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.
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