Though the “unifying” holiday of Shavuot was just here, it looks like some Ashkenazim in the modern orthodox camp may unfortunately be considering splintering again. The latest being “open” orthodoxy vs. traditional orthodoxy. There is much emotion invested in this discussion. Based on a recent Pew study showing growth and successful outreach in the more observant sectors, some are not predicting a robust future for a new liberal splinter group, if they do splinter. For 150 years Ashkenazim have unfortunately, been splintering and reinventing: reformed, conservative, and reconstruction and gradations in between. Further, some secular Ashkenazim aren’t just non-observant, they are actively anti-religious and even lead some of the anti-Israel movements. Through all of this, the Sephardim have never had any major philosophical split. There are geographically based traditions, but there is not really any major Sephardic labeling of Sephardic reformed or Sephardic open orthodox, just Sephardic – just Jewish. One wonders if the Ashkenazim peak across the cultural mehitza will they see principles which will help the cause of unity.
Many Ashkenazim ascribe the cause of their splintering to the influence of the external culture which they say Sephardim did not face to the same extent: the pressure of enlightenment and later assimilation, the pressure to mirror the strictness of the German culture, or the pressure of Christian and secular influences. There may well be truth to the impact of external influences. But are there internal influences in the way Sephardic Jews observe that help create unity?
Fifty-one percent of Jewish Israelis are Sephardic. Yet according to a recent Pew study, only one-third of Sephardic Jews identify as secular vs. two thirds of Ashkenazim. Many non-observant Sephardic Jews in Israel are, by and large, traditional in many respects. Many kiss mezuzot, have Friday night meals with family, have great respect for parents and grandparents and have some core belief in HaShem. (In America, assimilation rates may be the same for Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, though, again amongst the secular Sephardim one generally doesn’t find virulent anti-religious and anti-Israel advocates.)
Here are some threads in observance and tradition in synagogues, communities and family life which woven together may have a unifying affect:
1) Children stand for their parents and grandparents and everyone stands for Rabbaim when they have an aliyah or often even when they enter a room.
2) In the Galut, Kohanim give a daily blessing and Sephardic Jews often seek those blessings.
3) Every word is said aloud and many people participate so everyone tends to learn the tefillah through repetition.
4) There is a significant amount of joy and singing during tefillah.
5) There is, in general, a quieter setting (less talking) – which may have to do with both respect for tefillah and participation.
6) The attributes of HaShem are often described in the feminine form in the tefilot which may create a more merciful relationship.
7) The “love song” Shir Ha Shirim between the Jewish people and HaShem is recited every Friday evening.
8) Selichot has aspects of a 30 day participational concert – leading to a Yom Kippur final performance.
9) There are not Sephardic communities separated from the general population in Israel.
10) There are no Sephardic Synagogues in the galut or Israel which say Tachanun on Yom Yerushalaim or Yom HaAtzmaut, perhaps because Sephardic Rabbaim and congregants have a strong spoken recognition of HaShem’s role in Israel, the larger world, and one’s personal life.
11) In some settings there may be a bit less judgment and a bit more welcoming reception for the lesser observant.
12) Halachic decisions over the years have been quite firm and respected in some areas but very accommodating in others with few unnecessary fences.
13) Learning is prized but often more in the model of the Rambam where work is prized as well.
Together these threads and others do seem to fall within several core principles and help weave a spirit of unity. Having a core and common belief in a loving G-d who is involved in our lives is unifying. Respect for parents, grandparents, Rabbaim, brachot and tefilot is unifying. Love of Israel and Jews of all stripes is unifying. Respect by Rabbaim of Rabbinic leaders and at the same time, willingness of Rabbaim to be flexible at times yet firm at others is unifying. And, so important – joy and music is unifying.
(Because the Chabad movement observes some of the aforementioned traditions, they too are a unifying force.)
No doubt there are challenges in the Sephardic world. In Israel some have issues with Shas party politics or have concerns that halacha has become more stringent than required because of Ashkenazic pressure. But with that said, religious unity is still strong. Ashkenazic Jewry has many, many strengths. However, if Ashkenazim would examine their challenging state of affairs re: unity and peek across the cultural mehitza, would they find strengthening some of these core principles and ways of living, helpful in bringing the Jewish world closer?