Give Sephardi voices a seat at the global Jewish table

It is rare that a week passes without a new initiative in the Jewish world to promote pluralism and diversity. However, what is almost always missing, with very few exceptions, is a voice from outside the Ashkenazi world.

Ashley Perry
Ashley Perry is an adviser to the Middle East Forum’s Israel office. He served as an adviser to Israel’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister from 2009 to 2015. He is president of Reconectar, an organization dedicated to relinking the more than 200 million descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to Israel and Jewish life. Originally from the United Kingdom, he moved to Israel in 2001.

It is rare that a week passes without a new initiative in the Jewish world to promote pluralism and diversity. I believe it is always worthy to focus on what unites us as a people rather than on what divides us.

Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef. Credit: Mark Neiman/GPO.

Usually, different leaders or communities from across the religious and denominational spectrum are brought together to either answer a challenge on the Jewish communal agenda or to try repair relationships that may be fraught as a result of an issue or policy.

However, what is almost always missing, with very few exceptions, is a voice from outside the Ashkenazi world.

There appears to be no sense of irony in celebrating diversity and pluralism while leaving out certain ethnic subsets among our people, representing more than one-fifth of world Jewry, including the majority of Israel’s Jews, from the discussion.

A case in point is what was titled in a major Jewish publication as a “Rabbi Roundtable,” which “brought together leading rabbis from all corners of the Jewish world to offer their thoughts on the big questions.”

From the 22 names and the bios on display it quickly becomes apparent, that apart from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who unknown probably to the majority of Jews has Iranian heritage, all the other rabbis were Ashkenazi. Furthermore, even if there was another with Sephardi and Mizrahi heritage, none represented a non-Ashkenazi community.

So how is it that “all corners of the Jewish world,” to use this one of many examples, excludes non-Ashkenazi Jews and communities?

Perhaps the truth lies in what is one of Sephardi Jewry’s greatest strengths—it never became segmented.

The terms Conservative, Reform, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox were never part of the Sephardi lexicon. Synagogues and communities have not been divided by their theology or level of observance.

Go to any Sephardi synagogue and you are just as likely to see men in jeans as men with black hats. While some might subsequently spend the night learning, others might spend it in a nightclub, sometimes even in the same family.

By in large, the overwhelming majority of Sephardi Jews, especially in Israel, are defined as “traditional.” This is a unifying definition that usually denotes a level of observance somewhere between approaching full observance and non-observance.

Many in Israel and around the world like to think the Jewish state has a growing and antagonistic religious-secular divide with few shades of grey. However, when pollsters dig down and widen the categories, the largest groups in Israel are the “traditional” and “traditional-religious.”

These groups are overwhelmingly from Sephardi and Mizrahi backgrounds.

Unfortunately, far too many fall into the binary religious-secular trap, including Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin.

At the prestigious Herzliya Conference in 2015, Rivlin talked about Israeli society and identity subsumed by four separate groups split along “tribal” lines—Arab, ultra-Orthodox, national-religious and secular.

While Rivlin’s focus on his “four tribes” is an admirable attempt for greater unity and integration into Israeli society, it once again appears to omit a great number of Israelis who do not fit neatly into any of these categories.

Maybe Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews have, during the millennia of history, been able to deal with disparate voices from within the tent and not needed to create new terms or groups, whether an offshoot or a reaction to another.

It is not as if the Sephardi and Mizrahi world has not seen its fair shares of controversies, from Sabbateanism, which almost crippled many Mediterranean communities, to the Dor Daim and Iqshim dispute in Yemen. However, the communities largely had an inbuilt resistance to permanent fissures, perhaps tracing back to the largely accepted “Golden Mean” of Maimonides.

In the 12th century, Maimonides wrote, “The right way is the disposition which is equidistant from two extremes.”

There are two extremes and many points in between—and the desirable point is right in the middle.

Moderation is just not exciting; it doesn’t usually arouse passions or debate. It doesn’t allow for the formation of two opposing sides that need to be brought together through notions such as pluralism or diversity.

Nevertheless, there is no justification for the absence of non-Ashkenazi voices from large parts of the Jewish debate.

The wider Jewish world should pay more attention to the minority within, even if it seems strange or foreign to “standard” notions of Judaism.

Sephardi and Mizrahi voices need to be included and have a seat at the global Jewish table.

I would humbly suggest that something interesting and useful might be learned from a tradition of moderation, tolerance and the under-usage of appellations.

Perhaps Sephardi Jewish insights and perspectives might also be able to bring us all closer to the vaunted Jewish unity.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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