From A Sephardic Scholar, An ‘Enlightened Torah’ Approach
Tue, 01/10/2012
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

Growing up, I considered Sephardic rituals and customs to be exotic, maybe even odd, if I thought about them at all. I knew, for example, that eating rice on Passover was allowed in Sephardic homes, a strict prohibition in mine and everyone else’s I knew, as Ashkenazim. And I considered their prayerbook nusach, or style, annoying since it was different from what I knew, and therefore hard for me to follow.

Only in later years have I come to appreciate some of the wonderful qualities of what I think of as a gentler Sephardic culture that has managed to avoid the denominational schisms of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc., that have plagued Ashkenazi Jews for centuries.

It is not uncommon for some Sephardic Jewish men to attend synagogue with great devotion each Shabbat morning and then spend the balance of the day either at work or at leisure. Some might view this as hypocrisy, others choose to see it as a harmonized balance between religious commitment and everyday life.

I’m not making any value judgments here, just pointing out a different practice and sensibility based on history, geography, customs and worldview, with Sephardim known for venerating their religious leaders and often showing a more joyful, optimistic approach to life than Jews whose Eastern European history was marked by ghettos and pogroms.

Sadly I have come to realize how far apart and sometimes distrustful the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities can be of each other, even when living in close proximity (Great Neck, for example), and how little, even today, mainstream American Jewry understands and appreciates the Sephardic worldview.

These thoughts came to mind recently on meeting Rabbi Moshe Shamah, a soft-spoken, 74-year-old scholar from the Syrian community in Brooklyn who recently published an insightful, groundbreaking work, “Recalling The Covenant: A Contemporary Commentary on The Five Books of the Torah.”

The culmination of 17 years’ worth of weekly Torah portion writings he distributed and taught to a group of faithful adult students at the Sephardic Institute he heads, the work is unique in that it relies on a variety of sources, including ancient, traditional and modern, reflecting the rabbi’s unusual education in both Sephardic and Litvish (or Lithuanian-style) yeshivas.

The book, written in English at more than 1,100 pages, is not a translation of the Torah but a detailed, running explanation based on acknowledging the integrity of pshat, or plain text.

This may sound obvious to the casual student. But in insisting that biblical interpretations be in harmony with the text, Rabbi Shamah is making a bold and controversial statement in the world of traditional Torah study where, for example, the seemingly flawed actions of our biblical heroes — like Jacob deceiving his father, Isaac, to receive the blessing of the first-born — are sometimes explained in ways that preserves their revered status, even if the interpretations go against the plain meaning of the Torah’s words.

While some traditional commentators justified Jacob’s actions in pretending to be his twin brother Esau, Rabbi Shamah writes that the Torah’s position is “crystal-clear — Jacob’s machinations were wrong and regrettable,” noting that “he received a great deal of divine censure for having resorted to them.”

The rabbi adds that “to careful readers of the Torah, the larger narrative provides a sublime lesson reminding them of the ready possibility of committing grave wrongdoing even while imbued with admirable intentions.” Such a lesson “fosters conscientiousness in interacting with others and promotes introspection,” he asserts.

Elaborating on his larger point, Rabbi Shamah explained in an interview that “in the yeshiva world, there was a sense, though unspoken, that the avot [biblical patriarchs] were infallible, so the scholars had to find a way to justify their actions. I came to see that they apply it to life today as well, where all of their haredi gedolim [ultra-Orthodox Torah sages] have to always be proven right.”

As a young full-time student in world-class traditional Litvish yeshivas like Ner Israel in Baltimore, the Mir in New York and Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., in the 1960s and ‘70s, Rabbi Shamah was troubled by this approach, which he viewed as a forced attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable by ignoring plain logic or historical or scientific facts.

The result, he told me, is that while “science seeps in and new facts come out every day,” haredi scholars tend to ignore these realities and justify long-held beliefs by “making the walls thicker” between themselves and the rest of society.

He is also concerned that so much emphasis in yeshivas is placed on Talmud study while the Torah itself, the source of all Jewish wisdom, receives too little serious scholarship.

Rabbi Shamah, who was born and raised in the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, attended public schools and Brooklyn College. Two dynamic rabbis changed his outlook profoundly, he recalled. One was Rabbi Jose Faur, a singular teacher who challenged the methodology of the traditional Lithuanian-style yeshivas. As a teenager, Rabbi Shamah studied with him for several years and came away “enlightened and inspired,” and determined to study Judaic texts full time.

Years later he met Rabbi Solomon David Sassoon, the British Torah scholar with whom he remained close until the rabbi’s death in 1985. “I consider him to have been perhaps the chief expositor of Torah in his time,” Rabbi Shamah says. “He had a depth of understanding of the Torah and great regard for personal integrity, intellectual honesty and respect for every person,” willing to assert that Jews should conduct themselves with devotion to both Jewish law and one’s fellow man.

Rabbi Shamah is outspoken and sharply critical of those who call themselves observant but break civil law, whether they are sex offenders or tax evaders. And he expressed deep disappointment in the Israeli chief rabbinic conversion court for its recent decision to insist on a much stricter interpretation of Jewish law and rescind the Orthodox conversions of hundreds of men and women.

Over the years Rabbi Shamah has been publicly criticized by elements of the haredi community for what they see as heresy but what the rabbi calls his advocacy for an “enlightened Torah.” He said the phrase is meant to encompass — rather than automatically reject — the work of non-halachic scholars, and the findings of archaeologists, philologists and others that may shed new light on the text.

He does not believe that the words of past Torah sages are irrefutable, and is comfortable with the notion that, for example, the stories of Job or Jonah are allegories, noting that “great fiction can be prophetic.”

Those traditionalists who insist that “we know the truth” and refuse to entertain the possibility of new interpretations are acting out of “fear,” Rabbi Shamah says. He worries that teaching only rationales for Judaism susceptible to challenges from modern-day scholars could undermine a yeshiva student’s faith altogether.

One sign of the cultural chasm between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities today is that Rabbi Shamah and his scholarship are so little known outside of his community.

Hopefully the publication of his new commentary will change that sad fact.

E-mail: Gary@jewishweek.org
 

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Comments

If it is written it is not the oral Torah. At har Sinai we wanted to reject the oral Torah and in every generation we are trying to refuse the oral Torah. We do not want to use our intellect.

Great article. I know rabbi Shamah personally and you depicted him perfectly. His conservative reform leanings are a breath of fresh air in a world of extremism and intolerance. A man that equates Shakespeare with Talmudic scholars and has proven the bias of the oral tradition. More power to you. I just wish he would not o by orthodox. He is better than that.

rambam said the donkey speaking was a vision not literal.

Interesting. Maimonides clearly states that one who rejects even one word from the written Torah (and that includes Job, Jonah) is considered a heretic. Just wondering.

Rabbi Moshe Shamah's book is clearly in the Orthodox category as it stays away from many divisive issues that differentiate Conservative and Orthodox movements, such as authorship of the Bible (i.e. Documentary Hypothesis). The very first page of the book states that the author believes that the Torah is of divine origin; clearly an Orthodox point of view.
Regardless of the meaningless movements and schisms that plague the Jewish community today, this book is clearly an intellectually-honest commentary that should be read carefully and debated about.

While it is true as you state about our community that: "Sephardic culture that has managed to avoid the denominational schisms of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc., that have plagued Ashkenazi Jews for centuries." Unfortunately even though our community has no schisms there are those "Orthodox" who hold Reform or Conservative ideas.

I personally know and at one time was close to both Rabbi Shamah and one of his associates Professor Jose Faur who he invites to give lectures in the summertime.

I give a class for older Syrian men and a few points were brought up in a discussion of Rabbi Shamah's ideas.

One gentleman told me his son-in-law attended a lecture by Rabbi Shamah who said that "allegedly the donkey spoke to Balaam" the gentile prophet. When questioned as to why he used the word "allegedly" he replied, "If you think the donkey actually spoke you should go to a psychiatrist!" We know from tradition that the donkey was one of the 10 things created before the world existed.

Another time when a guest lecture spoke about more relations with Christians. Rabbi Shamah was approached and when this idea was questioned he said, "The speaker is entitled to his opinion." Under the invitation and auspices of an Orthodox rabbi?

In one of his writings he talks about the "victimization" of Esau when he sold the blessing to Jacob. Esau sold it he was not "victimized."

His yeshiva sent emails to one of my group stating that it was alright to celebrate Thanksgiving and January 1st. The Gadol Hador Rabbi Moshe Feinstein held that halackhakly it is forbidden. Note what is called in advertising the "weasel word" of using January 1st and not New Year. They are one and the same.

As far as his close associate and Rabbi (as the professor was once known) he taught at the Conservative Seminary for 23 years. The Talmud says that when you exit a perfume shop even when you do not make a purchase anything you come out with the smell. Contrarily when you exit a slaughterhouse you come out with the stink. 23 years is a long time to spend in a slaughterhouse.

This "enlightenment" movement has brought confusion to the unlearned as well as to his talmidim and innocent followers. It has harmed the goals of our authentic Orthodox tradition as well as disparaged the great rabbis in the Talmud. His associate Professor Faur derogatory statements against Ashkenazim have been well known.

We hope and pray that both of them return to the tradition of our true and holy forefathers.

Michael Antebi,

Although I still stand by my comments, I would like to apologize for the harsh words I used in my previous post. While the idea of someone coming to this article, simply to belittle Rabbi Shamah still does not sit right with me, I should not have resorted to name-calling and derision. Although your post was cruel and misinformed at the very least, I should have expressed myself in a more respectful manner.

Thank you,
Leo Tawil

Mr. Antebi,

Before you speak badly about a true gentleman, it would behoove you to read the works which you are blatantly bashing.
I would venture to say that either you have not read them or you are someone, like the Rabbis that I am sure you follow, refuses to use logic, common sense and most importantly RESPECT.

We hope and pray that you find respect for the real pillars of this community.

By the way, what are you doing on the internet?
Get off or I will tell your Rebbe.

I don't believe in hiding under the cloak of anonymity like some others do.

If someone insulted you to your face about your father or mother what would you do?

The proper answer would be to make a quick exit from their presence. If you could not exit, giving them a resounding smack would wake them up to the great disrespect they gave your parents. More so when "intellectuals" believe they know more than Rashi or other rabbis in the Talmud—they are insulting more than your parents. They are insulting the entire tradition of rabbinical thought which has sustained us throughout the long centuries of exile. The "intellectual reformers" have only led us to the darkness and destruction of many lesser and greater Holocausts.

The reason for the failure at Har Sinai was the "Dor De'ah" used their intellect without the guidance of Torah which led them to the creation of the golden calf.

I and other Torah-true, Orthodox Jews, do not wish to be blinded by these "intellectuals" nor join their destructive path.

Michael,
It is simple, foolish people like you that make Judaism look stupid.
Thanks for your input, it really made me laugh.

Where in our traditition do we KNOW for certain, which you clearly stated, that the donkey was one of 10 things created before the world existed. Where does it say this in the Torah? Surely you will quote the Talmud now. I beg you though, ask any Rabbi and they will tell you that the Talmud was written by men- however great they may have been. Unless you tell me that some of these men were ALSO created before the world came to be, I have every right to disagree with them.

As for your pearl of wisdom on Esau- If you take the time to read Rabbi Shamah's writings on this subject, you will see a clear explanation to back up these thoughts. You however refute it with "Esau sold it he was not "victimized." Please back up your claims there. You must be used to hearing things said and just accepting them blindly without thinking. You are given one line without any reasoning and you accept it, no questions asked. Some might call this faith, I however, call this stupidity.

Please take your hateful words to another site.
Thank you,
Leo Tawil

Dear Mr. Rosenblatt:
We enjoyed your piece entitled “From a Sephardic Scholar: an Enlightened Approach.” (January 10, 2012) However, we were saddened that you included a parenthetical critique of our community as an example of a place where, in your understanding, Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews are “far apart and sometimes distrustful” of one another. To be sure, diversity of culture and traditions poses its challenges and we still have much work to do in this regard. However, we believe that our congregation has made great strides toward collaboration and trust among Jews of different backgrounds. At our Conservative synagogue, Temple Israel of Great Neck, Jews who hail from places that include Lodz, Teheran, Baghdad, Havana and Johannesburg routinely pray, learn and perform acts of hesed together. Men and women chant Torah and Haftarah using melodies from throughout the Jewish world. Members of all backgrounds drive into Manhattan several times a year to deliver food and clothing to the needy and march together up Fifth Avenue in support of the State of Israel. Our experience has been that the challenges of diversity, met with sensitivity and an open heart, can yield creative outcomes that benefit everyone.
By the way, your analysis of Rabbi Shamah’s self-described “Enlightened Torah” approach had many of us smiling. It sounds like what Conservative Judaism has advocated since its inception. At Temple Israel of Great Neck, we are all committed to embracing the opportunities of 21st century life using an enlightened, forthright approach to Jewish tradition. We would love for you to be our guest so that you might see all of this in action. Join us for Shabbos. Or, if you prefer, Shabbat.
Sincerely,
Rabbi Howard Stecker and Alan Klinger, President, on behalf of the Clergy, Officers and Trustees of Temple Israel of Great Neck

As someone who's come to appreciate the Torah of one of R. Shamah's disciples - Hakham Isaac Sassoon -- i found your piece refreshing and an appreciation of intellectual honesty. It's unfortunate that reading the text straight and clear has now become "unOrthodox." There are other outstanding rabbis like JJ Schachter and R. Yaakov Love who are mindful to remind us, "Look at the text, look at the text." God's word is beautiful and R. Shamah should be applauded for not running away from it.

