A Broken Frame: Sephardi Occlusion and the Repairing of Jewish Dysfunction

By Shasha, David | Tikkun, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

A Broken Frame: Sephardi Occlusion and the Repairing of Jewish Dysfunction


Shasha, David, Tikkun


AT PRESENT, JEWISH LIFE IS MARKED BY A SERIOUS DIFFICULTY IN DEALING WITH the outside, non- Jewish world and by an equally difficult internal series of intractable conflicts waged within the Jewish community. These conflicts, internal and external, bespeak a particular and insular vision of Judaism that judges the external as problematic. Too often, other approaches to Jewish life are ignored, even though they evolved from the same biblical and rabbinic antecedents.

In the centuries following the production of the Babylonian Talmud, an acculturation took place in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Jewish world, a world that was linked by a dynamic and creative rabbinical culture with its roots in the old Levant. This acculturation eventually led to what scholars have called ' Arabization." As rabbis and Jewish laypeople of the Mediterranean basin and Near East adopted the Arabic language in the wake of the Islamic conquests, tumultuous changes took place that culminated in the achievements of Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), a figure who traveled from Spain in the West across North Africa to Egypt.

Historians have distorted Maimonides's historical influence in a desperate attempt to misread the immediate developments in the European Jewish world relating to his teachings and value system.

Religious Humanism

TODAY THE SUPREMACY OF MAIMONIDES IS OFTEN TAKEN FOR GRANTED, WHEREAS HIS ACTUAL teaching has been occluded. Maimonides developed a Judaism typified by the Religious Humanism that had been articulated by Middle Eastern thinkers in a polyglot form of Arabic culture. This Humanism infused the various sacred texts and traditions of the region's monotheistic religions with Greco-Roman science and rationalism.

Religious Humanism is a critically important category that is rarely articulated in its precise sense and is even less understood as a basis for Jewish self-understanding. These ideas integrate the parochial values of religion with the universal aspects of human civilization.

A fairly representative example of what this concept signifies can be found in the following two passages, the first of which comes from Maimonides himself and the second from Moses Angel:

It was not the object of the Prophets and our Sages in these utterances to close the gate of investigation entirely, and to prevent the mind from comprehending what is within its reach, as is imagined by simple and idle people, whom it suits better to put forth their ignorance and incapacity as wisdom and perfection, and to regard the distinction and wisdom of others as irréligion and imperfection, thus taking darkness for light and light for darkness. The whole object of the Prophets and the Sages was to declare that a limit is set to human reason where it must halt (Guide of the Perplexed 1:32).

Then, charity, which in the doctrine of abstract faith, means love for universal mankind, shall cease to be what concrete religion made it, love only for self and self's imitators. Then, man shall acknowledge that true God-worship consists not in observance of any particular customs, but in the humble, zealous cultivation of those qualities by which the Eternal has made himself known to the world. The members of one creed shall not arrogate to themselves peculiar morality and peculiar salvation, denying both to the members of other creeds; but they shall learn that morality and salvation are the cause and effect of all earnest endeavors to rise to the knowledge of revelation. Men shall cease to attempt the substitution of one set of forms for another set of forms ; they shall satisfy themselves with being honest and dignified exponents of their own mode of belief, and shall not seek to coerce what heaven has left unfettered- the rights of conscience. They shall strive to remove all obstacles to the spread of God-worship, by showing how superior the happiness, the intellectuality, the virtue of its professors; but they shall stop there, not even for the sake of securing their object preferring their own faith for that of another.

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A Broken Frame: Sephardi Occlusion and the Repairing of Jewish Dysfunction
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