By David Shasha
I was recently looking at Andrew Kaufman’s excellent biography of the great American jurist Benjamin Cardozo and found a note referring to the problem of Sephardim and Ashkenazim in America that cited a very curious 1976 exchange between Dr. Malcolm Stern and Rabbi Marc Angel.
Here is the complete text of that exchange:
Now it is the current case that Sephardic history and culture has become a dead letter. Because of a fortuitous combination of Ashkenazi racism and Sephardi self-hatred, there is at present not a single educational or religious institution anywhere in the world that is dedicated to the promotion of the classical Sephardic heritage. The very basics of Sephardic literature and intellectual tradition are generally a closed book not only to the Jewish community at large, but to the Sephardim themselves.
I have presented many examples of this process as it is currently playing out in the Jewish world at the present time. Due to the demography of the American Jewish community, Ashkenazim have attained a definitive majority and have used their considerable power and influence to write out the Sephardim from the general history of Jews in this country.
The most important American Sephardic Jewish community here in Brooklyn, led by Jews of Syrian origin, has utterly lost its connection to the past. Due to the machinations of the titular head of the Syrian Jewish community, Isaac Shalom (1886-1968), a sharp process of acculturation took place that led to both a cultural erasure as well as a profoundly corrupted institutional process. This has forced power from the hands of rabbis and placed it into the hands of businessmen and lay leaders who have ultimately wiped out the old modalities of Jewish Humanism and instituted in its place a very Ashkenazi form of Judaism.
Religion has become a tool of the powerful and wealthy who have used their status to create an ethically corrupt community which rejects not only the basic tenets of Sephardic Humanism, but of intellectual attainment more generally.
An important part of this process was the turn to Ashkenazi Modern Orthodoxy as embodied by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University:
Integral to this new Sephardic reality is the seminal figure of Rabbi Marc Angel who has helped to spearhead this Modern Orthodox connection. Rabbi Angel’s lengthy ministry at Congregation Shearith Israel can best be understood as a means to re-calibrate the Sephardic heritage to fit the Ashkenazi model and aggressively downplay the traditional schism between Ashkenazim and Sephardim; a matter that I learned the hard way when I had the temerity to submit an article to his journal Conversations:
In my article “A Broken Frame” I laid out the case for Sephardic culture and vigorously argued that the model of Jewish Humanism it has presented is desperately needed in a Jewish community which has been overcome by factionalism and internal divisions; that has led to assimilation on the one side, and religious extremism and obscurantism on the other.
Rabbi Angel’s hostility to the article was quite visceral and he rejected its publication in the journal in no uncertain terms. Ironically, the article was eventually published in Tikkun magazine:
Rabbi Angel, perhaps more than any other single figure in the Sephardic community, has used his high standing in the Ashkenazi Orthodox world in order to act as a gatekeeper preventing the articulation of a Sephardi contrarian position that would not simply insist on inclusion of the basic materials of the Sephardic heritage in the general Jewish pedagogy, but which would freely discuss the problem of Ashkenazi anti-Sephardi racism in the larger context of what has become, as we have seen in the Pew Research report, a form of dysfunction that is helping to corrode Jewish life in this country.
We can clearly see Rabbi Angel’s elective affinities in the following article that is completely predicated on the Ashkenazi Modern Orthodox worldview:
So we are faced with a tenuous situation that has brought Sephardic culture to the point of collapse, while the tyranny of the Ashkenazim has led the Jewish community to a perilous state.
Going back to the 1976 debate between Stern and Angel, we can better grasp what this is all about.
The Stern paper reviews the basic issues of Sephardim and Ashkenazim in New York and emphatically states the following:
The relations between Sephardim and Ashkenazim were far from cordial. The Sephardim, many of them refugees from the Inquisition, had lived side by side with Christians and were far more assimilated than the ghettoized Ashkenazim of Northern Europe. The Sephardim looked down on the Ashkenazim because of their lack of breeding; the Ashkenazim objected to the lack of orthodox Judaism among the Sephardim.
For all intents and purposes, this is the widely accepted view of the matter: Sephardim were culturally dominant and their way became the standard form of Judaism in America from the earliest settlement of Jews in this country.
Stern does review the complexities of Jewish settlement and provides a number of correctives to details found in Rabbi David de Sola Pool’s excellent studies of this critically important history. Questions related to the demography of the early New York Jewish community and the development of its institutions are raised and new evidence and hypotheses are adduced.
But the basic premise of friction related to a clash of Jewish cultures remains at the heart of the discussion.
This clash between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, naturally, sets off Rabbi Angel who emotionally states:
I would like go into what I consider another great myth in Jewish history: Sephardic-Ashkenazic interrelationships…
It is fine to speculate, it is fine to say that it is possible, it is fine to say that there were Jews in other lands and Sephardim in other areas that had these kinds of tensions, but I don’t think that it was true in New York – and I don’t think that one prove that it was ever so. On the contrary, I think that you can adduce much evidence that is very plausible to show that the opposite was true.
The first knot in Rabbi Angel’s argument is his admission that there was indeed a tradition of conflict between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in European lands. The point he is making in the response to Dr. Stern is to isolate the New York example and in the process seek to make this case normative for the Sephardic tradition.
Rabbi Angel, as has consistently been the case, is quite desperate to refute the idea that there is any schism between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The 1976 discussion often deals with arcane matters of who came first and what the demographic composition of the New York Jewish community actually was. These are of course historical questions that can only be precisely answered with formal evidence; evidence that is not always available given the paucity of the resources available to researchers.
But there is a much larger and more general problem that is being debated here and which Rabbi Angel explicitly defines at the conclusion of his paper:
The implication of this [the intermarriage of Sephardim and Ashkenazim] is that the Sephardim and Ashkenazim must have gotten along well enough – they didn’t make war – they made love – and this was the thing that protected them.
This assertion is evidence of the deep compulsion that has animated and informed Rabbi Angel’s mission for many years: the aggressive promotion of a harmonious relationship between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
Now we must contextualize this desire for harmony in the setting of both the destruction of the Sephardic heritage that is taking place at the institutional level, and the ongoing anti-Sephardi racism that has become a central feature of Ashkenazi scholarship at the present time.
The question of whether or not Sephardim and Ashkenazim got along at important historical junctures is one that even Rabbi Angel admits is complex:
The Ashkenazim looked up to the Sephardim for whatever reasons – they acculturated with the Sephardim for whatever reasons and wanted to be Sephardim.
I would like to look carefully at the language that Rabbi Angel uses in this passage. On two occasions he uses the term “for whatever reasons.” The tone of the language is somewhat dismissive; there are “reasons,” but they are not really all that important. It is the use of the modifier “whatever” that marks this disinterested attitude.
But the “reasons” for Ashkenazi acculturation to the Sephardic model are indeed very important.
Dr. Stern in his paper noted the standard view that Sephardim represented a more “acculturated” form of Judaism that was “assimilated” into the general culture. What Dr. Stern fails to note is the precise nature of this “acculturation” and “assimilation.” Ignoring the actual historical figures who represented this culture that we have called “Religious Humanism,” Stern does not make precise how this cultural process actually worked throughout history.
In many of my articles and newsletters, including “A Broken Frame,” I have provided the necessary details of just who these rabbis were and what they represented to the Jewish tradition:
Ashkenazi acculturation to Sephardic Religious Humanism is a critical step in the process of identity-formation in the early American Jewish experience and explains the situation in New York. To put this complex process into question, as Rabbi Angel aggressively seeks to do, is to obscure the strengths of the foundational period in American Jewish history. It also impedes our ability to repair the current problems that plague us as a community.
By not detailing the careers of brilliant figures like Gershom Mendes Seixas, Isaac Leeser, Sabato Morais, and Henry Pereira Mendes, the discussion misses the most basic point of what early American Jewish history was all about: the institution of a form of Judaism that had its roots in Andalusian-Sephardic civilization which refused the parochialism and obscurantist fanaticism of the Ashkenazim.
I have discussed the matter of this obscurantist fanaticism many times:
While we might debate the precise details of the Sephardi-Ashkenazi meeting in America, the larger contours of the experience is clear: Ashkenazi figures like Isaac Leeser were forced, as both Stern and Angel readily admit, to conform to the Sephardic model. The ways of the Shtetl were abandoned and a new acculturation to the general culture took place under the aegis of the Sephardic tradition of Religious Humanism.
Given Rabbi Angel’s anxiety and hostility when discussing the Sephardi-Ashkenazi relationship it is critical to note the precise modalities of the encounter and not become enmeshed in “Grandees” style gossip over alleged snobbery and social elitism between the two groups.
It is possible to see, as has been the case in the scholarship on Sephardic history by vulgar Ashkenazi ethnocentrists like Yitzhak Baer, Leo Strauss, and Ben-Zion Netanyahu, the Sephardim as less “authentically” Jewish because of their Religious Humanism and its concern with acculturation to general culture.
But it is equally possible to see this acculturation process instituted by seminal figures like Moses Maimonides as strengthening Jewish tradition as it evolved ancient practices and concepts in a way that refuses to ignore or reject the advances in general civilization such as science and philosophy.
Ashkenazi Judaism of the so-called “orthodox” variety – a term that has been anachronistically applied to 17th century American Judaism – has had a deeply contentious and fraught relationship – as Dr. Stern properly notes in his paper – with the general culture and the societies in which it has found itself living in during the many centuries of the Jewish Diaspora.
Moreover, this problem of acculturation – or lack of it – has plagued classical Zionism and later the state of Israel, a matter I have discussed in an article on the late Ben-Zion Netanyahu and his fierce antipathy towards the Sephardic heritage:
It is a debilitating strain of Jewish misanthropy that permeates Religious Zionism and its false messianism:
The question thus becomes whether or not the Sephardic model is the one that should be used by Jews at the present time.
The debate over Jews in New York history between Dr. Stern and Rabbi Angel is critically important in this regard.
Rabbi Angel’s final remarks are very telling:
So I think that the history of Colonial American Jews, and certainly of the Jews in New York City, requires a great deal of thought and study. I think it’s also very much a matter of perspective: if we come in with the perspective that Sephardim and Ashkenazim cannot get along, then we can write a whole history book, which I think would misrepresent the reality of what was. If we start out with the assumption that Sephardim and Ashkenazim got along well and Ashkenazim wanted to adapt themselves to the Sephardic mode, all these questions are really no questions.
Rabbi Angel’s discussion is basically a PILPUL: he has already embraced Ashkenazi Modern Orthodoxy and its hegemonic position in the Jewish community. When confronting the issue of early American Jewish history he seeks to fit the extant documentary evidence to fit his presuppositions and Jewish values regardless of the conceptual coherence of the argument.
For him it is crucial that Sephardim and Ashkenazim remain as one community without rancor. Any attempt to assert conflict or division is unacceptable to him. Even as he accepts that the Sephardi-Ashkenazi split existed outside the New York community, his argument seeks to make use of the New York example in a way that would ultimately serve to re-affirm the current Ashkenazi hegemony.
It has become quite clear at present that the heritage of the Sephardic Jews in America, the legacy of the first Jewish Theological Seminary and the old Shearith Israel, is now basically defunct. Due to the machinations of the Ashkenazified self-hating Sephardim like Isaac Shalom and Rabbi Angel that has led to and enabled Shearith Israel’s current Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and his radical Zionist messianism, we now have institutions that promote only the Ashkenazi Modern Orthodox view. This in turn has led to the successful intrusion of Haredi Ultra-Orthodoxy as a reactionary movement in our communities due to the elimination of the Sephardic model of Jewish Humanism.
The night before writing this essay I was watching the annual network broadcast of the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As I was watching the movie for the umpteenth time I once again pondered the harrowing tale of George Bailey and his battle against Henry Potter; the latter seeking to eliminate the Bailey Savings and Loan which helped the poor of the community to get new houses at an affordable price.
The greedy banker Potter is the villain of the piece as he seeks to use his financial power to control the community and force them to acquiesce to his selfishly oppressive ways.
The Baileys represent the democratic values of a compassionate Religious Humanism rooted in the noble values of the classical American tradition. Immigrants – called by Potter “garlic eaters” and “shiftless rabble” – are seeking to raise themselves both economically and culturally. George Bailey is persecuted by Potter because he is extending the liberal values of American idealism to the strangers and their “foreign” ways.
Potter wants to create a town in his own nihilistic image to be called Pottersville. After Bailey unsuccessfully attempts suicide and is saved by his guardian angel, he tells the latter that he wishes he had never been born. His guardian angel magically erases him from the historical record, and then shows him in a fantasy sequence what the world would have looked like if indeed he was never born.
Hollywood movies provide us with happy endings, but we must always remember that real life and movie life are not the same things. The fear and depression of George Bailey are miraculously lifted when others come to his aid.
But in the case of the Sephardim, there does not seem to be any of this magical hocus-pocus. As Franz Kafka prophetically said:
There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe … but not for us.
When we read the 1976 Stern-Angel debate we see that the roots of Sephardi dysfunction and self-hatred run very deep. In spite of the fact that our culture is in the process of erasure, there are those who would continue to beat away at the corpse in order to promote their own personal interests over those of the community. The historical argument is rooted in a much larger cultural-religious polemic that asks us what Judaism is and what being Jewish means.
The corrosive authoritarianism of the Ashkenazi tradition has translated into a cruel and barbaric Jewish identity that many American – and Israeli – Jews are vigorously running away from.
What I have called “The Levantine Option,” a form of Judaism rooted in the old model of Sephardic Religious Humanism, is being assaulted from all corners:
It is a tradition whose manifestations in American life were once the hallmark of our noble identity:
But the further deterioration of American Judaism into “Pottersville” has led to the obliteration of the old model of acculturation that is endemic to a Sephardic tradition that is now basically on life-support, if it even exists at all.
Lacking the institutional power to force its way into a Jewish world that seeks its extinction, the Sephardic Jewish tradition with its supremely sensitive and perspicacious intellectual-ethical values has been denied the opportunity to help resolve the issues that are now killing off the Jewish community in America and abroad.
In the current circumstances we are witnessing the death of George Bailey, the final victory of Henry Potter, and the brutal imposition of what has become in effect a Jewish “Pottersville” that has asphyxiated the freedom and dignity of our people.
From: Shasha, David. “Entering ‘Pottersville’: Modalities of Destruction and Self-Hatred in Sephardic Jewish History“. Groups.google.com. January 1 2015. Web. January 1 2015.