Ashkenazi rabbinic tradition as a means of establishing the parameters of the critical discussion. Sephardim can only be “elevated” by placing themselves in proximity with the better-known Ashkenazi rabbinical authorities.
As Mr. Ringel aptly puts it, Rabbi Mazuz’s discourse is directed at the Ashkenazi-Haredi world and is therefore attractive as an alternative model for Modern Orthodoxy in its perpetual struggle with the haredim.
Again, the problem of omission serves to complicate the matter.  Sealing off the discussion from the scientific and philosophical issues that were a key part of the Maimonidean tradition, what we see here is an implicit rejection of the larger conceptual-ethical framework of Religious Humanism.  Beyond this, the discussion is decoupled from the larger context of Arabic culture and the Scholasticism of the Muslim Middle Ages that so animated and recharged Judaism in the Iberian and Mediterranean world(s) as can be seen in the voluminous archive of the Cairo Geniza.
Talmudic discourse is treated by Rabbi Mazuz as a hermetic and static system that does not incorporate the wider elements of Humanistic discourse that were developed by Sephardi exiles in Amsterdam and the Ottoman world after the Expulsion.  Critical issues of historical and cultural understanding are subsumed to a mechanical form of Jewish thinking that closely adheres to the patterns of thought that are endemic to the Ashkenazi-Haredi model.
Talmudic study is one of a number of disciplines that comprise the traditional Sephardic curriculum.  Its centrality in Rabbi Mazuz’s pedagogical approach is proof positive that he has capitulated to Ashkenazi hegemony.  In the Sephardic world the Talmud was the province of the rabbinical class and was not widely taught to laypeople who were focused on Halakhah and Biblical study. The Talmud was understood as an elevated juridical literature connected to the legal process and not as some artificial academic exercise divorced of practical application, as is the commonly the case in the Ashkenazi Yeshivas.
There is indeed some value in Rabbi Mazuz’s attempt to restore the Sephardic Talmudic tradition.  But it is fatally marred by a lack of both intellectual and cultural context.  Reading the deeply hateful pronouncements of Rabbi Mazuz on Arabs and other current matters we see a form of radical Kahanism that negates the most basic values of Sephardic Jewish Humanism.  It is therefore little wonder that his ideas are being embraced by Ashkenazim who have rejected the Maimonidean tradition.  It enables them to entertain and engage Rabbi Mazuz and his Tunisian Iyyun because he speaks their conceptual-religious language.
For those who continue to abide the values and methods of the classical Sephardic tradition, Rabbi Mazuz’s synthesis is a capitulation to the reactionary values of an Ashkenazi culture that has basically sought to undermine and suppress that noble heritage.  It is at one and the same time an attempt to manipulate the Sephardic tradition for Ashkenazi ends while stifling the most basic elements of Sephardic Jewish Humanism.
David Shasha is the founder and director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York designed to raise awareness of the history and culture of Arab Jews.  He publishes the Sephardic Heritage Update, a weekly e-mail newsletter available on Google Groups.  He has written for publications such as
The Huffington Post, Tikkun magazine, The Progressive Christian, and The American Muslim.  You can contact him at david.shasha.shu@gmail.com