I’ve recently been asked by members of my congregation to speak about the future of the Sephardi world. This question was prompted by an article written last summer by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of the Sephardic Educational Center of Jerusalem and read recently at our minyan’s Friday-morning breakfast.
The author writes movingly of his upbringing as a Sephardi Jew and how Sephardi Jews have historically been open-minded and tolerant, unlike what he perceives to be the current trend in Israel.
Rabbi Bouskila cites declarations of current Sephardi leaders, who have said that they “know” why certain natural disasters have occurred, as if they know what’s on God’s mind. Rabbi Bouskila says he’s embarrassed by these leaders’ “extreme” statements, which he seems to associate with the Ashkenazi (Lithuanian) world. He goes on to say that he won’t relinquish his traditional, tolerant Sephardi outlook, which has nothing to do with the “extremism” of the current Sephardi leadership.
In order to consider this debate fairly, one must ask what it means to be Sephardi. Can we learn from the example of the Ashkenazi community? How can we make our tradition more relevant to the younger generation?
Historically, Sephardim have been tolerant and open-minded while being scrupulously faithful to tradition as conveyed on a daily basis by observance of richly woven customs. We present a table open to all, but defined by centuries of traditions and customs to which we jealously adhere. Our way is one of balance. We sift to glean what is consistent with our history, our tradition and our customs.
Clearly, we Sephardim have much to learn and to emulate with respect to the successes attained by our Ashkenazi brethren regarding education. We send our children to Ashkenazi-run schools, which we recognize as being at a very high level. It’s not rocket science: the Ashkenazim have simply invested more time and more money in a sustained way than we have.
With respect to the relevance of our Sephardi culture to succeeding generations, nothing can substitute for the home environment – the many joys, the inevitable mistakes, the persistent opportunities for learning. Values are not what we say, but, rather, what we do. Our children watch us to see what’s really important. Our synagogues, our schools, our camps, our rabbis, our teachers – all of these are important, but it’s the home that establishes and transmits the relevance and the future of our Sephardi world.
Much has been said – or alluded to – concerning a perceived inferiority felt by Sephardim as compared with Ashkenazim. There are many historical reasons for this, but this is not the domain of this article. It’s sufficient to say that the solution is simply to lead good Sephardi lives, as guided by our forebears and our teachers throughout the ages. After all, what we are living is not a test run. The Sephardi way has worked for two millennia! We are, indeed, on solid ground!
Let us help one another to realize the incalculable richness of the Sephardi way.