Ashkenazi and Sephardi Halakha

5 10 2011

In 2003, Joseph Mosseri delivered a fascinating lecture at Merkaz Moreshet Yisrael, entitled Torah – Ancient Relic or Living Law: A Sephardic Rabbinical. The lecture, which runs for just under an hour, is available online from this link and is well worth a listen. The following is, in my estimation, one of the many highlights (from his introduction, approx. 8:54-11:55):

These chachamim feel that the only way for the Torah to last eternally is through change. The Torah has opened itself up for change, and has allowed change. And this was the path that they brought with them from pre-expulsion Spain, and this was the path that they carried with them into the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere.

Based upon this, I want to tell you: we as Sephardim, and those who follow the Sephardi talmidei chachamim, we are not Orthodox. We’re not. Orthodoxy is something that we never had, and you have to understand Orthodoxy in its true historical context. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European Jewry underwent processes of enlightenment and secularisation, accompanied by internal sociological and ideological tensions. How did this manifest itself among the people and rabbis of Europe? Reform Judaism. That was the immediate answer in Europe. The earliest religious response to modernity was anti-traditionalist, in the body of the Reform movement. It denied the eternal validity of the halakha, which had until now governed all aspects of Jewish life, and instituted major changes in liturgical practise.

The challenge of Reform, and of the more general Jewish enlightenment (the Haskalah), did eventually stimulate a response from the champions of the traditional faith. What was this response? The earliest traditional response was one of uncompromising reaction, summed up in the rallying cry of Rabbi Moshe Sofer – better known as the Chatam [sic] Sofer. He took a word… He took a line from the Mishna, in ‘Orlah, and he reused it to his benefit. He said, החדש אסור מן התורה בכל מקום. Whatever is new is forbidden by the Torah in every instance. This reactionary stance remained a central position for a large segment of traditionalists, and became known as Orthodoxy. Something that never existed anywhere in Judaism before early 19th century Europe.

Orthodox leaders, in essence, declared that they were simply preserving and continuing the ways of life and the beliefs of pre-modern Judaism. They forced themselves into a position of denying the legitimacy of all modern innovations. They bound up the Torah in a manner which was never known among our chachamim. In fact, according to Chacham Yisrael Moshe Chazzan, this approach resulted in totally arbitrary and useless chumrot that greatly contributed to the fragmentation of the Jewish community, thereby discrediting the office of the rabbinate.

Speaking as a fan of all things totally arbitrary and useless, I do think that Mosseri’s tone is a little bit critical of the great Ashkenazi rabbis of the last two centuries, but his eloquence in defending the historical integrity of non-Ashkenazi (what he regrettably labels “Sephardi”) Judaism is inspiring nonetheless. The entire lecture is well worth a listen, as are several other lectures found on their main page. Regrettably, the quality of the recording is rarely so good as it is with this one.

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