A Jewish Voice Left Silent: sephardic_jews.jpg
Articulating "The Levantine Option"

By David Shasha 


Jewish ethnicity breaks down into two basic groups: Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazic Jews. Sephardic Jews hail from Arab-Islamic lands, and, as I hope to show, they have a rich and interesting history. And yet today, most scholarship focuses on Ashkenazi Jews, i.e. Jews from Christian Europe. In fact, Ashkenazi Jewish history has eclipsed the rich culture and civilization of the Sephardim to the point where it is currently unknown and inaccessible.

This is a great shame. The fact is that Sephardic culture, which espouses an outlook of tolerance and coexistence, what I call “The Levantine Option,” could speak in a sophisticated and humane manner to many of the issues that American Jews now face: issues of assimilation, cultural alienation, and a general sense of malaise and dysfunction. Sephardic Judaism developed utilizing the brilliant idea of religious humanism, a conception of Jewish civilization that integrated Jewish ritual practice with the humanistic legacy of Greco-Roman civilization. Religious humanism is not a forced grafting of two incompatible ways of seeing, or a questioning of Jewish tradition, but an organic union of the human sciences with the traditions of Judaism.

To understand why Sephardic history is so invaluable, and why it should matter to us today, it’s useful to know some history. As licit members of Muslim society, Jews were free to adapt their culture to the Arabic model as articulated in the first centuries of Islam. Prominent Sephardic rabbis, such as Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), disdained clericalism while espousing humanism and science, tying Jewish concerns to a wider universalistic understanding of humanity and the world. Sephardic rabbis were not merely religious functionaries; they were poets, philosophers, astronomers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, linguists, merchants, architects, civic leaders, and much else.

In 1654, the first Jews who stepped on the shores of this country were Sephardic, while the first Synagogues of Colonial America, Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam, were also founded by Sephardim. Perhaps the most outstanding rabbinic figure that ministered in the early days of the United States was the now-forgotten Sabato Morais of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. Morais brilliantly exemplified the Levantine (Middle Eastern) religious humanism of the Sephardim.

Fast forward a bit through history. Many Sephardic Jews continued to speak Arabic and partake of a common Middle Eastern culture until the mass dispersions of Jews from Arab countries after 1948. But this movement of Jews out of the Arab world has greatly disrupted the bearings of Sephardic Jewry. A combination of anti-Arab sentiment propounded in Zionism, and the shift in Jewish ethnicity in the United States away from the first American Jews who were Sephardic to the large successive waves of Ashkenazi immigrants beginning in the late 19th century, has muted “The Levantine Option.”

And that’s what’s so sad. Because Sephardim were a part of Middle Eastern society, their traditions provided for a more tolerant and open-minded variant of Jewish existence than an Ashkenazi counterpart continually living in a world apart, disconnected from European civil society. While Ashkenazi Jews in the post-Enlightenment period broke off into bitter and acrimonious factions over how to deal with modernity, Sephardim, true to “The Levantine Option,” remained united rather than let doctrine asphyxiate them and tear their communities apart as had been the case in Europe. A Jewish Reformation never took place in the Sephardic world because the Sephardim continued to maintain fidelity to their traditions while absorbing and adapting the ideas and trends of the world they lived in.

A further sad irony: The sentiments of “The Levantine Option” were brought to the United States at the very inception of the republic as Sephardim wrote the first pages of American Jewish history—even as they have now been written out of that very history.

The nexus between Sephardic history and American-Jewish history: it gives one pause. It raises questions. What if the future of the American Judaism lay in the amicable interaction of Judaism with its surrounding culture in a symbiotic formation that lays out commonalities with the host culture rather than the deep-seated differences?

The religious humanism of the Sephardic Jews preserved the parochial Jewish legal and literary traditions under the rubric of a much wider sense of universal ethics and morality.  These two components—particularistic religion and universal humanism—often seen by religious people as contradicting one another, were soldered together along the lines of the Maimonidean paradigm, which had been a crucial part of the harmonious development of religious scholasticism in the heart of Middle Ages.

If such a symbiosis were desirable, the memory of Moorish Spain, where the three monotheistic religions were able to coexist and produce a civilization of great worth, would surely take prominence. The Sephardic voice would be central in articulating what was termed Convivencia, the creative cultural dynamic that fired medieval Spanish civilization, until its collapse in 1492. “The Levantine Option” would help collapse the maltreatment harbored in classical Zionist thought and omnipresent in the various internal conflicts that continue to divide American Jews. Until we develop ways to understand Jewish tradition in such an enlightened and civilized way—from within a shared cultural space that exists for those of us who still espouse “The Levantine Option”—it is altogether possible that American Judaism will continue to be fragmented and divided.  “The Levantine Option” is a means for Jews to reintegrate themselves into a harmony that would strengthen Jewish life and its relationship to its surrounding environment.

David Shasha is the founder and director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York. The Center publishes the weekly e-mail newsletter Sephardic Heritage Update and promotes lectures and cultural events relevant to Sephardic culture. This piece is adapted from the author's essay, which appeared in longer form in The Sephardic Heritage Update and Newsletter. It is reprinted with the author's permission. For more information contact [email protected]
Artwork citation: Sephardic Jews Observe Hoshanah Rabah, engraving from Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde, 1723-1743.

Related articles...

Jews in the Ottoman Empire
By Eyal Ginio

Secularization in Mizrahi Jewish Life
By Michel Abitbol

A Room with a View
By Lucette Valensi

Thoughts? Comments?
your editors!