Embracing Change: Forgotten Traditions Within Sephardic Judaism

Book cover of Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East by Tzvi Marx.Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East
by Zvi Zohar
Bloomsbury Academic, 2013

Religious systems are often, if not always, associated with dogmatic, unchanging claims of absolute truths. If God revealed it, it must be a permanent verity, fixed in the eternal universe. Change is associated with human uncertainty, while divinity, the very stuff of conviction, is characterized by the unchanging. This explains why people do not want to get involved in debates about religion. Believers will never change their minds in the face of even the most persuasive evidence. So what is the point of critically discussing with them anything that touches on their religious convictions?

The intractability of Jewish law is succinctly expressed in the phrase, “The new is forbidden by Torah” (chadash assur min haTorah), according to which view, “authentic Jewish continuity would be maintained only to the extent that Jewish society continued to cloister itself from external influences.” The most famous spokesman for this view was Rabbi Moshe Schreiber (popularly known as the Chatam Sofer), who was the spiritual head of Hungary’s Ashkenazic community in the early nineteenth century. Rabbi Schreiber said: “It is fully clear to God, that it is impossible for the Israelite People to be different from the rest of the nations, except if they separate themselves completely from them and from their ways.” He emphasized that especially education must continue as it had in premodern times “in the ways we have followed forever, from the days of Moses our teacher until today.”

So it is like a blast of fresh air to discover through Zvi Zohar’s new book that in the modern Middle East of the nineteenth century, a different wind was blowing within the Sephardic Jewish world, one in which changeability and adaption to changing conditions were of the very essence of true religiosity. Zohar’s 369-page book Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East reflects on the “halacha as a dynamic religious tradition according to the Sephardi-Oriental halakhic scholars” in which “the greatness and eternality of Torah is revealed specifically in its capacity to promote the realization of the highest values in a variety of ways, each fully in tune with the conditions of a (different) specific time and place.”

No Precedent Is Binding

As an example, Zohar focuses on the flexible outlook and halachic decisions expressed in Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazan’s book Sheerit ha-Nahala, which was published in 1862. Hazan was born in Izmir in 1808, and his last post was as Chief Rabbi of Alexandria. He died in Israel in 1862 after having done rabbinic service in North Africa, London, Amsterdam, Rome, and Corfu. Rabbi Hazan is not shy even to disagree with the saintly Moses Maimonides, whose word was Torah for many Jews. In particular, he disagrees with Maimonides on the sacred character of the Hebrew language.

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