Sephardic Literature: Unity and Dispersion

By Stavans, Ilan | Tikkun, January/February 2005 | Go to article overview

Sephardic Literature: Unity and Dispersion


Stavans, Ilan, Tikkun


"The Sephardic sensibility," Abraham Joshua Heschel, the existential thinker responsible for God in Search of Man and other classics, states in an essay originally published in Germany in 1946 and translated into English in 1972, "is distinguished by a strict, logical orderliness... and stress [es] the elements Judaism has in common with the surrounding cultures, frequently overlooking its own specific, peculiar contributions. Often, the thinking is in a foreign pattern, endeavoring to compromise with the theories of the great thinkers, at times even an apologetic note is sounded."

In attempting to understand what makes the Sephardim tick, one often comes across extravagant, Manichean statements such as these. In Heschel's mind were luminaries such as Maimonides and Spinoza, i.e., stunning assemblers and commentators of homiletic information or else lucid thinkers whose use of the more geometric reduces the universe to algebraic forces. Indeed, he wrote as his doctoral dissertation a biography of Maimonides, in whom he recognizes a steep intellectual reach. But he was also disappointed with "the lack of passion, the absence of angst" in the oeuvre of the author of The Guide for the Perplexed, wondering why Maimonides didn't share a bit of the to-beor-not-to-be that defines Ashkenazic Jewishness.

That Heschel was infatuated, in a somewhat paternalistic fashion, with the people of Ashkenaz, as the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe for almost a millennium (from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries) are referred to, is no secret. A child of the post-Romantic movement and a pupil of the Wissenschaft des Judentum (he was born in Berlin in 1907, emigrated to the United States before World War II, was active during the Civil Rights era, taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and died in 1972), his infatuation was in the air he breathed. "A unique Jewish person evolved [in Ashkenaz]," Heschel stated, "whose habits and taste are not in accordance with the classical canon of beauty, but who nevertheless possess a specific charm. He is like a page in an open book, static in its own lines and in the proportion of text and margin ... The charm derives from the [person's] inner richness, from the polarity of reason and feeling, of joy and sorrow."

That polarity, in his view, isn't part of the Sephardic experience. For Heschel the Sephardim are aristocratic. They don't find complete self-fulfillment in their Jewishness. And the fact that they wrote their classics in languages such as Arabic, intelligible to a miniscule elite, was for him difficult to swallow. It is as if Sholem Aleichem had opted for Russian to deliver his masterpiece, Tevye the Dairyman. In his essay, issued in English a couple of years after his death, Heschel gets into muddier waters when talking about Sephardic literature per se. "[It] is like classical architecture," he stated. Ashkenazic letters, in contrast, are "like a painting by Rembrandt, profound and full of mystery." He adds: "The former prefers the harmony of a system; the latter, the tension of dialectic. The former is sustained by a balanced solemnity; the latter, by impulsive inspiration. Frequently, in Ashkenazic literature, the form is shattered by the overflow of feeling, by passion of thought, and explosive ecstasy. Sephardic literature is like a cultivated park; Ashkenazic, like an ancient forest. The former is like a story with a beginning and an end; the latter has a beginning, but turns frequently into a tale without end. The Sephardim, interested in preserving the spiritual heritage, classify and synthesize the material that has accumulated in the course of the centuries."

Clearly, Heschel's approach to the Sephardim is simplistic. It makes use of a hermeneutic technique of argumentation, propagated in the early twentieth century by Karl Popper, known for its use of "negative attributes." The Sephardim are everything that the Ashkenazim are not. The folklore and tradition of the descendants of the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 appear to him as unfamiliar, foreign, and bizarre. …

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