After a Thousand Years, New Divisions? After a thousand years in which the principal division in world Jewry was between Ashkenazim, the Jews who lived north of the Alps in lands predominantly Christian, and the Sephardim, Jews who lived south of the Alps in lands predominantly Muslim, that division is disappearing as such because both populations have ceased to live in their original regions. As the dust of the great migrations has settled, the majority of the Sephardim are to be found in Israel or France, where they have formed local majorities, while the majority of the Ashkenazim live in the United States and Eastern Europe, where they also form local majorities. Even in those cases, however, what survives from their respective Jewish subcultures is for most merely fragmentary cultural baggage with little meaning beyond the reality that everyone carries such baggage which influences behavior and attitudes, even when people are unaware that it does, without necessarily being a conscious creative force. The only sector of the Jewish world in which those two traditions remain consciously creative forces as such is in the religious one, particularly among its Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox segments.
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After a Thousand Years, New Divisions? After a thousand years in which the principal division in world Jewry was between Ashkenazim, the Jews who lived north of the Alps in lands predominantly Christian, and the Sephardim, Jews who lived south of the Alps in lands predominantly Muslim, that division is disappearing as such because both populations have ceased to live in their original regions.
As the dust of the great migrations has settled, the majority of the Sephardim are to be found in Israel or France, where they have formed local majorities, while the majority of the Ashkenazim live in the United States and Eastern Europe, where they also form local majorities.
Even in those cases, however, what survives from their respective Jewish subcultures is for most merely fragmentary cultural baggage with little meaning beyond the reality that everyone carries such baggage which influences behavior and attitudes, even when people are unaware that it does, without necessarily being a conscious creative force.
The only sector of the Jewish world in which those two traditions remain consciously creative forces as such is in the religious one, particularly among its Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox segments. In that sector, a combination of factors has given the Ashkenazim almost an iron grip which only serves to increase the gap between the most energetic Jewish religious movements and the lives of most Jews and to weaken the relationship of Jews with the rest of the world.
That, indeed, is their intent. What is missing from the Jewish religious picture is an active, articulate expression of the Sephardic way — classic rather than romantic, Mediterranean rather than Eastern European, cosmopolitan rather than parochial — that has as its goal the linkage of all this through a common religious framework and the involvement of Jews in the world without sacrificing their Jewishness.
After the Iberian exiles formed two new concentrations — one in North Africa where they found a very large indigenous Jewish population. There they formed a separate minority, an elite group that preserved its own culture and a form of Judeo-Spanish known as Hakatia. Maintaining close connections with their brethren elsewhere in the Mediterranean, their numbers were periodically reinforced from other parts of the Sephardic world, just as they also migrated elsewhere in response to opportunity.
It was only in the modern epoch that the Sephardic megurashim exiles — as they were known in several parts of North Africa really integrated among the indigenous Mustarabim Jews of Arabic culture — as they were frequently known. Still, in the inevitable interaction and interlinkage that developed over the centuries, the indigenous population proved to be stronger if only be sheer numbers and, despite the very strong Sephardic intellectual and religious influences incorporated locally and the persistance in power of a communal and religious elite of Iberian ancestry, only a limited separte Spaniol culture developed.
This was not the case in the other concentration in the Balkans and the Eastern Ottoman Empire. There the exiles came in such numbers that they overwhelmed the indigenous Jewish population and forced the latter to assimilate into a Judeo-Spanish cultural matrix that encompassed every aspect of life from language, foods and music to the highest religious, cultural and intellectual expressions of civilization.
It was there that the Hispanic Sephardim, the Spaniolim, had their Silver Age, which flourished as long as the Ottoman Empire flourished and declined as the empire declined. Two other smaller but vital concentrations of Sephardic Jewry were formed in the wake of exile. One was in Italy where, influenced by the Italian Renaissance, Sephardic Jewry produced a particularly sophisticated and cosmopolitan expression of Sephardic Jewish civilization.
The second was in Eretz Israel, centered around Safed, where new heights were reached in Sephardic religious expression in the century after the Expulsion. With the decline of the Mediterranean world as a result of that other great event of , the European discovery of America, those centered entered into periods of decline one by one until they were destroyed, although they never lost all of their creativity.
Indeed, the advent of modernization led to new bursts of creativity in all of them influenced by modernity.
Thus, for example, at the end of the nineteenth century in the same period that a secular Yiddish literature and culture flourished in Eastern Europe, a secular Ladino literature and culture flourished in the Balkans.
The predominantly Sephardic Jewish community of Bulgaria was the first in the world to become officially Zionist. A century after the Expulsion, Sephardic communities developed in northwestern Europe, many founded by ex-Marranos. They pioneered the way west for all of Jewry and formed a distinctive western Sephardic subculture of their own. They established an elegant and justly celebrated synthesis between tradition and modernity in Amsterdam, London, Antwerp and Hamburg that soon spread to the New World.
