Guest Column: David Shasha, the founder and director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York, is one of my favorite weekly email reads. (You can subscribe, too, by contacting him directly.) Arab and Jew are not mutually exclusive categories. Quite the contrary. Anyone who tells you, as so many “pundits” do in this society when trying to explain the Middle East, that “Jews and Arabs have been fighting for thousands of years,” is speaking from ignorance. The idea of a conflict between “Jews” and “Arabs” is really only as old as modern political Zionism, and really only took on a generalized form in the second half of the 20th century amid the trauma that accompanied the creation of the State of Israel. Jews and Arabs had, in fact, lived together for hundreds of years in the Muslim world, and many Jews have always considered themselves Arab.
David Shasha makes the case that this branch of Judaism, what he calls the “Levantine Option”, is tragically silenced and excluded from the mainstream Ashkenazi and Zionist narrative that dominates discussion of the Jewish experience. He argues that while the Ashkenazi tradition was both heavily influenced by Western Christian traditions and also, because of persecution, evolved a far more narrow, insular “shtetl” outlook on Jewish identity. By contrast, he argues, the Sephardic experience, in the “convivienca” of Moorish Spain and the Arab lands in the Islamic golden age actually has much more to offer Jews looking for an expansive, universalist version of their identity in a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan world. It’s fascinating stuff: Read on!
A Jewish Voice Left Silent: Trying to Articulate “The Levantine Option”
By: David Shasha
Jewish ethnicity breaks down into two basic groups: Sephardic Jews, from Arab-Islamic lands in the Southern Mediterranean; and Ashkenazic Jews, from Christian Europe in the North. Occidental Jews have taken on many of the traits of Western culture, while the Oriental Jews, many of whom continued to speak Arabic and partake of a common Middle Eastern culture until the mass dispersions of Jews from Arab countries after 1948, have preserved many of the folkways and traits of Arab civilization.
The movement of Jews out of the Arab world has greatly disrupted the bearings of Sephardic Jewry. A combination of anti-Arab sentiment propounded in Zionism and the shift in Jewish ethnicity in the United States away from the first American Jews — who were Sephardic, but who gave way to the successive waves of Ashkenazi immigrants beginning in the late 19th century — has eclipsed the rich culture and civilization of the Sephardim to the point where it is currently unknown and inaccessible.
Such a state of affairs is a great shame because this culture, what I have called “The Levantine Option,” could speak in a sophisticated and humane manner to many of the issues that we now face as American Jews; issues of assimilation, cultural alienation and a general sense of malaise and dysfunction.
America remains an open and pluralistic culture much as medieval Arab civilization was – a place where people are free to worship and believe as they wish. As licit members of Muslim society Jews were once free to adapt their culture to the Arabic model as articulated in the first centuries of Islam.
Prominent Sephardic rabbis, such as Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), disdained clericalism while espousing humanism and science, tying parochially Jewish concerns to a wider universalistic understanding of Man and the World.
Sephardic rabbis were not merely religious functionaries; they were poets, philosophers, astronomers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, linguists, merchants, architects, civic leaders and much else. Samuel the Nagid (993-1056), the famous polymath of Granada, even led military troops into battle in 11th century Andalusia.
While Ashkenazi Jews in the post-Enlightenment period broke off into bitter and acrimonious factions over how to deal with Modernity, Sephardim, true to “The Levantine Option,” remained united rather than let doctrine asphyxiate them and tear their communities apart as had been the case in Europe. A Jewish Reformation never took place in the Sephardic world because the Sephardim continued to maintain fidelity to their traditions while absorbing and adapting the ideas and trends of the world they lived in.
Sephardic Judaism was founded on the brilliant idea of Religious Humanism, a conception of Jewish civilization that integrated Jewish ritual practice with the humanistic legacy of Greco-Roman civilization. Religious Humanism is not a forced grafting of two incompatible ways of seeing, or a questioning of Jewish tradition, but an organic union of the human sciences with the sacred traditions of Judaism.
“The Levantine Option” was brought to the United States at the very inception of the republic: Jews living in Charleston, South Carolina, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, New York City, Newport, Rhode Island and various other port cities linked Jews to one another along the Atlantic coast(s) under the rubric of a shared civilization centuries old.
It was this connectivity that animated the first decades of Jewish life in America along the lines of the Sephardic model until the later Eastern European immigration took place at the beginning of the 20th century.
Arthur Kiron has described this now-forgotten Sephardic “Haskalah” in his eye-opening article “An Atlantic Jewish Republic of Letters” (Jewish History issue 20 (2006), pp. 171-211):
A circum-Atlantic network of Jewish publishers, authors and translators living in three port cities, London, Philadelphia, and Kingston, Jamaica became increasingly visible during the 1840s articulating these rhetorical strategies in print. This group can be considered a distinct sub-culture distinguished by the following features. The main actors were printers and preachers, merchants and professionals. They adopted English as their primary language of communication.
Sephardic history informed their self-understandings and manner of worship. They defended the binding character of rabbinic tradition, the oral law, and Jewish ritual observances (proscriptive dietary regulations, the keeping of the Sabbath, and other holiday festivals and customs).
They actively opposed Jewish religious reformers and Christian missionaries. They were involved in the emancipation arguments of their respective lands of relative political toleration and social inclusion. In short, they produced and circulated vernacular reading materials to promote a Victorian version of “Jewish enlightenment in an English key,” as David Ruderman has recently called it.
These individuals and their collective efforts fashioned a new, refined version of enlightened observant Jewish existence that comported with the English-speaking Victorian cultural orbit in which they lived.</blockquote>
Central to the development of this Sephardic Levantine Judaism was the figure of Rabbi Sabato Morais of Philadelphia (1823-1897), the founder of the original Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, who was a towering but now sadly forgotten figure in the changing orbit of American Jewry.
Morais exemplified in his demeanor and his teachings the values of thrift, humility, devotion, justice, integrity and many other important ethical concepts – particularly what Morais called in his native Italian <i>abnegazione,</i> the sense of self-sacrifice that we all recall from our Mediterranean grandparents, an innate and intense part of the Levantine heritage. All these traits Morais inherited from his Sephardi forbears.
Not for Morais the starkly doctrinal polemics of the Ashkenazim who sought to eviscerate the traditions of Sephardic Humanism from two diametrically opposed poles: There was on the one hand the development of a Reform Judaism which sought to gut the entire ritual framework of Judaism by establishing a new form of Judaism aiming to abandon the actual praxis of the traditional Jewish rituals seeking in vain to maintain the core meaning of those rituals. At the other extreme there was the development of a new Jewish fundamentalism along the lines of the famous pronouncements of the Hatam Sofer (1762-1839) which continue to animate the polemical spirit of American Jewish Orthodoxy that saw any signs of innovation as anathema. Sofer quoted the Talmudic dictum “He-hadash asur min ha-Torah” – the Torah prohibits the new – to justify his reactionary posture.
What if the future of the American Judaism lay in the amicable interaction of Judaism with its surrounding culture in a symbiotic formation that lays out commonalities with the host culture rather than the deep-seated differences that are rooted in the Ashkenazi experience?
If such a symbiosis were desirable, the memory of Moorish Spain where the three monotheistic religions were able to coexist and produce a civilization of great worth, would surely take prominence. The Sephardic voice would be central in articulating what was termed <i>Convivencia,</i> the creative cultural dynamic that fired medieval Spanish civilization, until its collapse in 1492.
“The Levantine Option” would help collapse the alienating cult of persecution harbored in classical Zionist thought and omnipresent in the various internal conflicts that continue to divide American Jews. In many ways American Jewish Orthodoxy has continued to articulate the values of European Judaism’s sense of the <i> Shtetl </i>mentality with a majority of American Jews simply turning off to this alienating approach to Jewish tradition and history.
Until we develop ways to understand Jewish tradition in such an enlightened and civilized way – from within a shared cultural space that exists for those of us who still espouse “The Levantine Option” – it is altogether possible that American Judaism will continue to be fragmented and divided among its sects. “The Levantine Option” is a means for Jews to reintegrate themselves into a harmony that would strengthen Jewish life and its relationship to its surrounding environment