Rab­binic Cre­ativ­i­ty in the Mod­ern Mid­dle East

Zvi Zohar
  • Review
By – September 3, 2014

In this inno­v­a­tive and enlight­en­ing work, Zvi Zohar explains the cre­ative approach to halakhah demon­strat­ed by the rab­bis of the mod­ern Mid­dle East. Zohar explores the very dif­fer­ent response to the chal­lenges of moder­ni­ty of the Sephar­di and Mizrachi rab­bis in com­par­i­son to their Ashke­nazi contempo­raries. Focus­ing on the com­mu­ni­ties in Iraq, Syr­ia, and Egypt, Zohar argues that these rab­bis respond­ed with nei­ther the reac­tionary pol­i­cy of the New is for­bid­den by Torah,” nor with the lib­er­a­tion strat­e­gy of Reform Judaism. 

Zohar points out that the rab­bis of the Mid­dle East were, for the most part, not con­front­ed by the atmos­phere of hos­til­i­ty and anti-reli­gious agi­ta­tion that was found in west­ern Euro­pean soci­ety. There were inci­dents of course, but the pre­vail­ing atmos­phere of seek­ing to throw off every­thing from the past which was expe­ri­enced in Europe fol­low­ing the French rev­o­lu­tion nev­er sur­faced in the Mid­dle East. Even when Napoleon arrived with his army and his sci­en­tif­ic mis­sion, the rab­bis did not respond with alarm or opposi­tion. Rather, they accept­ed the inno­va­tions, acknowl­edg­ing that reac­tionary strin­gency was not the appro­pri­ate response to the mod­ern world. As Rab­bi Eliyahu Haz­an writes: Now is not the time for adding new pro­hi­bi­tions that did not occur to ear­li­er gen­er­a­tions.” Zohar also points out that the rab­bis in the Mid­dle East were nev­er con­front­ed with Reform Judaism. For this rea­son, the Ortho­doxy that emerged from this con­fronta­tion among the Ashke­naz­im of Europe nev­er devel­oped among the rab­bis of the Mid­dle East. Even among the most con­ser­v­a­tive of these groups, the Syr­i­an-Alep­pan Jews, there were rab­bis who demon­strat­ed inno­v­a­tive respons­es to the cir­cum­stances in which they lived. 

Zohar argues that these dif­fer­ences in reac­tion arose as a result of the very dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of the ide­al Jew” that evolved among Ashke­nazi and Sephar­di Jews. Where­as the Ashke­nazi Jews tend­ed to close them­selves off from their sur­round­ings, the Sephardim sought to inte­grate all aspects of Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish knowl­edge. The Ashke­nazim saw the ide­al Jew as one who concen­trated his time on the study of the Tal­mud, while the Sephardim con­sid­ered the ide­al Jew one whose cul­tur­al hori­zons encom­passed not only Juda­ic sources but also the entire­ty of human knowl­edge and wis­dom: Gram­mar and poet­ry, math­e­mat­ics and astron­o­my, med­i­cine, nat­ur­al sci­ences, and philosophy.” 

This is a fas­ci­nat­ing and high­ly read­able study, with exten­sive foot­notes, a comprehen­sive bib­li­og­ra­phy, and index.

Relat­ed content:

Ran­dall Belin­fante has served as the Librar­i­an of the Amer­i­can Sephar­di Fed­er­a­tion for more than 13 years. He has tak­en a tiny col­lec­tion of 200 books and built an assem­blage of over 10,000 items. Mr. Belin­fante holds degrees in var­i­ous aspects of Jew­ish stud­ies, and dur­ing his tenure at ASF, he has inves­ti­gat­ed a vari­ety of top­ics, pre­sent­ing papers on such diverse top­ics as the Mizrahi Jews dri­ven from their homes in Islam­ic coun­tries and the cryp­to-Jew­ish Mash­hadis of Iran. He has also writ­ten many book reviews on books of Sephar­di / Mizrahi interest.

Discussion Questions