At least here in Israel they sell rice with a Badatz Beit Yosef heksher in Charadi grocery stores :-). The Rambam's M.T. expressly permits rice and as far as I know most Yeminite Jews eat rice.

Gary, thanks for writing about this. Now that I know about it, I'm going to get a copy.

I have a few volumes of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's Me'am Loez series. As an Ashkenazic Jew, I had never heard of Me'am Loez, but this Sephardic classic is a real treasure.

Rabbi Shamah's book, "Recalling the Covenant," is truly a groundbreaking masterpiece. I feel that it belongs in every library of those who are serious, university-educated, yet intellectually demanding, Torah-Observant students as well as others. It is very important that the Jewish World returns back to our original divine source book, the Torah, and give it the time it deserves. Rabbi Shamah's book is a couple steps in the right direction.

On rice at Pesach (Tevye´s erroneous comment), see:

"The custom among many communities not to eat rice on Hametz began two or three centuries ago, when the concern arose that some wheat kernels might have been mixed together with the rice. It became common in some countries for wheat fields and rice fields to be situated near one another, and often the same bags were used for the collection of the wheat and the rice. The bags were not always carefully cleaned in between the collections, and it was therefore quite common for one to find kernels of wheat in the packages of rice purchased at the grocery. For this reason, Ashkenazic Jews accepted the custom not to eat rice on Pesah. In Sephardic lands, by and large, there was no concern of wheat kernels being mixed with rice, and therefore the Sepharadim, for the most part, did not accept this custom." from R. Eli Mansour, http://www.dailyhalacha.com/Display.asp?ClipDate=3/28/2010.

Time to meet R' Joseph Dweck too.
Www.mipazrav.com
Pursuing th Sephardic tradition in the Present.

I have known Moshe Shamah for 12 years. His knowledge of Tanakh and Halacha is encyclopedic. His understanding and sensitivity to people deserves commendation. He cares about truth and justice. He preaches these virtues in our study of Tora', Misvot, and life.

Sepharadim have traditionally found a way to create a Halachic balance in this world. Rabbi Shamma is the entire package. He is a true Chacham.
His Book and writings are a welcome breath of fresh air. I now have a better understanding of Tora'. Thank you Rabbi Shamah

He and Prof. (previously Rabbi) Faur have consistently disparaged the greatest Rabbis—including Rashi.

They both believe that "intellectuals" of today (namely themselves) know more because of technology, archaeology, paleontology, etc.

What utter pride and nonsense!

I live in Israel . Please can you send me the name of the editor company that publish the book of Rab Shamah , to try to by it from here?
Thenks
Dr. Gila Baer

The book is published by Ktav and Tebah Educational Services. It will be available in Israel online at http://shankysjudaica.com/. I noticed it is not yet available and I am emailing Shankys to find out when they will have it but it may be another month. If you have any problem getting the book please email me and I will take care of it.
Thanks,
Morris
mndweck@gmail.com

Only Indian Jews eat rice on Passover, other Sephardim do not eat rice but we can eat beans and peas.

Moroccan and Italian Jews can also eat swordfish as these are deemed to have at least one scale when spawned. However this is considered treif by Ashkenasim.

I converted from Ashkenasi to Sephardi 30 years ago and haven't looked back

You are clearly misinformed. Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians, Lebanese, Persians, Yemenites, all eat rice on Pessah. The only ones that may not are Moroccan and maybe Tunisian.

The idea that "the scholars had to find a way to justify" the actions of the patriarchs is already antithetical to Orthodox Judaism. As soon as a person says that an "interpretation" from Midrash is the intellectual product of humans and not something revealed in the Oral Torah, that person is already having a totally separate debate. That is, the debate over the proper interpretation is only a worthwhile debate if Oral Torah does not truly exist. The real debate, then, should be over the existence of Oral Torah, which, if it exists, is the correct interpretation by default.

We have followed the Torah from Mose's time but when it comes to rice and potatoes we had to give up rice. How do you carry a sack of potatoes through the desert? If I lived in Israel I would eat rice now. Potatoes are strickly European which is where they were cultivated. There's too much that divides us. If one wants to learn true Jewish warmth you go to Kings Highway or Avenue U.

Rabbi Marc Angel, the Rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel is another great Sephardic Rabbi, scholar & all-around mensch!

As one of his " group of faithful adult students " it is a great honor and privilege to be worthy of knowing and learning from Rabbi Shamah. Gary Rosenblatt captured some of the Rabbi's special qualities in his article.The messages brought out in his book will hopefully shed a more favorable light on those who have lost respect for Traditional Torah Judaism and dispel the unfortunate impressions presented by those who claim to be spokesmen for Orthodoxy.

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