Ben Judah

Sephardi lessons of moderation and balance are precious today

For the Rabbis of Sefarad, the Torah was always a guide to the world. Not, as it became for the embattled Rabbis of Ashkenaz, a wall against it


(C) Blake Ezra Photography 2017 Balfour Declaration Ceremony at Bevis Marks Synagogue. 4th November 2017.

January 26, 2023 11:59

Moderate. It’s not a word that the religious often want associated with themselves. It has none of the clarity of “frum” or “Reform”. None of the power of stating, “I’m Charedi”, or the edge of saying, “I’m egal only.” But it’s an important word. It’s one that shouldn’t be slipping away.

Moderate. It’s the word that came to mind on Boxing Day when, up at Hoop Lane Cemetery in Golders Green, the Sephardi community buried Rabbi Abraham Levy.

It’s a word I’m thinking of again this week as his shloshim — his family’s 30 days of mourning — come to an end.

I’m not sure how old I am in my first memory of Rabbi Levy. Perhaps six or seven? But I could be younger.

And I can see him in his top hat at the pulpit at our synagogue on Lauderdale Road. But I know what he’s talking about. He’s talking about Spain.

It’s not the stories — of Marranos, Rabbi viziers or the crypto-Jew who feigned an allergy to bread for the entire year so as not to eat chametz when it came to Pesach — but the way he told them that marked me. I felt, looking up at him, like he himself had been born in Toledo.

Or at least known the survivors of Ferdinand and Isabella, the way I had known those of Hitler.

So much so that I remember being genuinely shocked when at school, a few years later, I discovered that the expulsion that eventually birthed my own kahal, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation, happened 500 years ago, not like the immediate exiles from Iraq, India, or North Africa that filled Rabbi Levy’s pews.

I didn’t know at that point that my family tree was full of Marranos, secret Jews in 17th-century Lisbon or the Spanish court. I only knew I was made of Baghdad, Ashkenaz and conversion, but the way Rabbi Levy said “we” when it came to our link to Sefarad; the way he spoke of “our way” gripped me as a child.

Moderate. It might seem a bit of a jump to associate that word with Abraham Zacuto, a 16th-century Jew — among many — whom Rabbi Levy spoke about like a friend. Not only was he a rabbi, he was also a Sephardi mathematician, astronomer and royal historian whose astrolabe and astronomical tables revolutionised Iberian navigation, helping Vasco Da Gama and Columbus discover the world.

Moderate? For Rabbi Levy that made perfect sense. Because, he taught, the incredible thing about Sefarad wasn’t — believe it or not — the food or the melodies. It was its rabbinical approach to the Torah.

Its path of leniency, balance and synthesis that gave us giants that feel totally alien to the spirit of Orthodoxy today. Devoted Jews, immersed in all of the knowledge and politics of their world. That’s why for Rabbi Levy moderate was the opposite of feeble. It was his religious ideal.

A question filled my mind as the earth fell on Rabbi Levy’s coffin. Was he the last of our community to talk like that of Sefarad? The way I could about the souk of Baghdad, or most British Jews can speak about the shtetl, like they were actually there?

And then fear. How much life does his moderate Orthodoxy have left?

It’s a familiar story in a synagogue such as Lauderdale Road. The middle-of-the-road Judaism in an age of manic extremes seems to hold less and less appeal.

It’s not that religion doesn’t — there is no shortage of believers — it’s that the centre is hollowing out. One kid becomes “culturally Jewish” and the other baal teshuva. This is the rub for the Sephardim.

Dominating Orthodox Judaism in Britain and the world over is a yeshiva system that is structurally, culturally and halachically Ashkenazi. One that has been going more machmir with each generation as it gathers strength.

And if you’re religious, it influences you.

I’ve seen it so many times. It’s often joked that the Sephardim are the aristocracy of Anglo Jewry.

But the truth is that today, in the religious world, they lack confidence and instead of defending their own traditions, are eager to act as strictly as the Orthodox Ashkenazim. It’s not just the patter of Yiddish that creeps in. It’s the whole world view.

I’ve felt it myself. The sudden doubt when you enter that world that “our way” isn’t good enough. That it’s not enough to follow the mitzvot. That you need to retreat from the world.

To stop seeing Abraham Zacuto with his astrolabe for what he was: someone trying to be a good scientist and a good Jew.

You start to forget that Maimonides was the Sultan’s physician. Let alone Shmuel HaNagid the vizier.

It’s quietly resisting this that will be Rabbi Levy’s most important legacy. Re-establishing our own Sepahardi rabbinical training programme, since 2006, at the Montefiore Endowment.

I’m more optimistic than pessimistic and this is why. Long term, it’s this approach that is most suited to what the Jewish world actually needs.

I left the cemetery that day thinking of that precious distinction that Rabbi Levy had taught me.

For the Rabbis of Sefarad, the Torah was always one thing: a guide to the world. Not, as it became for the embattled Rabbis of Ashkenaz, a wall against it. It’s an approach that comes out moderate. And I’m proud to hold it.

January 26, 2023 11:59

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive