Unity Without Conformity: Struggling with Ashkenazi/Sepharadi Divides

I was recently contacted by an individual who responded to my numerous requests from my viewers to do so if they have anything they wish to discuss. Being that this email is about a very important topic, and that it was asked with such tremendous Derech Eretz, I felt obligated to respond.
The email has been edited to omit any personal details or examples, at the request of the questioner.

Questioners Email

Dear Rabbi,
We have not personally met…
In my 20+ years  of communal work, I can confidently say that I share many of your frustrations. It is so nice to see someone with your background bringing the issues your are ‘blazing’ to the fore.
I am writing to you today only because I have noticed on several occasions your request for comments and suggestions.
With out a doubt, your approach is going to draw a certain amount of consternation by the local haredi establishment. My guess is many will look for the slightest misstep to prove to their followers that you are not to be listened to or taken seriously. We have seen this done [examples cited]… where one example is used to completely discredit the entire body of holy work being done by these great men.
After watching your video from the talk Sunday night, I found myself understanding your overall message but nevertheless uncomfortable with the broad brush stroke that you portrayed the Ashkenazi world. Obviously, I do not know what was said before or after your talk, or the advanced level of the audience. However, it could be safely assumed that the average internet viewer would be led to believe that your portrayal was a general understanding of the differences of the entire Ashkenazi worldview vs.the entire Sefardi worldview.
Since you were having a talk about historic norms, I may have missed it, but I don’t recall you making any distinctions or disclaimers of which Ashkenazi group you were discussing.
Would you agree that that the Western European Jewish communities like in Frankfort and England do not fit the mold of anti-Secular Education/Work that you portrayed? Would you agree that the Ashkenazi Modern Orthodox views do not match the picture of an Anti-Israel and Anti-Women Rights that you painted? If you do agree, then I am worried that this apparent misrepresentation can be used by those haters to discredit you.
In my humble experience, it seems like you were specifically speaking about the prevailing Eastern European Haredi ideology that has influenced so much of the Torah world.  I share your sentiments that the ‘Sefardi Way’ can be a blessing for all of Jewry, I am just concerned that with such a oversimplified approach it would actually turn others away.
…Thank you for taking the time to read this. Chazaq o’Baruch to you and your Rabanit for all your efforts.
[name omitted]

Our Response

Dear [name omitted],
I have never received such a warm and respectful email about such a hard and concerning topic. I truly appreciate your eloquence as well as the humility with which you wrote very honest and true words.
I have requested (And received) your permission to address this topic in a blog post, as I believe you brought up something that I should address publicly, not just privately.

Issue #1

I share many of your frustrations. It is so nice to see someone with your background bringing the issues your are ‘blazing’ to the fore.
It is so nice to see someone appreciating that these issues are being “blazed” to the fore! It is because of people like you, and those that regularly come study with us.
I only wish to correct you on one point: these are not my personal frustrations, but these are issues I have received guidance from and studied with my Rabbi and Teacher, HaRav Yaakov Peretz shlit”a. My wife and I do our utmost to present these teachings of truth to the English-speaking Jewish community, so that those who have been silent until now can finally feel that they have a voice in the Jewish community!

Issue #2

With out a doubt, your approach is going to draw a certain amount of consternation by the local haredi establishment. My guess is many will look for the slightest misstep to prove to their followers that you are not to be listened to or taken seriously. We have seen this done [examples cited]… where one example is used to completely discredit the entire body of holy work being done by these great men.
Unfortunately, I cannot argue with you on this point. You are correct! The style of many who do not wish to actually debate ideas intellectually, is to to find a point which can be manipulated and then entirely discredit a person. Many in the Jewish community operate with this fear constantly looming over their heads, and this is why they have never been instrumental in fostering change. I did not come to fight any Jew, Chas V’Shalom, and I will continue to whisper prayers of peace on my lips.
Nonetheless, as a rabbi, and a simple Jew, I must adhere to that which the Torah obligates me (Devarim 1:17):
You shall not favor persons in judgment; [rather] you shall hear the small just as the great; you shall not fear any man, for the judgment is upon the Lord, and the case that is too difficult for you, bring to me, and I will hear it.
Rashi explains:
You shall not gather in [stifle] your words because of any man.
What can I do, if that is what my Creator commanded me? How can I help if that is the way of the Bet Midrash of my Rabbi? In my recent article (Holy War: Fighting for the Sake of Unity) I quoted:

“Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me— A man of conflict and strife with all the land!” – Yirmiyahu (15:10)

“If I am forced to be a man of conflict with the whole world because of the leaning towards truth that is deep in my soul – which [which causes me to be] unable to cope with any leanings towards falsehood – then I do not have the choice to be any other man. And I must transform all the main principles of truth which are hidden in my spirit from potential to action, without any consideration as to what the world will think of me, with all of its standards. This is the valiance of he who seeks truth. This is the valiance of a world tied to the eternal destiny of Am Yisrael which is girded with valiance.” – HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt”l (Kvatzim)

If I may further quote from the above-mentioned article:

But why? Why get involved in these matters?

