Book Review: Haim Jachter, Bridging Traditions: Demystifying Between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews (Maggid Books & OU Press), 513 pages.
The Jewish nation is not homogenous. Our thoughts, practices, and worldviews are wide-ranging. Indeed, even our ancestral family was born from difference and manifested into twelve tribes. Although what is left today of our great and diverse nation are descendants of only three tribes, there is a mix of all of them within us. We Jews are anything but monolithic.
And yet, in the diversity of our nation there are communities whose light, at times, has shined brighter than others. Even though the Sephardic branch of the family, broadly defined, represented the majority of Jewry for much of Jewish history,1 the Ashkenazic branch of the family has found the greatest public face and prominence in recent times. There are many reasons for this which are beyond the scope of this review.2 The Sephardim, however, come from a treasury of thought, custom, and law that is a different yet living part of our Jewish story. The unique notes and rhythms of Sephardic thought and practice are so unfamiliar to so many that when its “music” is played, it can sound off-tune. To understand and appreciate its “melodies” one must be at least generally familiar with its milieu. Rabbi Haim Jachter, author of Bridging Traditions: Demystifying Differences Between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, is more than familiar with it as an Ashkenazi-born rabbi of the Sephardic Congregation Shaarei Torah in Teaneck. This recent book shines a new light upon this treasury and allows us all to familiarize and appreciate the “symphony” of Sephardic laws and customs.
A book like Bridging Traditions may not have been necessary in the Jewish communities of yesteryear. But with the rise of globalization, mass migration, and the re-establishment of the State of Israel, we have fortunately witnessed the beautiful merging of these diverse branches of the Jewish tree. This well-sourced and lucid work presents rich yet clear discussions on topics that span all four sections of the Shulhan Arukh and enlightens us about how Jewish communities from all four corners of the globe approach them.
Readers approaching this book will automatically assume that its most important feature is the broader awareness and elucidation it provides of differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic practice. In my opinion, however, an equally important takeaway is the shattering of the popular misconception that Sephardim are monolithic in thought and practice. As an Iranian-born member of the Spanish & Portuguese Jewish congregations, in a predominantly Ashkenazic Jewish community of England, I find myself saying “but not all Sephardim think or do that!” far too many times to far too many people. While the author’s intention may have been focused on bridging traditions by highlighting and clarifying differences in Sephardic and Ashkenazic practices, it does an equally impressive job of showcasing the variety that exists internally among Sephardic rabbis, communities, and approaches. Even I learned about practices in Sephardic communities other than my own. For example, I was surprised to learn that Kabbalistically-inclined Sephardim recite the blessing of HaNoten LaYa’ef Koah (“Who gives strength to the weak”) as part of their morning prayers, in deference to the opinion of the Arizal, even though it does not appear in the Talmud, and the Shulhan Arukh clearly states that it should not be recited! This is not the practice among Yemenites and my own Spanish & Portuguese community.
Another example of this is the role of Kabbalah in halakha. While most Sephardi communities today embrace Kabbalistic influences on their laws and customs, R. Jachter makes sure to mention the other Sephardic communities who generally do not – such as the Yemenite and the Spanish & Portuguese Jewish communities.3 While Rabbi Yosef Hayyim’s nineteenth century Ben Ish Hai spearheaded much of the kabbalistic influence on halacha we see in many Sephardic communities today, in more recent times Rabbi Ovadia Yosef succeeded in “rolling back” some of that impact.4
It is through the colossal impact of R. Ovadia that the book addresses the common misconceptions about Sephardic homogeneity. Although R. Jachter considers himself a student of R. Ovadia, and includes many of his rulings in this book, he ensures that dissenting opinions, such as those of Rabbis Shalom Messas and Mordechai Eliyahu, are included and respectfully unpacked. Further, the author dedicates the last chapters of his book to several other leading Sephardic figures that deserve far more attention than is customarily offered by contemporary curricula. One of these lesser-known figures is Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy (1924-1998), a former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. The book’s biographical chapter on Rabbi Halevy quotes his powerful restatement of the classical Sephardic approach to law: “Whoever is bonded to the written Halacha of the prior generations is a ‘halachic Karaite.’ He is attached to the written letter and rejects the oral law” (501).
This highlighting of varied Sephardic approaches to law and ideology is not only relevant and important for the Ashkenazic audience, but even more so for the Sephardic readers whose awareness of their own heritage is either sorely missing, or has been wholly influenced by an Ashkenazic educational system. As my teacher, Rabbi Joseph Dweck recently wrote in a TRADITION article, “there are many Sephardic Jews who have completely embraced the new milieu established by the Ashkenazic world and, having been fully educated in Ashkenazic yeshivot and schools, many Sephardim in America, Israel, and Europe have come to know the Ashkenazic way as the only way. We have espoused their norms of dress and their mode of religious thought and practice.” This book can serve as a much-needed corrective for Sephardic Jews today and tomorrow.
Beyond the realm of showcasing Sephardic diversity, Bridging Traditions addresses a very wide range of laws and customs. While many similar books tend to focus on a particular area of Jewish law such as kashrut, this book goes beyond the circumference of Jewish plates by delving into everything from circumcision to mourning, and everything in between. Furthermore, the book provides practicing Jews with practical solutions to inevitable questions which arise from the recent mingling of our respective communities, such as: Can Ashkenazim eat at homes of Sephardim who serve kitniyot during Pesah? What should Sephardim do when praying at Ashkenazic synagogues (and vice-versa)? When and why are Sephardim/Ashkenazim more lenient/stringent, and can one follow the other’s customs? An example of the unique practicality of this book is the summary page found at the end of each chapter, highlighting the main practical points of that section.
While I would have liked the author to dedicate more pages to addressing how the differing host environments of Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry could have impacted their divergent ritualistic and ideological dispositions, Bridging Traditions is not necessarily concerned about that. This book is designed to bridge the knowledge gap that exists on the ground today, regardless of historical and external influences. The author states from the outset that his goal is to “broaden every Jew’s perception of ‘we’ to include all Jews,” and this book certainly makes a singular contribution to achieving that.
Sina Kahen is co-founder of the online Bet Midrash The Habura and author of Ideas: Bereshit.
Thanks for the review of a worthwhile book to own. (And for a Sephardi to lend to Ashkenazi friends.