THE LEADERSHIP AND TRADITION OF SEPHARDIC SAGES IN THE MODERN ERA
Note: This article uses the term Sephardi colloquially; in this context it is inclusive of the three major Jewish ethnic groups distinct from Ashkenazi Judaism, namely Sephardic, Mizrachi and Maghrebi Judaism.
by Rabbi Yitzchak Chouraqu
Hamerkaz, Fall 2014
Sephardic culture throughout the ages developed in concurrence with general culture, thus continuing the tradition of the Golden Age of Spain, in which the internal Jewish world recognized the wider world without losing its own uniqueness.
The Sephardic Sages of recent generations were aware of current events and
changes in the world around them. This is especially true in more recent years,
since modernism in its European version arrived in the Eastern lands.
The Sephardic reaction to the changes of the new age was quite different from the Ashkenazic response. On the one hand, the educational model of the Sephardic sages approved of general studies, and even considered them as worthy endeavors in addition to a Jewish education; and in the spirit of this approach, the Sephardic sages did not withdraw from modern society in the way that some Ashkenazic Orthodox elements did. On the other hand, with the deepening of European rule in Muslim countries, the pull towards secular culture was in opposition to tradition.
Yet interestingly, the response of the Sages to protect the community’s traditions was not to develop the model of strict, isolationist Orthodoxy. Instead, they emphasized the principles that strengthen faith — especially those that have guarded Jewish identity and communal unity — all with the goal of keeping the members of the community connected to the Jewish world as much as possible.
What characterizes the legal/interpretive methods of the Sephardic sages as it relates to halakha (Jewish Law)?
One of the characteristic principles of the Sephardic sages is the way they determine
halakha. Sephardic Sages utilize the basic legal principle known in rabbinic language as kohah dehetra adif – the power of the lenient path is the preferred. This principle praises the greatness of the Hakham (wise sage) who delves deeply into an issue and finds a lenient halakhic solution.
Knowledge of life experience often accompanies and guides halakhic decision-making, together with a realistic viewpoint, according to which a harsh position would apply to only a small part of the public. In the view of Sephardic Judaism, the responsibility of the Hakham is to the whole community, to all of the Jewish people, perhaps for all future generations. Therefore it would not be responsible to set an excessively stringent standard of halakha that would cause a great portion of the community to be lost if they cannot abide by it.
Deciding halakha stringently does not reflect the greatness of a Hakham, and many times it attests to some theoretical educational theories taught in yeshivot, or to an outright fear of deciding the halakha. Such concerns prevent the Hakham from choosing the lenient path over the stricter one. Harsh halakhic decisions and the desire to accommodate all opinions have caused an accumulation of stringencies that makes it difficult for a later posek (Rabbinical decider) to weigh, maneuver, and navigate the halakhic process in the directions needed for a specific case that comes before him. Thus, fear of God pushes aside the true dynamic force of halakha.
Thus, between the strict and the liberal positions, the Sephardic Sages established a third path in which their great humility before God and their commitment to serve God brought them to adopt original halakhic stances in order to deal with new situations, without fearing lenient decisions, rulings or originality in the halakhic process.
Rabbi Yitzhak Chouraqui is the Director of MERHAV, the Joint Rabbinic
Leadership program of Memizrach Shemesh and the SEC. He also serves as
the Rabbi of Yad Ramah Synagogue in Jerusalem