(originally published in 2014
still relevant 8 years later)
By Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
I was raised in a home where terms like “Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Haredi, Secular Zionist” or the like were not a part of our vocabulary. Jews were Jews. In our home, we observed and respected our traditions, including Shabbatot, holidays and synagogue life. We may not have been considered “religious enough” by certain people’s standards, but we were unapologetic about who we were. We did not live our Jewish practices to conform to somebody else’s opinion, nor did we change our way of life because a rabbi wrote an article deciding to impose new strictures on the community. We celebrated Judaism with a deep sense of commitment to our heritage, and to the traditions of our family’s ancestors. We observed Judaism with warmth and beauty. Shabbat and holiday tables had a sense of artistic grandeur and culinary magic. We delighted in our foods, our tunes, and our stories. We didn’t spend much time talking about our “philosophy or ideology.” We ate, we sang, told and listened to stories, and we celebrated. Conversations about “Haredim on the right” or “Secularists on the left” were not a part of our Shabbat tables. Classic “Divrei Torah” (words of Torah) were not always shared at the table, but if they were, they were void of so-called “Jewish politics”. Our Shabbat tables – and our Jewish lives in general – were void of denominational ideologies or affiliations. Some may view this as naïve or simplistic. I view it as an “undeclared ideology,” one that was not born in conferences or conventions, but was naturally lived by thousands of Sephardic families, and was the mode of teaching by Sephardic rabbis and sages. This became known as the “Sephardic Way of Life” – tradition, celebration, tolerance, and non-extremism. Life lived in the cherished and golden “middle path,” as Maimonides called it.
When I identify myself as a “Sephardic Jew” today, it is these very values handed to me by my parents that serve as my frame of reference. For me, “Sephardic” means much more than my ethnic background, my cuisine, or my particular set of customs and traditions. It is a Jewish way of life that looks at Judaism without labels, places the unity of the Jewish people above any one particular denomination or ideology, and understands that Jewish tradition – primarily halakha – will only survive and thrive if rabbis are endowed with the creative license and authority (as they were in the past) to facilitate Jewish life within the modern world that we live in.
Until very recently, when Lithuanian ultra-Orthodoxy came to influence certain sectors of Sephardic rabbinic leadership, the classic position of Sephardic rabbis was always one that balanced tradition and modernity, and reflected a tolerant and moderate approach to halakha. Sephardic rabbis always understood that it does not take a great Talmid Hakham (Rabbinic Scholar) to be strict. Anyone knows how to say “no,” and a ruling of “it’s absolutely prohibited” usually reflects ignorance of halakha and of the halakhic system. On the other hand, a freewheeling, irreverent, “do whatever feels right” approach to halakha is also at odds with Jewish tradition. It’s a lot easier to be extreme to either side, but seeking the balanced middle ground takes knowledge, understanding, sensitivity to the circumstances…and creativity, which is the hallmark of the Sephardic halakhic tradition.
In an article titled “The Leadership and Tradition of Sephardic Sages in the Modern Era,” Rabbi Yitschak Shuraki of Jerusalem’s Memizrach Shemesh writes:
What characterizes the rabbinic methods of the Sephardic sages?
Between the strict and the liberal positions, the Sephardic Sages established a third path in which their great humility before God and their commitment to serve God and the community brought them to adopt original halakhic stances in order to deal with new situations, without fearing lenient decisions, rulings and originality.
One of the characteristic principles of the Sephardic sages is the way they determine halakha. This is the basic principle known in rabbinic language as kohah dehetra adif – the power of the heter (the lenient path) is the preferred. This principle praises the greatness of the Hakham who delves deeply into an issue and finds a lenient halakhic solution.
Deciding halakha stringently does not reflect the greatness of a Hakham, and many times it attests to an educational concern, or to fear of deciding the halakha, which prevents the Hakham from choosing the easier path over the stricter one.
The responsibility of the Hakham is to the whole community, to all of the Jewish people, perhaps for all future generations. Therefore it would not be responsible to set an excessively stringent standard of halakha that would cause a great portion of the community to be lost if they cannot abide by it.
One of the 20th century’s greatest rabbinic figures is Rabbi Haim David Halevy, z”l. A classic Sephardic Talmid Hakham, Rabbi Halevy was the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel-Aviv, and the author of many important and popular works of halakha (Aseh Lekha Rav, Mekor Haim).
In an article titled “On the Flexibility of Halakha,” Rabbi Halevy wrote:
… [continuity of Judaism] is possible only because permission was given to Israel’s sages in each generation to renew halakha as appropriate to the changes of times and events. Only by virtue of this was the continuous existence of Torah in Israel possible, enabling Jews to follow the way of Torah…There is nothing so flexible as the flexibility of Torah…it is only by virtue of that flexibility that the People of Israel, through the many novel and useful rulings innovated by Israel’s sages over the generations, could follow the path of Torah and its commandments for thousands of years.
The Jewish world today is expressed in extremes, to the right and to the left. We seem to have lost the beautiful middle ground expressed by many of our Sephardic sages, and by our parents and grandparents. We need to move away from ideological and halakhic extremism, and instead seek to re-capture the cherished golden path that once characterized our classic Jewish way of life.
The revival of the beautiful Sephardic approach lived by our ancestors is the need of the hour for the Jewish people, especially for the younger generation that seems to be confused and caught between polar extremes.
Sephardic Judaism offers the young generation a Torah that respects tradition and embraces modernity, promotes intellectual and spiritual growth, and reflects a halakha that is open, inviting and moderate in its approach.
It’s time for a change. Actually, it’s time to go back to those Shabbat tables I grew up with.