As I began to discuss in the previous letter, I love the Sephardim for being “Sephardim” – for maintaining their “tribal” identity and heritage. I therefore rejoice that within the last few decades, a growing number of Sephardim in Israel have developed a renewed pride in their identity and heritage; thus, many have rediscovered the various Sephardic customs, music, and special approach to serving the Holy One. This is also true among the various sub-groups within the extended Sephardic community, for the customs, music, and special approach of each sub-group is also being revived.
The Chareidi community includes both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and one can experience this Sephardic revival in my Chareidi neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, which has a large and growing Sephardic population. For example, when I walk the streets of Bayit Vegan after a Shabbos or Festival meal, I hear Sephardic families singing the beautiful songs of their Sephardic tradition – songs which stir my soul and warm my heart.
I have a friend in Israel who serves as a Torah teacher in the National Religious community, whose members are also known as “Religious Zionists.” He is on my mailing list, and he therefore received my recent letter about a “unity” yeshiva in Bayit Vegan where Sephardim and Ashkenazim study Torah together and develop a deeper appreciation for the unique traditions and approaches of the “other” community. In response to this letter about Sephardim and Ashkenazim, he wrote that Chareidim are holding on to “antiquated identities.” I replied: “I disagree with your assumption that these are “antiquated identities.” I reminded my friend that there are sources within our tradition which indicate that Sephardim and Ashkenazim are to maintain their identities through following the customs of their respective communities, as long as they are in accordance with “halacha” – the detailed requirements of the Torah path. For example, this approach is stressed by a noted sage of the 17th century, known as the Magen Avraham, in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch – the classical code of halacha. The Magen Avraham indicates that there is a connection between the diverse Jewish customs of today with the diverse customs of the twelve tribes during the biblical period, and he writes:
“A person should not depart from the accepted custom of his community. For there are twelve gates in heaven corresponding to the twelve tribes. And every tribe has its own gate and tradition, with the exception of those traditions cited in the Talmud which are applicable to all the tribes.” (Orach Chaim 68)
Chareidim therefore disagree with my friend’s statement; moreover, it is my impression that there are people in the National Religious community who would also disagree with his statement. I have studied Torah with both National Religious and Chareidi teachers; yet, I do not recall any of the teachers conveying the message that being a Sephardic Jew or an Ashkenazic Jew is an “antiquated identity.” I have also lived in both Religious Zionist and Chareidi neighborhoods, and these neighborhoods have both Sephardic and Ashkenazic synagogues which preserve the customs and songs of each community; thus, these diverse synagogues help each community to preserve its own identity and heritage. In this spirit, I will continue to love the Sephardim as Sephardim! According to my understanding of Torah, this form of love is not “antiquated”; on the contrary, it is a futuristic love which prepares us for the unity within the diversity which we will experience in the messianic age.
As some of you know, I wrote a book titled, “The Universal Jew,” which was published in 1995, and I discuss the importance of our “tribal” diversity on pages 134-140. On page 137, I wrote:
“Unfortunately, not all modern Jews appreciate the beauty of such diversity. In a recent survey by the Guttman Institute of Applied Social Research, a cross-section of Israeli Jews was interviewed concerning their attitudes towards new immigrants. In response to the question as to whether ethnic groups in Israel should preserve their identity and customs; fifty-eight percent of Jews identified as religious responded favorably, while only thirty-eight percent of Jews identified as secular responded favorably.”
Although a majority of Jews who identified as religious favored the preservation of each group’s identity and customs, I was surprised that the percentage favoring this preservation was not higher. This may be because some of the National Religious Jews agree with my friend. Another reason may be the nature of some Israeli surveys, for as I read in the newspapers, some of these surveys fail to reach the Chareidi population. If this is the case with the above survey, then it can explain why the percentage was not higher, for had the survey included Chareidim, there would have been a much higher percentage of religious Jews favoring the preservation of these diverse identities and customs within the Family of Israel.
It is true, however, that diverse identities and customs can lead to prejudice, snobbery, and divisiveness. This is an old human problem which has also affected our own people, including the Chareidi community. The Torah solution to this problem is not through eliminating the diversity, but through uniting all the diverse communities of our people through the spiritual vision of the Torah. In this way, the diverse “tribes” of Israel will be united, and we can then serve as a model of unity for the diverse “tribes” of humanity. As the Prophets indicate, all peoples are destined to be united through the vision of the Torah. (For an example, see Isaiah 2:1-7.)
I would therefore like to review with you the following teaching which can serve as an example of the Torah approach to unity within diversity:
According to the Midrash, the following verse indicates that the tribes of Israel had their own individual flags:
“The Children of Israel shall encamp, each person by his flag according to the insignia of his ancestor’s house, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp.” (Numbers 2:2)
“Each person by his flag” – The flag of each tribe had a distinguishing color and emblem representing the tribe. (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 2:7)
The Tent of Meeting – the Sanctuary – contained the Ark of the Covenant, and within the Ark of the Covenant were the Tablets of the Covenant. After the Sanctuary was built, the Twelve Tribes of Israel were commanded to encamp around the Sanctuary with their respective flags. Before the building of the Sanctuary, there is no mention of their encamping with flags.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, a leading sage of the previous generation, raised the following question: Why did the Twelve Tribes of Israel have to wait to encamp with their respective flags until “after” the Sanctuary was built? He answers that until the Children of Israel had the Sanctuary – the unifying center – the differences between the tribes were a potential source of conflict. If the tribes would have encamped with their separate flags without a unifying spiritual center, there would have been a surge of “nationalistic” feeling within each tribe, with each tribe feeling superior to the other. The Sanctuary, however, provided a central focus to communal life and revealed that, whatever their differences, the tribes were united by their common service of Hashem. Once the Sanctuary was built, it was no longer dangerous to emphasize the unique nature of each tribe through their separate flags.
Let us therefore seek unity among our diverse Jewish communities through a renewed and loving commitment to Torah – the Divine Teaching. In this way, we can merit to experience the fulfillment of the following prophecy that we read on this Shabbos:
“Your people are all righteous; they will possess the land forever; a shoot of My planting, My handiwork, in which to glory.” (Isaiah 60:21)
May we be blessed with the unifying Shalom of Shabbos.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen