Commentary Magazine

The Sephardi Heritage

To the Editor:

Chaim Raphael’s conclusion in “Jewish History and the Sephardim” [May] that “some transformation is called for in which the pride of the Sephardi heritage is given the weight it deserves in Jewish self-consciousness” must be acted upon, in order to heal the damage caused by Israel’s Western chauvinism. This proclamation of Western superiority has been, and is, a dual curse for Israel: in addition to alienating more than half of Israel’s Jews, it also estranges and is an irritant to Israel’s Arabs (approximately 600,000) and its Arab neighbors.

It is high time for Ashkenazim to ponder George Steiner’s remarks in Language and Silence: “We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz. . . . The mass murder of the Jews and . . . the destruction under Nazism and Stalinism . . . rose from . . . the core of European civilization.”

As for stimulating pride in the Sephardi heritage, there are much more basic ingredients of the Jewish heritage than the centuries of the “Jewish-Muslim symbiosis” and Yemenite folklore and dance, though these are important. But infinitely more important is the fact that the basic Jewish texts were created in the “Orient.” I am referring to those texts which all Jews venerate and in which Jewish faith is articulated. There is, first of all, the Hebrew Bible, whose imagery, flora and fauna, seasons and calendar are those of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near and Middle East. The prayers for weekdays, holidays, and the Sabbath which are not biblical texts were written by Babylonian and Egyptian Jews a thousand and more years ago. The additions of the Ashkenazi prayer rite are incidental and lack halakhic validity. The Mishnah; the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds; the midrashim and the vast geonic literature; the many kabbalistic texts, notably the Zohar; the Shulhan Arukh, the authoritative code of law—all these basic and truly great Jewish works are the creations of the ancestors of those who, today, are Israel’s edot hamizrach, “Oriental”/Sephardi Jews. . . .

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin
Editor, Jewish Spectator
Santa Monica, California



Chaim Raphael writes:

I entirely agree with the point made by Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, namely, that “the basic Jewish texts were created in the ‘Orient.’” I thought, indeed, that I had covered this by saying that “the Jewish faith, expressed in ritual and learning, took its shape for all centuries to come from the Jewish authorities in ‘Babylonia’ (modern Iraq).” However, it is helpful to see this spelled out in more detail. Indeed, one could go farther. The connection with “Babylon” is very mysterious in its power in Jewish life. The Jewish people came to life in the land of the Two Rivers as part of the movement of peoples in the Middle East, and though deeply involved with these cultures, still managed to create a wholly individual outlook. Babylon saved the Jewish people and the Bible in the First Exile, kept Jewish life going there after the Return, and was ready to pick up the ball once again in the Second Exile, creating a coherent view of faith that was to be a living source for Jews everywhere. As an ardent Litvak, I have one slight reservation in all this. There can be no question that Babylon is the source; yet the miracle of Ashkenazi resurgence in Eastern Europe from the 18th century is also magical, both in the unimaginably rich talent it ultimately released, and in the Ashkenazi role in creating modern Israel.

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