That is the question of questions, and that is where all the speculation has taken place.

I do not hate any group of Jews, nor any specific flavors of Judaism. If I wished to hate, I could do so in my heart without going through the hell I have for speaking my truths.

If I wished to be controversial and create fame for myself, as some have claimed – I could be controversial in ways which would make me much more popular.

Rather, it is my genuine love for Am Yisrael and its unity that I do what I do.

That is a strange way to show love, is it not?

Absolutely not. Open your hearts, and listen to this parable:

Two siblings had a third brother who was a drug addict, dangerously addicted and constantly at the risk of losing his life. One sibling loved his brother so much, that he gave him compliments and money to purchase more narcotics. The second brother constantly tried to get his brother to break his habit, offering to pay for his rehabilitation, but telling him that he would not see another penny from him until he admitted himself into a proper institution.

Which sibling truly loved his brother? The one who helped him or the one that criticized him?

It was the one who was willing to risk his relationship with his brother at the hope of seeing him alive and at the family table for many years to come. That is the power of “Machloket L’Shem Shamayim” – that classical Judaism believes in, even if it does not sit well with the adherents of the newly fabricated Judaism!

I have two sons, Baruch Hashem. When the time comes, I hope to see them come home with wonderful Jewish girls. They can be Ashkenazi or Sepharadic, Yemenite or Chassidic – my wife and I couldn’t care less, because we are all one people with the same Creator and the same Torah!

But the moment a group of Jews will get up from the discussion table of Judaism, will leave the living conversation that is Torah, will create its own beliefs and religious norms to the point that none of us who are still at the table will be able to identify them as a normative segment of our people – then my children and their children will lose out on the opportunity to fuse their souls into one and create a faithful home in the Jewish People – for they are no longer speaking within the same frame of reference that we do, and they will have left the boundaries of our majestic faith.

So I scream. And yell. And shout. And with tears in my eyes, I beg: Do not stray from the path of light created by the Chachamim throughout the ages! Do not be the one to destroy the unity we so cherish!

And if that is offensive? I will never apologize for my love, no matter how much it makes them upset. If that hurts them and makes them angry, then I would much rather be the brother who cared than the brother who stood idly by.


Issue #3

After watching your video from the talk Sunday night, I found myself understanding your overall message but nevertheless uncomfortable with the broad brush stroke that you portrayed the Ashkenazi world. …it could be safely assumed that the average internet viewer would be led to believe that your portrayal was a general understanding of the differences of the entire Ashkenazi worldview vs.the entire Sefardi worldview.
 
Since you were having a talk about historic norms…I don’t recall you making any distinctions or disclaimers of which Ashkenazi group you were discussing. 
 
Would you agree that that the Western European Jewish communities like in Frankfort and England do not fit the mold of anti-Secular Education/Work that you portrayed? Would you agree that the Ashkenazi Modern Orthodox views do not match the picture of an Anti-Israel and Anti-Women Rights that you painted? If you do agree, then I am worried that this apparent misrepresentation can be used by those haters to discredit you. 
 
In my humble experience, it seems like you were specifically speaking about the prevailing Eastern European Haredi ideology that has influenced so much of the Torah world. 
Yes! You are correct! I did not make any obvious distinctions – and you may perhaps be correct that I should.
Those Ashkenazi Jews who do believe in the values I mentioned in my lecture, are obviously not adherents to classic Ashkenazi Judaism at is seen today. Whether they are Modern Orthodox or Religiouz Zionists, or Western Ashkenazim as opposed to Eastern Ashkenazim, is not something I usually use to divide people. They have clearly deviated – in a very positive way – from the paths of those who came before them, and I consider that to be not just a noble feat and accomplishment, but rather view them as brothers and sisters in ideology, when we agree!
The majority of Chachme Ashkenaz were anti-Zionist, and that includes the more “open-minded” Ashkenazim of the West. An example is found in the words of their righteous leader, Rabbi Samson Rephael Hirsch zt”l, is on record as having opposed the active Zionism we so praise:

