The Sephardi singing rabbi

The graduate of both an Ashkenazi haredi yeshiva and the Zionist Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, Rabbi Menahem is best known as a performer of Sephardi liturgical songs and for his interfaith work with Muslims

Rabbi David Menahem: ‘For a believer, it should be forbidden to look at another human being with hatred or disdain.’ (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Rabbi David Menahem: ‘For a believer, it should be forbidden to look at another human being with hatred or disdain.’
It is no easy task to find a free hour in the packed schedule of Rabbi Da - vid Menahem – or, as he is known, Hacham David (David the Sage). Between concerts of Jewish liturgical music, interfaith meetings and Torah stud - ies, he has little free time left.
The young graduate of both an Ashkenazi haredi yeshiva and the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva – the major stronghold of Zionist Torah study – serves as the rabbi of the growing Mishkan Yosef community in the capital’s Rassco neighborhood. But for much of the public, he is first and foremost a paytan – a performer of Sephardi liturgical songs.
On top of that, he is identified with an approach to Islam that sees primarily its common ground with Judaism, and encourages interfaith dialogue, mostly through musical traditions.
The 34-year-old Menahem, who is married and has a young daughter, was born in the Nahlaot neighborhood to parents of Iraqi origin. He was brought up in the milieu of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
“I was sent at first to Succat David, a Sephardi haredi talmud Torah in our neighborhood, and after my bar mitzva I was sent to a yeshiva [high school] – an Ashkenazi haredi yeshiva, where I didn’t last long,” he recalls.
At the Ashkenazi yeshiva, 14-year-old Menahem felt a complete outsider.
“The atmosphere there was of total opposition and deep contempt toward Zionism – and I came from a very Zionist home,” he says. “On top of that, the rabbis there held the Sephardi traditions in disdain. So did even the teachers and rabbis of Moroccan origin who taught us there, who, in fact, were the worst [when it came to] deriding our traditions. I felt so bad about it that I left after six months and remained at home, during which I wrote two essays on the halachot of reciting [the prayer] Shema Yisrael .”
Throughout this time, he went every Saturday night to listen to the sermons Yosef delivered at the Bukharan Quarter’s Yazdi Synagogue, where he heard, between the words, the deep link between oriental Jewish traditions and Arabic culture and traditions. Today Yosef’s affection for Arabic melodies and singers – including women, such as the famed Umm Kulthum – is well known, largely because Menahem has made a point of speaking about it.
These were the roots of Menahem’s genial approach to Arabic culture.
After a few months of studying alone at ome, he came to Mercaz Harav, which also entailed a bit of culture shock, at least at the beginning.
“They all wore their shirts out over their trousers, and I felt like a stranger.
We Iraqi Jews wear suits and ties; it didn’t seem appropriate,” he explains.
“As for their attitude toward Sephardi traditions, here again, they knew nothing and taught nothing about it.
But I could see that it wasn’t coming from an arrogant or patronizing attitude, but out of ignorance. And you could find books in their library written by or about great Jewish rabbis from the oriental traditions and countries.
I didn’t feel threatened or put down.
In fact, I remained there until a few months ago – altogether 19 years.”
Despite his strong Zionist positions, he doesn’t see a real barrier between Judaism and Islam.
“The problem arises when you look at religion – Islam or Judaism – through the eyes of politics. That’s a big mistake,” he says. “We should remember that the Arabs [with whom we are in a political conflict] are only about 30 percent of the Islamic world – and it is such a divided culture, with so many different kinds of Islam.”
Over the years, he has established strong ties with the Sufis living in the country, and cites them as just one example of how Islam and Judaism are not only not in conflict, but are close to one another.
“It is written in their books that the Prophet Muhammad told the Muslims to listen to the Jews,” he notes. “There is a hadith [a teaching in the Koran] that says that ‘when you do not understand something in the Koran, you should go and ask the People of the Book’ – that is, the Jews. So why should we be hostile? They are, after all, in our tradition, the sons of Ishmael, who was a son of Abraham. Let’s not forget that tradition of ours.”
THE RABBI’S actions follow his words: He performs at many musical events with Muslims, all focused on liturgical traditions that Jews and Muslims share. Two weeks ago, as part of the Sacred Music Festival during the Jerusalem Season of Culture, he hosted a Sufi muezzin and his son. The three compared and performed prayer tunes from the Sephardi and Sufi traditions before a bewitched audience that gathered on a rooftop overlooking the Old City.
Asked how a religious approach can help build bridges in the current conflict, Menahem answers that this is, in fact, the only way he sees to build bridges.
“There is a galut [Diaspora] approach – they are behind their walls, we are behind ours – that can’t work, obviously.
We have to use a different language; the Zionist movement has liberated us from this Diaspora thinking. We are back in our land. From that position, we can address Islam and the Muslims, and we should help them to reach, together with us, the worship of one God – to celebrate the oneness of God. That is the only place we can avoid bloodshed and reach God instead, and peace.”
But he goes further, arguing that it is a Jewish issue – particularly a religious Jewish issue.
“We, the religious Israelis, have a tendency to judge everybody through our own approach. Is the person facing us like us or different? We might think that if he is different, then he is against us or not reliable, [etc.]. That is a big mistake; we have to get rid of this. For a believer, it should be forbidden to look at another human being with hatred or disdain – and it all starts at school, in kindergarten. It’s all about education.”
Menahem is also a great believer in the power of music and playing instruments to foster an appropriate atmosphere for peaceful encounters among believers.
“A Jew from one of the Muslim countries, of Mizrahi origin, shares that culture and those traditions [with the Arabs], and therefore, there is a possibility for dialogue,” he says. “I believe this is exactly the place where Mizrahi Jews can bring their culture as a contribution to a dialogue of peace; we understand each other through very similar traditions and cultural language – and the music, of course.
When I participate in such encounters, I always make sure there are some musical instruments around – when you listen to the oud or the nay [flute], it opens the heart. Listening to a piyut [liturgical composition] is sometimes more important than listening to a sermon. You will always take the music with you – it will keep your heart open and ready to listen to the other.”
In general, he adds, “we have to understand that Judaism is strong enough – especially now that we are no longer scattered in the Diaspora – that nothing threatens us anymore. So this is the right time to speak with others. I ask a question: Have we been created to shut ourselves in, or to go out and speak the word of God and His wisdom?”