Zionism In Sephardic Thought

By David Ramírez

Sephardic Rabbis

Source: Artist unknown. Eliezer Penias. Year Unknown. Dror Penias. Flicker.com. Web. Jul. 15 2014.

From right to left: Rabbi Ahron Angel (from Rhodes), who in 1948 became Grand Rabbi of Alexandria; Rabbi Ventura (Izmir turkey) Grand Rabbi of Alexandria from 1936 to 1948; Middle two are unknown still; Rabbi Maimon ben Atar (Ab Beth Dhin, Morocco.) Ref. by nitebags.


In light of recent events between Hamas and the Israeli government, I felt the urgent need to put this small list of resources that speak of how 19th c. Sephardic rabbinic scholars struggled to bring to fore classic Jewish legal texts and doctrines that dealt with the question on how to actualize a Jewish polity in the Land of Israel: Unbeknown to most, Sephardic rabbis where the ones who began projecting the idea, long before secular Ashkenazim did.

This is information that the Jewish people completely ignore today. What people call “Zionism” in reality has little to do with how Jews across history, from Biblical times down to the 19th c., meant with the word Zion. I personally resist calling the common Israeli nationalist ideology “Zionism.” Due to its underpinnings found among the philosophers of the Enlightenment—not the Sages of Israel, Israeli nationalist ideology does not concern itself with ever justifying the content of its ideology with Jewish tradition, because its secular precursors found Jewish tradition problematic on so many levels for the New Jew they wanted to create.

What they ended up doing was to transform the term Zion, by picking key superficial concepts connected to the idea of Zion and filling them in with foreign ideas contrary to the time-honored Jewish traditions. It is a process that leads to the creation of a neologism, a new usage of an existing word. Much like medieval Jewish Gnostics transformed the term Qabbalah from the received oral legal traditions of Israel to esoteric otherworldly speculations, many times contrary to those received oral legal traditions, the New Jew did also transform the word Zion, and by consequence Zionism: In other words, “Zionism” delegitimizing Zionism.

As it will become clear in the following articles, Sephardic rabbis were highly concerned with resolving current social, cultural and political challenges in light of classic rabbinic legal texts and doctrines. As such, they connected contemporary reality to the entire chain of Rabbinic Tradition, one that technically (Toráh) observant Jews cannot ignore, or turn against. For secular Jews, who could care less for such niceties as Jewish ethics and obligations, it leaves an issue unresolved: how to justify a new Jewish existentialism and direction without Judaism proper? It would be akin for Americans to create a New American without the U.S. Constitution, Washington, Plymouth, Hamburgers, Apple Pie and Jazz. Would it be, can it be, still be American? Would well-informed Americans ever accept such?

It is of note, that the rabbis mentioned in these articles were not just any run-of-the-mill rabbis, but very important and influential rabbis, whose reach and leadership extended to the Levant, North Africa, Western Europe and the Americas.

I recommend reading these articles in the order listed here, which I feel give a gradual incremental knowledge of the subject at hand.

1. “Zionism,” written by Philadelphia scholar Arthur Kiron, is a section dedicated to the Zionist stance of Sábato Morais, a distinguished Livornese Sephardic scholar, who was the most influential rabbinic figure of 19th c. United States, and whose memory largely remains forgotten today. In this piece, professor Kiron shows us how Morais supported the Jewish settlement of Palestine through agricultural and industrial enterprises, but rejected the creation of a Jewish polity. For Morais, the preemptive creation of a Jewish polity in the Land of Israel rejected the agency of the messiah on religious grounds, and on political grounds it “would threaten the progress being made by Jews in the diaspora integrating into liberal states, and would spark accusations of dual loyalties and anti-Jewish reactions of hatred and fear.”

2. “Religious Humanism and Zionism,” written by Argentinean Sephardic scholar José Faur (as well as the ones to follow), is a delightful gallery of 19th c. Sephardic rabbinic scholars dealing with all sorts of issues connected to Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. There are two main ideas that were being projected by Sephardic rabbis then, in order to prepare the Jew for settlement. One, educating the Jew in Religious Humanism, which not only included Toráh, but also—most importantly for some—an integral formation in the human sciences and arts. Two, which may appeal to the War Hawks among you, the military preparation and training for the re-conquest of the Holy Land, albeit mentioning the not so-small detail that it could only be activated by the agency of the messiah. Yep, that pesky messiah again.

3. “Early Zionist Ideals Among Sephardim in the Nineteenth Century” is similar in scope and much shorter to the former. Besides bringing the issue of education and military training to fore, this one particularly focuses on the issue of purchasing land from the Arabs.

4. “Jewish Dominion over the Land of Israel” is a short but exact halakhic (Jewish legal) analysis of the status of the Land of the Israel after the exile by the Romans. It is a very interesting, and eye-opening look of how the Geonim projected the issue of real estate and Jewish ownership. Central to this explanation rests the concepts of Galut and God as the “Supreme Sovereign of Israel’s territory.”

All the former put into the background of Maimonides’ treatise Hilekhot Melakhim uMilhamot, and his support for the Three Oaths in his letter to the Yemenite Jewish community suffering persecution—two sources that confuses, in my personal experience, the heck out of Religious Zionists—makes the whole picture more coherent.

These however leave more questions than they answer, but at least clarify somewhat the blueprint rabbis were trying to read into and from the texts. Unlike other issues of halakháh, which are fleshed out with outstanding intricacy, Zionism is an issue which is, in my opinion, very vague and spread across Jewish literature. The Rabbis who survived the Roman genocide were not interested to cultivate and promote a military insurgency culture, as it had been happening for most of the 1st century of our common era. Their purpose was to prepare a nation in Exile, and their legacy cohered Jewish survival for the following 2,000 years. No other thought revolution in Human history has ever attempted, or even achieved that. However, even though Zionism recedes into the background, and this I think was no accident but by design, the Rabbis left guiding posts that would allow for actualizing such possibility.

How do these help the current conflict? The hopes and ideals of 19th c. Sephardic rabbis were left unfinished, rejected and forgotten: Would of, could of, should of. Yet it would be foolish not to realize that the current “Jewish” leadership’s strategies and tactics are making us reach a point of no return.

The ever-increasing upheavals in the Middle East crumbling the European-made Arab states, and replacing them with an ever more dangerous foe, and the awakening, rise and tacit acceptance and tolerance of anti-Semitism in Western civilization (yet again!!) should inform us that we cannot continue doing business as usual. Few years back, perhaps 2004 or 2005, I had mentioned to my friend and rabbi Hayyim Kassorla that given the way events were unfolding back then, I felt we should be expecting a holocaust and inquisition all rolled into one, but I did not know how to articulate exactly why and how this was so. Today, the visible signs that once led to those catastrophic events in Jewish history are becoming manifest. And some of the causes are rooted in the way Western thinking and prejudices remains unchanged, as well as the way we have behaved since obtaining political autonomy in the Holy Land. Kiron’s and Faur’s scholarship have given me many clues to the how’s and why’s.

I shall speak of those in the coming posts. Thank you.

2 responses to “Zionism In Sephardic Thought

    • Ephraim, now our job is to take their ideas and transpose them to the 21st century. The point of the post is that currently we are not operating within a Jewish frame of mind. More to come on the transposition. Thank you for the comment.

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