Orthodox Jews at a market.
End of September, in Israel and all over the Jewish world, Jews celebrate the Biblical
holiday of Sukkot - Festival of Booths - with blessings of the 4 specious - Etrog (kind
of citrus special for Israel), myrtle, palm and willow - which are selected carefully by
religious Jews at the dedicated market. here in the port city of Haifa, Israel.
Shael Siegel, post-denominational rabbi, educator, commen-
tator and observer of the Jewish religious/social landscape. And author of this article.
Recently, Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph (the spiritual mentor of Shas, a Sephardic political movement), was sited in an article in the
Israeli daily newspaper, Maariv, in which he maintains that the mechitza (partition between men and women) was unnecessary
at joyous occasion, such as weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs under certain circumstances. This halachic ruling was predicated
on a question asked of him regarding family harmony: "If the mechitza caused family tension was it necessary?" Rabbi Yoseph responded, "Sometimes a family is not so pious, does not want a mechitza, and prefers that everyone sit together at one table. This is not something to fight over. If a mechitza is possible, then it should be erected, but if it is not, it can be done away with." This approach to Jewish law is refreshing, especially considering the increase in stringent interpretation of the law developing almost daily. The stringent interpretation of law, known as "chumras" are especially burdensome and bothersome because
they usually affect family harmony.
What makes the religious ruling even more interesting is that the rabbi is Sephardic, a Gadol (sage), and living in Israel. I never
would have expected this ruling from an Ashkenazi Rav of that stature. For a sage of that caliber to take such a position could
only be possible if it was made by a Sephardic, because their fundamental "gestalt" differs dramatically from their Ashkenazi brothers.
The differences between a Sephardic and an Ashkenazi become apparent when one experiences Sephardic culture in Israel. In America, the Ashkenazi influence is too overpowering and overbearing. Sephardic Jews attend Ashkenazi based synagogues, religious schools and yeshivot, for the most part. Even if you are part of a Sephardic community with their infrastructure of shuls
and yeshivot, they are still conscious of the Ashkenazi perception of the-- thus tailoring their behavior based on standards of
the Ashkenazim. Many of the Sephardic rabbis in America studied in Ashkenazi yeshivot so their religious outlook was certainly influenced by the Ashkenazi dominated culture. Thus, the only place to get a clearer picture of Sephardic religious culture is in Israel.
As a rabbinical student studying "Yoreh Deyah" (section of Jewish Law) the primary text was rarely referred to by the proper
noun "Beis Yoseph," (Sephardic) but rather by the noun "Mechaber" (generic term for an author). Interestingly, when there
was a distinct difference of opinion between the "Mechaber" and the minority opinion referred to by th proper noun "Ramah," (Askenazi) it was presented as a difference of opinion between the Mechaber and Ramah, and not between the Beis Yoseph
and the Ramah. By doing this, indirectly the Beis Yoseph was depersonalized, while the Rama maintained a personal identity.
The issues were not presented as a difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi culture, but between the Mechaber and
Ramah. We never received a picture of an intellectually vibrant and effervescent Sephardi culture that needed to be contended
with. It was nameless and faceless. Interestingly, when Sephardim study the same text, they refer to the Mechaber as Maran Habet Yosef!
Even in Israel, the cultural differences between the two ethnic groups are difficult to distinguish because of the Ashkenazi dominance of religion and culture. This seems to be changing, but the change is slow and sometimes barely perceptible.
One of the most offensive images I ever had of a Sephardi rabbi in Israel was to see him behave as an Ashkenazi at the ex-
pense of his own rich heritage. It is bad enough to be a rabbi in Israel-- because for the most part they are clerics, employees
of the state, with little status among the general population. Diluting Sephardic culture with an Ashkenazi overlay adds insult to injury. The most glaring example, is to see a Sephardi rabbi dressed as an Eastern European rabbi, outfitted in a black suit,
white shirt, no tie and a black hat. In time, their own identities will become stronger and they will shed the trappings of the Ashkenazi world.
What the Sephardim never absorbed into their cultural/religious heritage was the Ashkenazi approach to religion. At the risk
of getting pummeled by both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, I do believe that Sephardim have a more wholesome and healthier attitude and approach to religion. Ashkenazim view religion as exacting and technical, more stringent, less loving, and less forgiving. Sephardim are very much the opposite. Of course, it really depends on what kind of Sephardi you are. By and large,
they all have a more inclusive approach: more loving and forgiving minus much of the stringent and strict mentality of their
eastern European brothers. This is not to say that Sephardim are less pious or righteous than their Ashkenazi brothers-- but
to their credit they have developed over the centuries a "rhythm" to their Jewishness that Ashkenazim can learn from. Their religiosity is not their second skin, but their primary skin. They have a genuine quality that defies replication. Ashkenazim,
for some reason always appear as though they are trying to recover what was lost. There is this constant adulation for years
gone by and an eternal attempt to rebuild a culture that was, but is no more.
How is it, that the level of tolerance is obvious among the Sephardim, but visibly absent among the Ashkenazim? It goes
back to the fact that Sephardim feel more comfortable in their skin because it is their only skin, while for Ashkenazim it is
their second skin. As a result they are less comfortable and less tolerant. Perhaps the difference in the way the two commu-
nities wrap tefilin (phylacteries) is symbolic. Sephardim tend to wrap their tefilin
around their arm outwardly while Ashkenazim wrap them inwardly. Would this in some way underscore the difference
between the two cultures? The Sephardim wrap the tefilin outwardly, representing a sense of being more inviting and accep-
ting of those from the outside. In contrast, the Ashkenazim wrap the tefilin inwardly, suggesting an insular group and less
open to those outside of their surroundings. This recent ruling of Harav Ovadia Yosef is not earth shattering, but nevertheless
very revealing of his empathy for Am Yisrael and the need to reach out and bridge the chasm whenever and however possible.
By Shael Siegel, Ph.D.