Difference Between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews in Modern Times Essay

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Difference Between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews in Modern Times

For the most part, modern Jewish history deals with the political, social and economic advancements achieved by the Ashkenazi communities in Europe, America, and later — Palestine. Because of it’s relatively small size and involvement in the affairs of “civilized” countries of Europe and America, the Sephardi branch of Judaism is rerely dealt with in the context of modern Jewish history. Their development is however, though not as influential upon the flow of the “mainstream” history as that of the Ashkenazi jewry, is nevertheless an area of interest to anyone undertaking a serious study of Jewish history.

The theological difference between the two movements, the Sefardi and the Ashekenazi, lies in the traditional laws more than in written ones. Both take an Orthodoxal approach to the written law of the Torah, and the differences in its interpretation are subtle enough to be dismissed. However the traditions acquired , and at times given the power of laws, in the course of the long centuries of diaspora differ considerably from one branch of Judaism to another.

Just as the worldwide language of the Ashekenazim, Yiddish, is a mixture of Hebrew with German, the common language used by the Sephardim Ladino, still in use in some parts of the world, is a dialect formed by combining Hebrew with Spanish. The Sephardim who have historically been more involved into the lives of the gentile societies where they settled don’t have as strict a set of observances as do the Ashkenazis who have been contained in closed ghettos up until two centuries ago. The official doctrine of the Sephardis does not for example prohibit polygomy, whereas it hasn’t been allowed in the Ashkenazi law since Middle Ages.

Although the Ashkenazi traditions are somewhat stricter than those of the Sephardim, a greater percentage of Ashkenazi Jews have over the past century and a half stopped observing these traditions, becoming either “secular Jews”, atheists, like the American Freethinkers, or simply converting. An even greater part have chosen to follow only a part of the traditional, or “oral”, laws, forming widely popular Reform and Conservative movements. This phenomenon, if present within the Sephardic community exists on such a small scale that it can be discounted. The reason for this difference in the adherence of the tradition is the way in which the tradition itself was first put into effect.

In the case of the Ashkenazi Jews the traditions have been instated by the long centuries of enforced separation, and when the barriers were let down, the communities that were held together by pressure from the outside started to degenerate. With the walls of the ghetto gone, but full emancipation not yet granted, many believed that if they had integrated themselves into the gentile societies, they would gain acceptance. Secular education replaced religion, rather than complementing it.

This however was not the case with Sephardim, whose less strict traditions were developed in the environment of toleration. While the Ashkenazi Jews were restricted to the ghettos of Europe, held at bay by the Catholic church, the Sephardim of Middle East, North Africa and Ottoman Empire were living as “dhimmies”, or “people of the pact”, and though not fully equal with their Muslim hosts, were to some extent intregrated into their societies. For this reason, the traditional laws of the Sephardim are less demanding, but more enduring. Unlike the Ashkenazi population that has over a century of immigration spread itself all over the world, The Sephardic communities tend to concentrate mostly around a few areas.

Today most of the Sephardic Jews reside within Israel, amost other Middle-Eastern communities having been reduced to virtual nonexistance by the migration of Jews out of Arabic countries after the creation of Israel. A substantial community is still maintained in Turkey, where historically Jews have received good treatment. Of the Western countries, the only one where the population of Sephardic Jews is comparable to that of the Ashekenazis is France, where a considerable number of Jews have resided since the Middle Ages.

While Sephardi Jews were the first people of Jewish faith to arrive in the US, and their number in this country is still quite large, they are but a drop in the bucket when compared to the overall number of Jews currently residing in America today. The Spehardic Jews have historically lived in the areas more or less tolerant of Judaism. They therefore had more of an opportunity to integrate themselves into the host societies than did their Ashkenazi counterparts living in the countries where Jewish communities were forcebly segregated from the rest.

Thus they never really formed separate self-governed units, and the impact made upon the countries of their residence can be traced only through the outstanding Jewish personalities that had effect on the history of those states, and not actions taken by the community as a whole. Whereas in the history of American Jews one may encounter occurrences of political decisions being influenced by the pressure of Jews as a communal force, the history of Middle-Eastern countries is only able to offer examples of brilliant Jewish individuals, but rarely actions taken by the whole communities.

The Sephardis (the word itself comes from a Hebrew word for Spain) first came to Europe in the early middle ages across the Straight of Gibraltar to the Iberian peninsula, following the wave of muslim conquerors, into whose society they were at the time well integrated. With the slow reconquest of the peninsula by the Christians a number of the Jews stayed on the land, at times serving as middlemen in the ongoing trade between the two sides of the conflict.

Prospering from such lucrative practices, the Sephardic community of the newly created Spain grew and gained economic power. With the final expulsion of the external “heretics”, the Spanish, devoted Catholics have turned within in their quest for the expulsion of the unfaithful, and around 1492 a decree had forced the Jews of Spain to convert or leave country.

While some Jews of Spain have chosen to convert rather than face relocation and possibly relinquish their economic position, (though some of those continued practicing Judaism in secrecy) many of them have migrated to the Ottoman empire, where the Sultan Bayazid II offered them safe haven. In later years as the Ottoman rulers continued the policy of toleration, the Sephardic community of Turkey grew to considerable numbers. Other members of the Spanish Jewry migrated to nearby Portugal from where they were promptly expelled in 1496.

From here, some people migrated North to France, where they were tolerated in the southern provinces, and Netherlands. Others went eastward to the Ottoman Empire and Middle East. The Sephardic community of France had maintained a realtively constant population, a fact that allowed it to exist in obscurity, and thus continue to be tolerated. The people who settled in the Netherlands, by this time a country of religious tolerance, had enjoyed for a period of time the equality unparalleled at this point anywhere in the Western world.

The main flux of Sephardi immigrants took almost a century incoming to the Netherlands, finally reaching that country around 1590. When half a century later Netherlands began active trade with the South America, Jews were greatly involved because they could speak Dutch and were literate enough to keep records of the trade. They gained a great deal economically through this lucrartive practice, and it was by the way of this trade that first Sephardic Jews have arrived in the Americas. The Ottoman empire, which in its golden age spanned from North Africa to the Balcans, had attracted Jewish immigration from as early as the 1300’s.

The Sultans’ sympathy to the Jews went so far that in 1556, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had requested from the Pope Paul IV the release of the Ancona Marranos which he declared Ottoman citizens. Over the years, Jews exiled from Hungary, France, Sicily and Bohemia came to the Ottoman empire in search of home, and they found it. A letter sent by Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati (from Edirne) to Jewish communities in Europe “invited his coreligionists to leave the torments they were enduring in Christiandom and to seek safety and prosperity in Turkey. ” (1)

Three centuries after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, the Ottoman cities of Istanbul, Izmud, Safed and Salonica became centers of Sephardic prosperity that was compairable to the period of muslim domination of Spain. While there aren’t many records of Jews as a community taking historically important actions in the course of their stay in the Ottoman Empire, many individuals worthy of notice are encountered in history. The first printing press in the Empire was established in 1493 by David and Samuel ibn Nahmias, only a year after their exile from Spain.

A number of Jews had been diplomats for the Sultan (one of them, Salamon ben Nathan Eskenazi had established first contact with the British Empire), court physicians and otherwise influential people. The Zionist movement was met with drastically different reactions by the two movements. Among the by now “enlightened” Ashkenazim, where many have come to consider their states objects of primary alligiance, the idea of a return to Palestine was met with suspicions. Some of the people were genuinely afraid that if they acted in support of a Jewish homeland, their loyalties to the countries of their residence would be questioned, and the progress made toward emancipation that had taken long centuries to achieve would be destroyed in a single blow.

Among the Sephardim, the ideas of Zionism were met with much greater enthusiasm. (3) The Jews of Middle East, whose religious convictions were at that time much better preserved, had embraced the idea of return to the land of their forefathers. The traditions ran strong among them, and the young generations did not feel resentfull for being forced to obey laws that they felt were outdated. Modernization for European Jews meant catching up with the secular education studies of their hosts, this word hoever, took a totally different meaning when applied to the Jews of Middle-East and Asia, areas to which modernization came later, and which at that point were far behind the technological progress made in the countries of the West.

Therefore, while the Jews of Europe had to battle for their equality in a society the education level of which was arguably supperior to that of their own, the Jews of Middle-East had to modernize together with their host nations, and sometimes even ahead of them. The speed of the progress of Middle-Eastern Jews was enhanced by their Western-European counterparts who have by this time established for themselves not only political equality, but also economic prosperity in their adopted homelands.

These well-to-do Jews who have for the most part abandoned some or all of their traditions, and have justly considered themselves to be enlightened, wished to bring this enlightenment in the way of Europeanisation to the Jews living outside of the “civilized” world. (2) The educational institutions created by the Alliance Israelite Universelle have had such great impact on the education of the Jews of the then-decaying Ottoman Empire, that even today, a considerable part of older generation Turkish Jews think of French as their primary means of communication.

In Israel the farming communities founded in the late 1800’s with the funding of rich European Jewish families as a part of the project to re-settle Palestine, have now grown to become well established businesses. Currently the Israeli Jews represent the only substantial Jewish community left in the Middle East. The surrounding countries, where up until the 1940’s many Jews coexisted with Muslim majorities, have over the course of the past half-century lost most of their Jewish population to immigration due to racial and ethnic tensions brought about by the Arab-Israeli conflicts.

In fact, the governments of states such as Syria have after the creation of Israel considered the Jews living on their territories to be hostages in this confrontation, and have treated them accordingly. The immigrants from the Arab states being predominantly Sephardic, Israel, a once Ashekenazi dominated country, now has an about even division between the two movements. With their increasing number, the Sephardi influence is also growing in the Israeli legislature, and in the last few years a Sephardi party Sha’as has gained substantial power within the Knesset, Israel’s governing body.

The state of Israel is unique in that it is the first country in over two thousand years where Jews have been given the right of self-rule. This raises problems that the Jews in other times, and even the Jews outside of Israel today do not have to deal with. Throughout Israel’s brief history, a debate as to the extent to which the secular laws should follow the religious doctrine of Judaism had been an ongoing one. Such debates are naturally meaningless in the rest of the world, where the Jews are to follow the laws of the land.

The different historical background of the two movements of Judaism has created a noticeable gap in their culture, their traditional laws and their adherence of those laws. It has shaped the manner of their development and the final result of it. The history itself was shaped by the environment in which the exiled Jews found themselves, and the attitude of the people who surrounded them. This attitude was in turn based around their religious doctrine. (1) Bernard Lewis, “The Jews of Islam” (2) Harvey Goldberg, “Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries”, introductoin p15 (3) Norman Stillman, “Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries” Essay 1, “Middle-Eastern and North African Jewries” p67 1996, Lev Epshteyn, SUNY Binghamton.

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