September 23, 2019

An Old-New Way of Looking at Judaism

After many years as a contributor to the Jewish Journal, I am pleased to join the Journal’s family of bloggers.

The Jewish world is multi-faceted, complex and diverse. Our tradition celebrates the inclusion of multiple voices. Some call us “The People of the Book.” I prefer to identify us as “The People of the Interpretation of the Book.” We are famous for producing multi-layered commentaries on one line of text, multi-generational debates over that same text and its commentaries, and continuous, often inconclusive arguments about how to interpret that same text today.

In the pantheon and array of Jewish voices, I am pleased to offer my readers a voice that often goes unheard: the contemporary Sephardic voice. A colleague recently expressed to me that the “Sephardic Voice” – irrespective of one’s ethnic Jewish origins – probably represents the “silent majority” in many diaspora communities, and in Israel. In the diaspora, it might be called the “Jew next door,” and in Israel, it’s often referred to as “Middle Israel.”

What is the “Sephardic Voice” in this blog? Allow me to first tell you what it isn’t. If you are looking for a discussion of Sephardic recipes and folk traditions, this is not the blog for you. Nor will this be a blog that focuses exclusively on particularly “Sephardic matters,” although I certainly plan to call my reader’s attention to issues in the global Sephardic community that the larger Jewish world often ignores.

The “Sephardic Voice,” as I understand it, emerges first and foremost from my upbringing as a Sephardic Jew.

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. We may not have been considered “religious enough” by certain people’s standards, but we were unapologetic about who we were. We did not live our Jewish practices to conform to somebody else’s opinion, nor did we change our way of life because a rabbi issued an edict 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 life. 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”. Our Shabbat tables – and our Jewish lives in general – were not expressions 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. Instead, it was naturally lived by thousands of families, and was the intellectual and spiritual mode of teaching by Sephardic rabbis and sages for generations, all the way into the modern world. This became known as the “ Classic Sephardic Way of Life” – tradition, culture, intellect, spirituality, tolerance, and non-extremism. Life lived in the cherished and golden “middle path,” as Maimonides called it.

It is through these lenses – my “Sephardic Lenses” – that I see the Jewish world, and it is through these “Sephardic Lenses” that I will be blogging on a host of intellectual, spiritual and communal issues. Whether I write on particularly “Sephardic” issues, or whether I write on Israel, Agnon, Sabato, Jewish philosophy or the various other intellectual passions in my life, my worldview is deeply informed and influenced by my classic Sephardic upbringing and way of thinking.  I feel privileged to have been raised this way, and especially privileged to now be the voice that shares this unique Jewish way of life with the larger Jewish world.

I look forward to launching a vibrant new dialogue…