On the other hand, as modernization engulfed them, the Jewish religious leadership in Central and Eastern Europe became either more radical or more conservative in their approach to tradition, either seeing antinomian radical reform or refusing to continence any new departures, even in interpretation.
The religious leadership of the Sephardic world, on the other hand, particularly in North Africa and the Balkans, developed a whole pattern of halakhic interpretation that moved far in the direction to reconciling halakhah with modern technology and life down through the nineteenth century.
The breakdown of those traditional Sephardic centers came at the end of the nineteenth century, approximately a generation behind the breakdown of traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe and for much the same reasons. The backwardness of the host regime, the grinding poverty of the Jews who had to find some way to survive, coupled with the opening of opportunities in the New Worlds, led to an increasing flow of emigrants outward from those traditional areas, while those who stayed behind were caught in the Holocaust which destroyed Balkan Jewry and even reached into the Jewish community of Tunisia.
The reestablishment of the State of Israel effectively completed the removal of what the Holocaust left behind.
By the early s the traditional Sephardic world had disappeared, surviving only in the memories of the older generation, most of whom had survived by emigrating from their places of origin.
These events led to the end of Judesmo culture even in its secular form. Not that the talents disappeared. Yehoshua, the product of an old Ladino-speaking Jerusalem family, became the leading Israeli novelist of the post-Six Day War era. He of course, wrote in Hebrew, but not until the late s even began to address his Sephardic roots.
Elias Canetti won the Nobel Prize for literature in Raised in a Judesmo-speaking family in Bulgaria, he adopted German as his literary language. What was true of these greats was equally true of lesser literary lights, most of whom wrote in Hebrew because they lived in Israel, while those who lived in the diaspora wrote in the local vernacular languages.
Other creative Sephardim in the arts and in music became part of the cosmopolitan modern and postmodern worlds, preserving little or n Sephardic distinctiveness. Murray Perahia, himself from a Judesmo-speaking family, is no more a Sephardic concert pianist than Daniel Barenboim is an Ashkenazic one.
Nor is there any reason for either to be. One of the greatest, if not the greatest, contribution of Sephardic Jewry was its approach to the theory and practice of Judaism.
Iberian Jewry reworked the Jewish materials it inherited from Eretz Israel, Babylonia and North Africa into classical forms, thought through and organized systematically, whether in halakhah, philosophy or mysticism, to offer a balanced theory and practice, not given to excess, seriously Jewish, yet worldly and cosmopolitan.
Classic Sephardic Judaism was designed by men who lived in the larger world and were active in its affairs, most of whom wanted a Judaism no less rigorous than their Ashkenazi brethren in its essentials, but flexible in its interpretations and applications. Their Judaism would play an isolating function only where critically necessary and not prevent Jews from playing their role in what had been in Spain prior to a multi-religious society.
First of all, it did not involve the kind of rupture with tradition that characterized Reform. Nor did it turn tradition into something frozen, or worse, reshaped by a deliberate ideology of rigidity, as did ultra-Orthodoxy. Nor did it allow the kind of institutional divisions that ultimately led to more deep-seated ruptures as with Conservatism. In part this was because medieval conditions were different from modern ones and in part because the culture of the Mediterranean world is different from that of northern Europe.
Since the medieval world did not permit a secular option, each religious community was also, to a greater or lesser extent, a political and social community and everyone had to adhere to one religious community or another.
This meant that all but the most alienated elements stayed within the Jewish fold. Otherwise they would have had to convert to Christianity or Islam. Some did and posed problems for the Jews, but most did not. Since that was the case, people who took more moderate or cosmopolitan positions on matters Jewish had to find their way within the community and in many cases had the status and voice which enabled them to do so.
The secular option, which came into existence in the modern world, whereby civil society could be neutral in matters of religion, which, as a result, became issues of voluntary allegiance, offered an opening for people who wanted change to develop their own brands of Judaism and to institutionalize them.
Even more than than, the fact of Sephardic Jewry being Mediterranean played a very important role. Thus we see today that in the Mediterranean countries the Protestant approach to religion with its search for consistency between belief and action continues to do poorly. As a rule, Mediterranean peoples believe that they must formally be faithful to the traditions of their fathers although reserving to themselves the right to determine how they individually will maintain those traditions.
In contemporary times, this has become the way in which many Sephardim conduct their lives. People might be more or less observant but the differences were infinitesimal compared to the present times. The posekim rabbinic decisors were still followed but the posekim themselves were men of the world whose decisions reflected both their piety and their wordliness. The Sephardic world produced a complete literature, from works of speculative thought to halakhic decisions that built, reenforced, and remodeled this religious edifice as necessary.
