Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East
by Zvi Zohar
London: Bloomsbury, 2013. 399 pp. $140 ($42.95, paper)
Reviewed by Menachem Kellner
Shalem College, Jerusalem
Middle East Quarterly
Most scholarship on Middle Eastern Judaism is written from a Euro-centric or even Ashkenazi-centric perspective, according to which Middle Eastern Jews are "others." The great strength of Rabbinic Creativity is that it offers the perspective of prominent rabbis of their day active in centers of Sephardi learning such as Baghdad, Aleppo, and Cairo. While aware of Jewish-legal developments in Europe, the rabbis in question were not over-awed by them, and persisted in deciding matters of Jewish law and communal policy in a spirit far removed from that of their European colleagues. Nineteenth-century European orthodoxy was more often than not characterized by opposition to innovation and a withdrawal behind barriers erected to keep the faithful from "contamination" by new currents. The rabbis brought to light by Zohar were more open to innovation and more concerned with preserving the unity of the entire Jewish community.
The bulk of the book consists of a series of fascinating case studies supporting this generalization. Some may feel that declaiming on the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewries is "old hat" (despite the increasing orthodoxy of Sephardic Jewry in Israel and the Diaspora), but Zohar probes beyond that commonplace observation. In analyzing the rabbinic careers of figures such as Abdallah Somekh (Iraq, 1813-89), Yitzhak Dayyan (Aleppo, 1878-1964), Israel Moshe Hazzan (Cairo, 1808-62), and others, Zohar argues convincingly that the Sephardic and Ashkenazi approaches were not simply functions of different historical circumstances but reflected deep-seated cultural differences. These differences relate to the Sephardic view concerning the centrality of the Jewish community in defining Judaism. Further, for these Sephardic rabbis, their view of the non-binding character of precedents allowed the decisor on Jewish law greater leeway to adjust decisions to the demands of the present. However, his account also paints a picture of the roads not taken by Israeli Sephardic rabbis as they have become increasingly "haredized" or ultra-orthodox over the last generation.
Zohar is an engaging writer, and Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East is a significant contribution to our understanding of the complex background of contemporary Jewry in general and the State of Israel in particular.
Related Topics: History, Israel & Zionism, Jews and Judaism | Fall 2014 MEQ
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