“Sefardic Moderation” – A Dissenting View

[The following is a translation of an article on ynet written by a Dr. Ariel Picard, a senior member of the über-liberal Hartman Institute. I bring it here to encourage discussion. While I certainly don’t agree with everything said here, I do salute Dr. Picard for blasting the treacly and false image of a pre-’67 period of religious-secular harmony many old-timers like to paint round here. I even wrote a few posts on the subject a-way back when.

One note: The label “Modern Orthodoxy” in the article (and in Israel) refers to what is known in the states as LWMO (usually the hard-left MO).

Enjoy – Avi/AIWAC]

In the past few months Rabbi MK Haim Amsalem has caused a storm resulting from public criticism which he leveled at his party, Shas. In his opinion, Shas has moved away from the Sefardic world-view and today serves an Askenazic-Lithuanian ideology.

The criticism which Amsalem leveled at the party – and Shas’ unequivocal response to it – raised a deeper issue, which touches on the adoption of Haredi-Lithuanian halachic interpretation by the Sefardi religious leadership, and makes it possible to examine the differences between Sefardic halachic rulings and Ashkenazic rulings in the last few centuries.

Embedded in the argument that the Sefardi Rabbis “forgot their heritage” in the Lithuanian yeshivot is something mistaken, if not outright belittling. Rav Ovadia and Rav Mazoz, Rav Amsalem’s Rav, are conservative in their rulings – even though they did not learn in Lithuanian Yeshivot. The extremism we see among Sefardic Rabbis today is not because they were babes who were drawn in by Lithuanian Yeshivot. The extremism is a typical response of a traditional society which comes into contact with Modern society, as experienced by Jews who came here from the Islamic countries. This is their response to Modern Israelism.

It’s true that Jews in Morroco and Algeria also came into contact with modernity in their countries of origin, and they were also familiar with the phenomenon of secularization within the Jewish community. In Baghdad there certainly were Jewish communists and Zionists so the exposure to Modern Israel was not a total shock for them, as it was for the Jews of Yemen. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between “here and “there”.

There, in the countries of origin, the structure of the Jewish community was clear, and at its head stood Rabbis committed to tradition. There was no anti-religious leadership in Jewish communities in the Islamic countries.  In Israel, by contrast, the hegemonic leadership in the 50s and 60s was a secular socialist one, which was ideologically non-religious. This was a secularism that held tradition in general and Eastern tradition in particular in contempt. The critical event as far as Mizrach Jews goes, therefore, was not the exposure to the Lithuanian Yeshiva, but with the secular hegemony, with Modern Israelism.

The Jews of Baghdad and Casablanca who came to Israel encountered a much more aggressive secularism than the one they knew in their cosmopolitan cities. Because of this, the Rabbis felt attacked. In the mother communities, they had a feeling of security, in Israel they felt that they are losing their children to the secular hegemony. Against the deep Israeli secularism, they responded in a much more extreme fashion than in their countries of origin.

The choice of the Haredi model as a response to the encounter with Zionism was also clear: after all, from the point of view of the Rabbis, it was a model that worked. The Mizrahi Jews are learning that the individuals who stood firm and proud against the tide of modernity were the Haredim. Who will Rav Ovadia join? It is almost instinctively clear to him that the Ashkenazi Haredim are closer to him, and he can find in them partners for the difficult struggle against modernity and permissiveness.

Rav Ovadia is Haredi in that he sees modernity as the enemy. He does indeed come from a tradition of moderation, and therefore his halahic rulings are more moderate, but it is important to be careful and avoid confusing halachic moderation with adoption of the values of modernity. Rav Ovadia is not a humanist and is not a liberal, as opposed to what members of the Israeli left think of him. He might support this or that [peace] treaty, but he does not hold to essential positions of the left. His essential positions and his biggest concerns are that of the Haredi Jew.

The religious-liberal public holds to a romantic and largely paternalistic position regarding Mizrahi Jews and their Rabbis and therefore is constantly being disappointed by them. It wants its liberal positions to find expression in Jewish tradition and therefore latches onto Mizrahi Rabbis as an anchor for its modernity. But this analysis is wrong. Most Mizrahi Rabbis did not adopt modernity in the same was Modern Orthodoxy adopts it today.

Therefore there is no difference between Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai. Deri may seem nicer to secular Jews, he’s a “cool guy”, but his fundamental positions are contrary to modernity.  Both Deri and Yishai were partners to the great project of Shas – to fortify the world of Torah, whose job it is to protect the Sefradi public from modernity. For more than 20 years they have been doing this with much success, building separate institutions, not sending their kids to the army or university, creating a separatist and solidified society. Now Rav Amsalem comes along and wants to turns them into mizrochniks, those kippa seruga types? Of course they’ll go against it with everything they have.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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1 Response to “Sefardic Moderation” – A Dissenting View

  1. Pingback: Sephardic Moderation-A Dissenting View « Menachem Mendel

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