They took it with them upon their exile from the Iberian Peninsula and maintained it intact until the twentieth century when the tides of modernity completely engulfed the Sephardic world. The basic element of the Sephardic religious outlook embodied in the halakhic decision-making of its religious leadership ws that halakhah should facilitate Jewish living in the world in which Jews found themselves, not seek to separate the Jewish people from the external world per se.
By the time of his death, however, the Sephardic rabbinate was well on its way toward Ashkenazification, the result of a combination of factors that have proved nearly fatal to the Sephardic way. The first of these factors is sheer demography. At the end of the eleventh century, perhaps a century after the emergence of a division between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry and their two approaches to halakhah, 97 percent of world Jewry could properly be denominated Sephardic, with only 3 percent Ashkenazic, the latter concentrated in a little area in northern France and western Germany.
While the Ashkenazic population continued to grow over the following centuries, at the beginning of the modern epoch, the mid-seventeenth century, Sephardim still outnumbered Ashkenazim three to two. However, early in the eighteenth century the two groups became equal in number, and by the end of the eighteenth century Ashkenazim outnumbered Sephardim three to two, the result of improved living conditions in Christian Europe as against the Muslim world.
During the nineteenth century these improvements led to a population explosion among Ashkenazic Jewry which was only paralleled in the Sephardic world at the very end of the century. The Ashkenazic high point came in when they constituted nearly 92 percent of world Jewry. As a result of rapid population growth in North Africa and West Asia the percentage of Sephardim began to grow even before the Holocaust.
That tragedy, which witnessed the murder of Jews caught in it without reference to Ashkenazi and Sephardi, still affected the Ashkenazi world more than the Sephardi. The Sephardim have continued to gain in numbers and in percentage since , and today constitute approximately twenty percent of world Jewry. Still, the four to one advantage of the Ashkenazim gives the Ashkenazim a sheer numerical advantage that cannot be minimized.
This numerical advantage meant that even to the degree that the major Sephardic and Ashkenazic centers suffered in the same proportion from the catastrophies of the twentieth century, so many more Ashkenazim were able to survive with their religious leadership and institutions intact.
This also had to do with the conditions under which they survived. For example, almost the only Ashkenazi religious institutions that actually survived World War II were haredi yeshivot that through bribery and cunning managed to escape the Nazi and for that matter Soviet clutches.
More modernized Jews had too much faith in the enlightenment of modern man to resort to those methods and hence perished. Meanwhile, in the new world, new institutions had been developed in the Ashkenazi spirit by Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. Among Sephardim, the old country institutions were actually destroyed as a result of aliyot to Israel, in many cases, out of love, as it were, by the representatives of the Zionist movement who saw no value in the older religious way of life.
They sought to create a new Israeli man by forcing the olim to abandon not only their institutions but their Torah scrolls and sacred manuscripts when they left their countries of origin. Once the olim had arrived, it was easy to discredit the authority of old-country elders. Thus, institutionally, the Ashkenazim, whether haredim or reformers, were in a better position to dominate religious life after World War II. Neither followed the spirit of the Sephardic way, which provided for moderation without institutionalizing either orthodoxy or secularism.
The institutional factor was critical here. The Ashkenazim had in the course of years adapted institutionally to modernity in their religious life. Both hassidim and yeshivot were religious Jewish responses to the eighteenth century; they were strengthened and expanded as Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
These effectively seized control of the definition of what constituted traditional Judaism. In the nineteenth century, ideologically reforming movements, Reform and Conservative, appeared among the Ashkenazim of the West, who deliberately sought to create new forms of Judaism. Technically speaking, Conservative Judaism did not, only to reanimate what they saw as the flexibility and changing character of tradition; that is why in the early days of the Conservative movement Sephardim were very prominent in it, dropping out only when the movement took on separate institutional and ideological form.
As religious institutions ceased to be unifying factors in Jewish life, the Askhenazim developed civil institutions to perform shared or common functions, interaction in the Zionist movement, the national representative or community relations organizations, or local community federations.
The Sephardim, on the other hand, underwent no such institutional development. They tried to retain their traditional institutions, congregations and communities, yet were unable to adapt them except where they imitated Ashkenazi models. In the few places where Sephardic majorities remained after the great migrations, as in Morocco, or were established as a result of migrations, as in France, the older institutions that adapted slightly continued to exist, mostly congregations which remained localistic, serving the immediately private needs of individual families and not able to go beyond that.
In France, indeed, the national institutions had been established earlier by Ashkenazim and were simply taken over by Sephardim in due course. In most places, however, the Sephardim did not have a majority. Therefore they retreated to their own congregations or joined with the Ashkenazim in their institutions.
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