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. Perhaps we were viewed as “not religious enough” by some in the community, but we were unapologetic about who we were. We did not see our Jewish practices as having 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,” preferring instead to convey a positive spiritual message. 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 the classic Sephardic rabbis and sages of yesteryear. 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.

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.

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 Haham (Rabbinic scholar) to be strict. Any ignorant person knows how to say, “No, it’s prohibited.” On the other hand, a freewheeling, irreverent, “do whatever feels right” approach to halakha is also at odds with the classic Sephardic tradition. It’s a lot easier to be extreme to either side, but seeking the balanced middle ground takes knowledge, understanding, sensitivity and creativity. These ingredients were once the hallmarks of the classic Sephardic halakhic tradition.

In a recently published article titled “The Leadership and Tradition of Sephardic Sages in the Modern Era,” my dear friend and colleague Rabbi Yitschak Shuraki—himself a classic Sephardic Talmid Haham, and the Rosh Beit Midrash of the MERHAV Rabbinic program in Jerusalem (a joint program of Memizrach Shemesh and theSephardic Educational Center) 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 G-d and their commitment to serve G-d and the community brought them to adopt original halakhic stances in order to deal with new situations, without fearing lenient decisions, rulings and originality.”

“To spread Torah among students, to love the Torah and its mitzvot, to love the Land of Israel and its holiness, to love absolutely every Jewish man and woman and the people of Israel in its entirety; to love G-d, the Lord of Israel; to bring peace among all Jews physically and spiritually, in their words and actions, in their thoughts and in the ruminations of their hearts, in all their steps and deeds, at home and in the street, in the village and in the city; to bring true peace in the house of Israel, to the entire congregation of Israel in all its subdivisions and groupings; and between Israel and their Father in heaven.”

The goals of Rav Uziel, the State of Israel’s first Sephardic Chief Rabbi

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 Haham who delves deeply into an issue and finds a lenient halakhic solution.

Deciding halakha stringently does not reflect the greatness of a Haham. Many times, a stringent ruling attests to a theoretical educational concern, or to outright communal fear of actually making a halakhic decision. Both are factors that prevent the Haham from choosing the lenient path over the stricter one.

The responsibility of the Haham 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.

From the lively Shabbat tables of our ancestors to the inspirational teachings of our sages, it’s time for us to recapture the authentic classic Sephardic spirit.

The Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox world—with its extremist, anti-modern and anti-Zionist ideology, is absolutely alien and foreign to the classic Sephardic tradition.

Unfortunately, this is what much of the Sephardic world has become today. Donned in black fedora’s and black suits, a mode of dress as foreign to Sephardim as the extremist ideology that comes with it, today’s so-called Sephardic leaders, and many of their followers, have veered far away from the traditions and way of life of their parents and grandparents, and of the halakhic rulings of the rabbis and sages from their country’s of origin. It’s certainly not the way my parents raised me.

The loss of the true and authentic Sephardic way of life is lamentable for the Jewish world. Consider the following: 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.

There are some who would view such a statement as “too liberal” and “a threat to Jewish tradition.” But someone who hardly was viewed as a “liberal” or a “threat to Jewish tradition wrote these words. Written in an article titled “On the Flexibility of Halakha,” these are the words of Rav Haim David Halevi (1924-1998), the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, and a classic Sephardic Talmid Haham whose way of life—at home and in his writings—defined the essence of the authentic Sephardic way of life. His many books on halakha, Jewish thought and Jewish life were a creative fusion of tradition and modernity, peppered with the Sephardic flavors of tolerance and non-extremism.

What about Rav Uziel (1880-1953), the State of Israel’s first Sephardic Chief Rabbi? A prolific halahkic genius and outspoken proponent of the tolerant, moderate Sephardic point of view, Rav Uziel is the absolute exemplary standard of the classic Sephardic rabbi and leader in the modern era. Here is an excerpt from the “Spiritual Will” he wrote towards the end of his life, outlining what his goals in life were: To spread Torah among students, to love the Torah and its mitzvot, to love the Land of Israel and its holiness, to love absolutely every Jewish man and woman and the people of Israel in its entirety; to love G-d, the Lord of Israel; to bring peace among all Jews physically and spiritually, in their words and actions, in their thoughts and in the ruminations of their hearts, in all their steps and deeds, at home and in the street, in the village and in the city; to bring true peace in the house of Israel, to the entire congregation of Israel in all its subdivisions and groupings; and between Israel and their Father in heaven.

Imagine what a positive impact Sephardic Judaism would have on today’s Jewish world if our religious leaders would think and speak like Rav Uziel and Rav Haim David Halevi.

The late Israeli sociologist Dr. Daniel Elazar wrote: The revival of a living organic Judaism is the need of the hour in Jewish life. The best opportunity for doing so is through the Sephardic way. But can it be done? Only if there is a major effort to revive Sephardic halakhic interpretation, train Sephardic rabbinical leadership, and present the Sephardic way as an equally valid expression of Judaism. A major effort must be launched to reconstruct the Sephardic halakhic tradition and make it a living tradition with posekim (halakhic authorities) addressing the great religious questions of our time in the Sephardic way. The restoration of Sephardic modes of teaching and learning and the establishment of educational institutions, particularly higher educational institutions, that will provide a home for those modes and train people able to express and continue the Sephardic way.

The Jewish world today is expressed in extremes, to the right and to the left. We have lost the beautiful middle ground expressed by 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 Maimonides’ cherished golden path that once characterized our classic Jewish way of life. This can especially prove enlightening for the younger generation that seems to be confused and caught between polar extremes.

Irrespective of one’s ethnic background, Sephardic Judaism offers both Sephardim and Ashkenazim a world-view that simultaneously respects tradition and embraces modernity, promotes intellectual and spiritual growth, and fosters a halakhic way of life that is meaningful, inviting and moderate in its approach.

From the lively Shabbat tables of our ancestors to the inspirational teachings of our sages, it’s time for us to recapture the authentic classic Sephardic spirit.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the Director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

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