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Achrei Mos-Kedoshim: Why the Reform Movement Did Not Begin in Northern Africa


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Happy Endings.

We all love happy endings.

Remember the children’s stories that end “and they lived happily ever after”?

Tosafos says that often at the end of a masechta, the Gemara will discuss a topic that is unrelated to the previous discussion simply because we wish to end the mashecta with a positive and comforting message.

This concept comes into play in the controversy regarding which portion of the Haftorah we are supposed to read this Shabbos.

The Rema (Orach Chaim 428:8) establishes a rule that whenever we read a double parsha we are to read the Haftorah of the second parsha. There are those among the Rishonim who hold that we read the Haftorah of the first parsha but we follow the Rema. There is an exception to this rule and that is for our double parsha of Achrei Mos/Kedoshim. We will be reading the Haftorah for Achrei Mos. Why the exception?

The Mishna Berura explains that the Haftorah for Kedoshim discusses the depravities of the Jewish people while the one for Achrei Mos has a more comforting and hopeful tone speaking of the ultimate redemption. We wish to conclude our Torah readings for the Shabbos day with a positive message. For example, the last verse is “I shall plant them on their land and they will not be uprooted from their land that I have given them, says Hashem, your G-d” (Amos 9:15).

This is the custom of the Ashkenazim. The minhag of the Sefardim is to maintain the Rema’s original rule even for this week so they read the Haftorah of Kedoshim, despite its critical nature.

This difference between the two variant customs is very reminiscent of the following story I heard from a Sefardi Rabbi.

He was discussing his method of kiruv, how he inspires non-observant Jews with whom he comes into contact. In his shul, he has many members who would never consider attending a Reform or Conservative congregation, but who also don’t exactly keep to the Torah’s teachings.

One morning, a non-observant Sefardic man came to the rabbi looking extremely concerned.

“Kavod HaRav, I have to tell you what happened to me yesterday. I was driving on the highway and the road bended by a cliff. I don’t know or remember why or how or anything but suddenly I found myself falling over the cliff! The car tumbled down a few hundred feet until it came to a stop. I thought I was going to die but when it was over, I was able to get out of the car and all I had was a few bruises and scratches! Tell me, Kavod HaRav, what do you think G-d is trying to tell me??” the man asked, waiting with bated breath for the reply.

Barely batting an eyelash, the rabbi said, “You really want to know what G-d wants from you? You really want to know what He is trying to tell you? It’s actually quite clear and simple. G-d is telling you that He wanted to kill you because you’re not keeping the Torah but He is giving you one last chance to redeem yourself! If you care about your life, you’ll meet me tomorrow at 6 a.m. before Shacharit so we can study Torah together every day at that time. You will then put on tefillin and pray every day. I’ll see you tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. sharp, yes?”

Though visibly shaken, the man didn’t hesitate at all, gave an affirming nod, and left.

He indeed came to study the next morning right on time and within a couple of months he was shomer Shabbat and mitzvot.

The rav concluded his story saying, “Now, I could only do this with a Sefardi. If I were a rabbi for Ashkenazim, I would probably be fired for taking such a strong stance. Sefardim are tough and can take the truth straight. For Ashkenazim, you have to move slowly, beat around the bush and be very patient with people. It takes much longer for Ashkenazim to become inspired and moved to action.”

Of course, by definition, all generalizations are never 100% accurate. There are certainly exceptions among Sefardim and Ashkenazim, but observations indicate that the general trend seems true. Sefardim have more emotion and Ashkenazim are guided more by the intellect. Thus, very different styles of mussar appeal to each group.

It is much more possible to talk in a fire and brimstone way to Sefardim and be effective than it is to talk in such a manner to Ashkenazim. In fact, Rav Shlomo Wolbe said that beginning already in the mid 1800’s, most Torah educators in the Ashkenazi world had decided that our generation needs more of a loving and positive approach, rather than a strong and critical one. This was not the case for the Sefardim.

Interestingly, many Sefardim who are not Torah observant will still belong to Orthodox synagogues. It is not so common for Reform and Conservative synagogues to have Sefardi members. In fact, if you look back at history, the Reform and Conservative movements originated and were maintained by Ashkenazim only. Even if many Sefardim, for whatever reasons, stopped being Torah observant in action, they never completely abandoned the proper Torah beliefs. Their heart and emotion always kept them connected to the truth even if their actions were not consistent with their affiliation.

Ashkenazim, on the other hand, are defined more with intellect and find it difficult to affiliate one way but have contradictory actions and practices. Therefore, they came up with philosophies, beliefs, and movements, such as Reform and Conservative, allowing them to rationalize their practices which deviated from Torah and tradition. Sefardim can take hardcore mussar much more easily than Ashkenazim.

