Jews Should Turn Back to the Sephardic Legacy
by Stephen Schwartz
From: Stephen Schwartz
We've discussed including non-Jews or intermarried couples in the Jewish community. But how about bringing the Sephardim into the American Jewish dialogue? American Jews hardly know that Sephardic tradition exists, even as they use a siddur filled with Sephardic compositions.
I remember with great distaste an editor of a leading Jewish journal telling me his paper had published enough on Sephardim and would not be interested in anything more about them. Another editor at the same paper told me the Sephardim daven without knowing the meaning of the words.
The great self-anointed moshiach of Jewish studies, the Mexican-born Ilan Stavans, published a book of Sephardic writings that included nothing from the Balkans or other areas of long-existing Sephardic tradition. To some people the Sephardim are useful only to support fantasies about hidden Jews in New Mexico.
Jews should turn back to the Sephardic legacy, and come to better understand its role in the evolution of Judaism as it exists today. Bosnian Muslims asked me repeatedly about tensions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim and Mizrahim in Israel. All this is quite new to the Bosnian Muslims and they hardly know what to make of it.
Sephardic thought was influenced by the long Ottoman tradition of mutual respect between Jews and Muslims. A Bosnian Islamic theologian said to me, "Here Muslims and Jews were always a single ummah (community)."
The Ottomans always protected the Jews and viewed Eretz Israel in the terms enunciated by the Quranic verses in which Allah subhanawata'al promises the land to the House of Israel forever. The Ottomans also viewed Lebanon as basically a Christian land and appointed a Christian to rule there.
Here is a counterfactual supposition about Jewish history: What if the Ottoman empire had not been carved up by Britain and France after the first world war? And what if it had granted freedom to both Israel and the Arab states in the late '40s—with Israel seen as a Jewish partner to the Muslim states?