March 08

A Sephardic Answer to Modern Jewish Identity

David Rabeeya

Sephardim are not new to America: the US’ oldest congregation is the Sephardic Shearith Israel

While no one can estimate the exact number of Sephardic Jews in the United States, the number is thought to be close to 150,000. Some of these Jews are the descendents of Spanish-Portuguese communities; some are the heirs of Jews who arrived from the Balkan and Islamic Middle East at the turn of the twentieth-century; some are Israeli immigrants from Iraq, Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Iran who settled in this country after the establishment of the state of Israel.

No matter what their country of origin, however, Sephardi Jews are more alike in religious practice than their Ashkenazic relations. Sephardim, despite their many linguistic and cultural differences, have retained common religious and historical bonds. Unlike Ashkenazic Jewry, which has become divided into Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, Sephardim have not been split into religious sects.

This unity among what is, after all, a minority group within the Jewish world, may indicate that the Sephardim have found a particularly resilient means to create a successful identity as Jews and can serve as models for contemporary Jewish life. Of particular significance is the Sephardi ability to thrive in unfriendly environments.

Rationalist Discourse

Living among Christians and Muslims, Sephardim turned to a purely rational interpretation of religious Jewish texts. This rational approach freed the Sephardi scholar from having to superimpose his or her own subjective and emotionally intensive feelings on these texts—emotions that could be swayed by the surrounding environment.

The rationalist approach can be seen not only in works of theology but also in liturgy. That is, it pervades Sephardic society, from rabbis to common folk. Pick up any traditional Sephardi prayer book and you will find many poems with philosophical themes and subjects concerning God, Torah and Israel, but few of the sentimental and emotional expressions that can be found in some non-Sephardic prayer books.

Baruch Spinoza: the Sephardic Jew who introduced the world to modernity

One outcome of this emphasis on rationalism (typified ultimately by Spinoza) was that Sephardim did not see a contradiction between their Jewish faith and their pride in their contributions to the world. In this worldview, science and faith can be incorporated without forming a wall of separation between the two.

Halachah in Context

Sephardi Jewry, like Ashkenazic Jewry, retained Halachah (Jewish laws) as an important religious reference. However, where Ashkenazim have tended to put Halachah above and before local customs, Sephardim have given much more credence to the well-established religious customs in various Jewish communities, customs that often responded to local Muslim and Christian practices.

For example, in the past, if a Sephardi rabbi found a barely perceptible drop of blood on the lung of a kosher animal he removed the blood and, for practical reasons, allowed the meat to be consumed, while an Ashkenazic rabbi would find the meat to be not kosher. Another example: in the Iraqi Jewish tradition the man who blew the shofar was often allowed to drink water several minutes before the conclusion of the fast of Yom Kippur in order for him to more comfortably produce a clear and strong sound when he blew the shofar.

Perhaps the best known example revolves around kosher for Passover food. In Talmudic literature, the rabbis argue about whether it is permissible to eat legumes and rice during Passover without coming to a clear conclusion. Ashkenazim, to safeguard the halachah, do not eat legumes and rice. Sephardic Jews, however, feel that, because no definitive conclusion was reached, there is no breaking of the law by eating these foods during Passover.

By allowing room for the local, Sephardi authorities helped Jews adapt to changing historical realities. One important consequence was that these customs enriched the social and the individual life of Jews who could not escape the influence of their non-Jewish environment.


One could say that in the Sephardi culture, realism wins out over idealism. For example, the idea and the practice of martyrdom are quite alien to Sephardi Jews. In matters of life and death, with situations of persecution and forced conversion imposed by non-Jews upon them, Sephardi Jews have frequently opted to convert and save life in order to somehow return to their faith in later times.

Ashkenazic authorities traditionally have placed a “fence around the Torah,” enlarging restrictions in order to be sure not to risk breaking the original rules. At least in the past, however, Sephardi Jews did not add such extra restrictions, believing it was more important to trust in the intelligence and integrity of Jews to follow the laws as written. In general, Sephardim, as rationalists, tend to believe that individuals who are well-schooled in the tradition should have fairly wide latitude to judge principles for themselves.

Jacques Derrida: the Sephardic Jew who introduced the world to postmodernity

Do little, but do right, could be said to be how many Sephardi Jews regard Jewish law. A Jew should try to follow the Jewish law, but he must not be controlled by inventions of religious leaders which could lead to fanaticism, radicalism and irrationality.

Indeed, one can only observe with sadness and sorrow how religious Sephardi authorities have adopted many of the strict religious practices and ideas of some extreme Ashkenazi religious Jewish leaders, betraying the religious tolerance and acceptance of themselves and of others which is well-documented in the life of Sephardi Jews in the last hundreds of years.

Sephardim Today

The time has come for all Jewish religious movements and the many unaffiliated Jews in America to heed the Sephardi traditions of pride in Jewish identity without arrogance and self-righteousness. Today, we can no longer assume that the God of the synagogue alone can grant anyone Jewish identity. Young Jews must find their own individual way to faith and belief in the divine. Young Jews need to be involved in situations that demand justice and equality for men and women in all races and creeds. They need to accept with open hearts all Jews regardless of their cultures and religious affiliation and to cast away racism within and outside of Judaism. They need exactly the kind of tolerance Sephardim have cultivated for hundreds of years.

Jews also need to find their own individual paths and practices in the changing world of Jewish identity. When Israeli politics are so vexed, all Jews could benefit from the insights of Sephardi Jews. The long exposure to Muslim religion and customs, as well as their familiarity with the Arab languages and mores, has made Sephardi Jews from Middle Eastern and North African lands uniquely qualified in the interpretations of non-Jewish societies inside and outside the state of Israel.

We also must recognize that Jews outside Israel have different needs than those within Israel. Ignoring the very real day-to-day difference experience by Jews may, with time, split the entire Jewish world into two churches, not unlike the Catholic and the Protestant religions. Sephardim have coped with those challenges by incorporating cultural differences into a unitary religious framework. At this moment of challenge, this is the right time for all Jews to reexplore the Sephardi tradition.



Dr. David Rabeeya is the author of forty-two books on the lives of Jews in Arab and Muslim lands. Having retired from Bryn Mawr, where he taught Hebrew, Arabic and Bible, Dr. Rabeeya continues to teach Hebrew Literature and Bible at Akiba Hebrew Academy. Dr. Rabeeya was born in Iraq, migrated to Israel as a child, served in the Israeli army, and received degrees at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University before immigrating to the United States.