During the reign of Hadrian when the uprising led by Bar Kochba proved a disastrous error, it became essential that the Jewish people be reminded for all times of an important, essential fact, namely that (the people of) Israel must never again attempt to restore its national independence by its own power; it was to entrust its future as a nation solely to Divine Providence. (Commentary on the Prayerbook, p. 703)

We mourn over that which brought about that destruction (of the Temple), we take to heart the harshness we have encountered in our years of wandering as the chastisement of a father, imposed on us for our improvement, and we mourn the lack of observance of Torah which that ruin has brought about. . . This destruction obliges us to allow our longing for the far away land to express itself only in mourning, in wishing and hoping; and only through the honest fulfillment of all Jewish duties to await the realization of this hope. But it forbids us to strive for the reunion or possession of the land by any but spiritual means. (Horeb, p. 461)

Even HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt”l – who we have tremendous respect for and who HaRav Yaakov Peretz calls “the most underappreciated Tzadik of his generation – wrote (Jerusalem, September 1919):

Regarding the law, I have nothing to add to the words of the rabbis who came before me. In the Torah, in the Prophets, and in the Writings, in the halakhah and in the aggadah, we hear a single voice: that the duty of fixed public service falls upon men, for “It is a man’s manner to dominate and not a woman’s manner to dominate” (Yevamot 65b), and that roles of office, of judgment, and of testimony are not for her, for “all her honor is within” (Ps. 45:14)…

…our holy duty is to see to it that the inception of our movement towards a measure of [autonomy based
on] our own political-social character be properly marked by the sign of biblical integrity and purity with which our life has been imbued from time immemorial. This will be so only if we avoid the European novelty—alien to the biblical spirit and to the national tradition deriving from it—of women’s involvement in elections and public life, which is tumultuous and noisy and involves multitudes.

Though we see that HaRav Kook led the battle to bring Zionism to the heart of Ashkenazi Jewry, we see from the novelty of his approach as well as the wars waged against him – that his view was not the accepted view among those in his community, and he – in a positive way – deviated from their path.

American Judaism, especially under the leadership of minds like HaRav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, also brough about tremendous innovation in secular education and involvement with the world. Again though, these were innovative trends that were foreign to the spirit of the vast majority of Chachme Ashkenaz before them.

The ultimate point is: our Chachamim did not need any help or convincing to be Zionists and support the State of Israel, nor did they need any urging to interact naturally and organically with the world around them. From the arts to the sciences, the philosophy and the culture, they seamlessly walked the line of being dedicated to Torah, without compromising on the ability of the nations around them to say (Devarim 4:6):

“Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people. “


Issue #4

I share your sentiments that the ‘Sefardi Way’ can be a blessing for all of Jewry, I am just concerned that with such a oversimplified approach it would actually turn others away.

My dear friend, you have touched a raw nerve with these words. This is my only source of anguish. That some may be so distracted by the way and style in which I share these ideas, that they may run away before they have a chance to truly understand what it is that I wish to share. I will not hide that which is in my heart, and I will let you know that this is a work in progress for me. All I can pray is that: “Adonai, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.”

 


Conclusion

What am I truly asking for? I am asking to find that sane, balanced, and firmly grounded Judaism that I know has room in it for all of Klal Yisrael. This is not just the Sepharadi way, for there are Chachamim of Ashkenaz that are our greatest voices for this cause, and there are Chachamim of Sepharad which shared views that were far from the spirit of the rest of our Chachamim. I genuinely wish for a Judaism that is truly united – not forced to conform to, as you mentioned, “the prevailing Eastern European Haredi ideology that has influenced so much of the Torah world”.

Why should only that way prevail? We allow them to thrive and wish them no harm, Chalila! All we ask in return is for the approach of our Chachamim – and those from every walk of Judaism who share their approach –  not be trampled on, and given the freedom to lift their banner proudly so that all of our brothers and sisters can come home! Brothers and sisters who love Hashem, love His Torah, and have only stayed away from the religious community because they too sense the foreign winds which have led our ships far from safe shores of the Torah of our Chachamim.

When the Jewish world will discover the way to embrace unity without conformity, I can assure you that my beloved students – and I beside them – will be the first there to welcome everyone to the glorious world of an inclusive Judaism.

Until then – I remain sincerely yours,

Yonatan Y. Halevy

Founder, Shiviti

Rabbi and Spiritual Leader, Kehillat Shaar HaShamayim

About Rabbi Yonatan Halevy 67 Articles
RabbiYoni.com - keeping you connected with the latest from Rabbi Yonatan Halevy!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply