Sefardi & “Orthodox”

I found this a very interesting article about perceptions, ethnicity, and religious divisiveness :

Sepharadim & The Label of ‘Orthodox’

By Rabbi Haim Ovadia

Once in a while I get a phone call from a traveler who plans on spending Shabbat in the vicinity of my synagogue. “So this is a Sephardic synagogue?”. “Yes”, I reply. “And are you Orthodox?” is usually the question that follows. Hearing the question I am torn between the urge to slam the phone down and the noble aspiration to teach the caller a lesson in Jewish history and Sephardic identity.
The brain, being practical, takes over at this point and answers “yes” and the pleased caller than goes on to finish up his travel plans. I on the other hand, remain deeply agitated, not only because I have to explain that Sephardim never categorized themselves under rubrics of Orthodox, Reform, Conservative etc., but because of my fear that this Ashkenazi trend, now enthusiastically embraced by the Sephardim, marks the end of Judaism and the Jewish people.

Once we have finished labeling all Jews and storing them carefully in their spiritual drawers, Judaism will be dead. Yes, there will many Jews and many opinions, but they will have nothing in common, because when one round of categorization and defining is over we start a new, more thorough cycle, which will eventually end up with each one being a brand of his or her own.

These definitions highlight and emphasize the differences between us and hence breed alienation and animosity. In the old, traditional Sephardi world these definitions did not exist. Not because the Rabbis and community leaders were naïve, withdrawn and not understanding, but to the contrary, because they were sensitive and open minded. They did not seek definitions because they wanted to see everyone as part of the community. Even the word “religious” was shunned for being discriminatory.

The word my grandfather used was observant. “Everybody is observant,” he used to say, “some observe less and some more; some prefer certain Mitzvot and some are drawn to others”.

We should apply this attitude to our lives when we deal with other Jews and all human beings. First of all we should think of what we have in common. Go ahead and think about it when you are stuck in traffic, in the doctor’s waiting room or in the line to the premiere of The Return of the King, with people you never met and know nothing about. What do you have in common?

You are human beings; you care for family and friends; you live in the same place. Most of you will feel compassionate upon seeing a child crying or feel awed and inspired watching the ocean waves. Continue this process with your fellow Jews and you will find even more similarities.

The only way to reverse the process of endless division is by creating a young leadership with a deep awareness of the Sephardic heritage. A generation that will be willing to breach the gaps and break the walls not by bringing the others to me or by adjusting them to my criteria, but rather by meeting half way; each one accepting the other’s opinions and appreciating their special qualities.

This article was originally published by the Marcaz magazine of SEC Los Angeles

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