By Daniel J. ElazarDaniel Judah Elazar was a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University (Israel) and Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the founder and president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
The final takeover of power from the traditional Sephardim by the Ashkenazi rabbinical establishment in Eretz Israel was marked with the death of Rabbi Uziel. The establishment of the office of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in the 1920s was the beginning of that takeover. Until that time there had been only one Chief Rabbi, the Rishon Le-Zion, chosen by the Sephardic community. The Ashkenazim had their individual Yeshivot, kollelim and batei din (rabbinical courts), all what we would now call haredi (ultra orthodox) in character. The Zionist movement, religious and non-religious, wanted to introduce a more Zionist rabbinate, Hence, the establishment of the dual Chief Rabbinate, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, in 1921.
In violation of the halakhah that Sephardi custom was to predominate in Eretz Israel, which dates at least from the Middle Ages, the Ashkenazi rabbinical leadership insisted that, as the new majority, Ashkenazim could bring in and maintain their own customs (minhagim). Ashkenazi haredim (ultra orthodox) went even further, to insist that every person had to follow the customs of the community from which his family came in Eastern Europe, their black garb down to the smallest matters of pronunciation.
Given the numbers and power of the Ashkenazim, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbinate soon became more powerful than the Sephardim. Ashkenazim came to dominate the institutions of the Chief Rabbinate, countrywide and local. Moreover, they were convinced that their way was the correct way, and, hence, they made a deliberate effort to overwhelm the Sephardim whose ways were strange and, in their eyes, not sufficiently rigorous.
The traditional Sephardim, in turn, fell victim to their own internal divisions. The Sephardic Chief Rabbinate had been the preserve of the Spaniolim (Ladino), who be the early 1950s were thoroughly outnumbered by Asian and African olim (immigrants). In the struggle over who would be appointed to succeed Rabbi Uziel, the Ashkenazi rabbinical establishment threw its backing behind Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim of Iraqi origin, who was opposed by the Spaniol establishment. Rabbi Nissim won, with Ashkenazi votes, which put the Sephardic Chief Rabbinate in a clearly subordinate position, de facto, to the Ashkenazim, a position in which it remains to this day.
Although one of the selling points of Shas (Sephardic political party) of current days, the Sephardic Torah Guardians, and its spiritual mentor, former Rishon Le-Zion, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who is recognized as one of the great posekim (halakhic decision-makers) of our day by Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, was that the Sephardim had to take back their rightful position and keep their own customs alive. Unfortunately, Rabbi Yosef colleagues had themselves become so Ashkenazified through their education in Ashkenazi or Ashkenazified yeshivot that, while they in fact regained some power, they did not offer very much of an alternative.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, also of Iraqi background (since the election of Rabbi Nissim, all the Sephardic Chief Rabbis have been of Iraqi background), while serving as chief Sephardic Rabbi feeling the pressure of the Ashkenazi yeshiva heads, consistently didn’t provide support to the Sephardic community's efforts to establish more traditional Sephardic yeshivot in the 1960s and 1970s.
The few isolated examplars of the traditional Sephardic tradition, men like the Sephardic Chief Rabbis of Tel Aviv, Haim David HaLevy (the author of an excellent and widely-adopted contemporary abridgment of the Shulkhan Aruch for popular use and once one of the most popular rabbis in Israel until he was more or less silenced under pressure), and of Netanya, Rabbi David Celouche, are under constant pressure to conform to the Ashkenazified ways and the Ashkenazi approach. Even they must dress in the Ashkenazi rabbinical style, so thoroughly Eastern European in its origins. The authentic costume of the Sephardic Rabbinate has been given up except in the case of the Rishon Le-Zion, who wears traditional garb on state occasions.
Ashkenazified Sephardic yeshivot teach the rabbinical stories of Eastern Europe to their students so that a Ashkenazified Sephardic rabbi, speaking to Sephardic students, will tell stories of the hassidic masters because he will not know the many excellent and beautiful stories of his own tradition. The popular religious music of the Ashkenazim is now widely used by Ashkenazified Sephardim on festive occasions such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and even in Sephardic religious services at certain points because that is what the people learn in school and what is familiar to them. Sephardic religious music is hardly ever taught, and even Sephardic customs are taught as exotica or folklore rather than part of a living tradition.
The only difference preserved by these Ashkenazified Sephardic religious leaders is that almost all see themselves as mikarvim (those who try to bring Sephardim closer to Ashkenazi tradition). in this respect the Sephardic way is still alive. It stands in sharp contrast to the isolationist approach of Ashkenazi Ultra Orthodox of almost every stripe. This can be seen in the respective congregational patterns of the two groups.
It is recognized by all that there are many ways to be Orthodox. In a typical religious neighborhood in Israel or in Brooklyn one may find several different hassidic minyanim, a yeshiva or Litvak minyan, one or more modern Orthodox congregations, perhaps Young Israel or religious Zionist, or simply one with a more dignified service and one with a more free-flowing one. All will live side-by-side in mutual recognition, but each will be homogeneous. In other words, kindred souls will find each other and stay together; few, if any, will really welcome people as permanent congregants who do not observe their Orthodox way -- indeed, in their particular style.
Contrast this with a typical traditional Sephardic congregation. It will be composed of people of all levels of observance, from more religious yeshiva students to people who think of themselves as secular but enjoy attending services from time to time. In the congregation all are equal. No one is asked how much or how little he observes. Sephardim assume that most people want to be traditional, only some people need greater degrees of study. That Sephardic attitude of tolerance, which is typically Mediterranean, runs against the grain of the Ashkenazi pattern where people have to declare their religious ideology and form of religious behavior to fit into one community.
Sephardic congregations may be divided by the traditions of their communities of origin, but there are no religious tests per se. Moreover, as the immigrant generation passes, even those divisions are diminishing. In Israel, the minhag yerushalayim, which, from a formal halahkic point of view is binding on all Jews in Eretz Israel, is becoming more widespread. Diaspora Sephardic communities are either adopting that ritual or following their own amalgams based upon the traditions of the fathers like the Syrian community in Brooklyn trying to keep their Aram Soba tradition alive.
The strengths of the Sephardic way are also its weaknesses, while the weaknesses of the Ashkenazi way are also its strengths. If the strength of the Sephardic way is in its willingness to try to cope with the world around it through interfacing rather than isolation without breaking away from tradition, those strengths also lead to its weaknesses in the tendency of Sephardim not to take firm stands in defense of the maintenance of their tradition, and not willing to make the necessary sacrifices in a world of Ashkenazified Sephardic Rabbis.
By the same token, the weakness of the Ashkenazi tradition makes them very strong, even fanatically strong, in defending, adhering to, and trying to advance their position, whatever it might be. Hence, they are better prepared to fight the fight against the breakdowns of modernism than the Sephardim, one way or another, while the Sephardim find it hard to stand up to those breakdowns and to the proposed responses to them developed by the Ashkenazim and Ashkenazified Sephardic Rabbis. The tendency of the Sephardim has been to simply give in when confronted with such iron-willed assertion of what is right. It should be noted that this is true with regard to both the religious and the Zionist establishments in Israel and Diaspora where the majority of the Sephardim found themselves after the break-up of the traditional Sephardic world.
The destruction of the matrices of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic worlds may make it more difficult for Sephardim to maintain the continuity of their religious tradition. At the same time it makes it possible to attract non-Sephardim, who are seeking a Judaism of that kind, to the traditional Sephardic way. Can it be done? Only if there is a major effort to revive Sephardic halakhic customs interpretation, train Sephardic rabbinical leadership, and present the Sephardic way as an equally valid expression of Judaism, one that avoids Reformation-style schismatics and speaks on behalf of an organic Judaism through which Jews as a group are linked to a common tradition, while as individuals they make their own choices as to how to relate to and express that tradition.
The revival of Sephardic Judaism of this kind is the need of the hour in Jewish life everywhere, in Jerusalem or Brooklyn. The best opportunity for doing so is through the Sephardic way. A major effort must be launched by local community leaders to reconstruct the Sephardic halakhic tradition and make it a living tradition with Rabbis addressing the great religious questions of our time in the Sephardic way. The restoration of traditional Sephardic modes of teaching and learning and the establishment of educational institutions, particularly rabbinical educational institutions, that will provide a home for those modes and train people able to express and continue the traditional Sephardic way.
Bio - Professor Daniel J Elazar (1934–1999) was the author or editor of more than 60 books and many other publications including a 4-volume study of the Covenant Tradition in Politics, as well as Community and Polity, The Jewish Polity, and People and Polity, a trilogy on Jewish political and community organization from earliest times to the present. He also founded and edited the scholarly journal Jewish Political Studies Review was recognized as an expert on Jewish community organization worldwide, on the Jewish political tradition, and on Israel's government and politics. He was a consultant to the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, the City of Jerusalem, and to most major Jewish organizations in the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, South Africa and Australia. He took a leadership role in numerous local and national Jewish organizations. He was President of the American Sephardi Federation, and served on the International Council of Yad V'Shem.