Could all this be part of the reason why the divergent customs for the Haftorah for Achrei Mos/Kedoshim evolved? Even if not the conscious rationale mentioned by poskim, is there any truth to what we discussed vis-à-vis the differences in the Sefardi and Ashkenazi personalities? I’ll let you decide.

But, at least it made for an interesting discussion regarding some of the happenings of this week’s Haftorah.

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6 Responses to “Achrei Mos-Kedoshim: Why the Reform Movement Did Not Begin in Northern Africa”

  1. Rabbi Leff:

    The reason why there never was a need for non-halakhic movements among the Sepharadim is quite simple: our societies developed a horizontal approach to religious life, as opposed to a vertical one. Sephardic Judaism is Judaism of the sacred book; learning for us entails a straight reading of the entire Torah (including the Tanakh, which has fallen out of favor in the yeshivot of Ashkenaz), with an emphasis on beqiut. While our hakhamim are respected and revered, the doctrine of "daas toyreh" was never part of our experience. Tosafot, in Berakhot 31b, DH Moreh Halacha Bifenei Rabach At, give us one of the early references to a doctrine of "gadol hador," and Jacob Katz tells us that the doctrine of daas toyreh later became cemented in the 1870s, when the Church developed a doctrine of papal infallibility. In addition, an authoritarian asceticism developed among the Hasidei Ashkenaz, who were notorious for extreme forms of mortification of the flesh (not unlike German Martin Luther), such as "makkos" (self-flagellation), rolling in the snow, and other extreme physical, masochistic measures for "kapparah." This proclivity towards stringency also manifests itself in halakhic rulings, lending the Ashkenazic approach closer to that of Shammai.

    In Andalus and other Sephardic environs, there was always an openness and a realization that there is a religious imperative to know about God's world, and the riches of the arts, literature, science, and all areas of human knowledge. Sepharad created a society that was religious and humanistic, led by the teachings of Hazal, the Rambam, and others. As Rabbi Marc Angel writes on p. 175 of "Foundations of Sephardic Spirituality": "Sephardic tradition eschewed extreme positions, trying to keep as many Jews within the fold as possible. It is no accident that Sephardim never broke into various religious movements, as did the Ashkenazim."

    The religiously analphabetic world of Ashkenaz, as seen today in Lakewood, Bnei Brak, and Meah Shearim is one type of extremism which led to the extremism of the haskalah, whereas in the Sephardic world, the ideals of torah, maddah, Jewish unity, intellectual openness, peaceful, positive relations with all people, and a pleasant, lenient, halakhic approach led to a religious life that was open, tolerant, humane, intellectually vigorous, and much-beloved. Scholars like Hakham Uziel, Hakham Yosef Faur, Rabbi Angel, Yisrael Moshe Hazan, Eliyahu Benamozegh, Hakham Haim David HaLevy, and others best represent this worldview. Instead of minimializing and rejecting, we seek to accommodate and make sense of the world, and how modernity can magnify our lives while staying planted in our principles. This is the key to our religious vigor. Loving truth, taking a Hillel approach, and being receptive to all is the key to Sephardic life.

  2. Rabbi Leff:

    The reason why there never was a need for non-halakhic movements among the Sepharadim is quite simple: our societies developed a horizontal approach to religious life, as opposed to a vertical one. Sephardic Judaism is Judaism of the sacred book; learning for us entails a straight reading of the entire Torah (including the Tanakh, which has fallen out of favor in the yeshivot of Ashkenaz), with an emphasis on beqiut. While our hakhamim are respected and revered, the doctrine of "daas toyreh" was never part of our experience. Tosafot, in Berakhot 31b, DH Moreh Halacha Bifenei Rabach At, give us one of the early references to a doctrine of "gadol hador," and Jacob Katz tells us that the doctrine of daas toyreh later became cemented in the 1870s, when the Church developed a doctrine of papal infallibility. In addition, an authoritarian asceticism developed among the Hasidei Ashkenaz, who were notorious for extreme forms of mortification of the flesh (not unlike German Martin Luther), such as "makkos" (self-flagellation), rolling in the snow, and other extreme physical, masochistic measures for "kapparah." This proclivity towards stringency also manifests itself in halakhic rulings, lending the Ashkenazic approach closer to that of Shammai.

    In Andalus and other Sephardic environs, there was always an openness and a realization that there is a religious imperative to know about God's world, and the riches of the arts, literature, science, and all areas of human knowledge. Sepharad created a society that was religious and humanistic, led by the teachings of Hazal, the Rambam, and others. As Rabbi Marc Angel writes on p. 175 of "Foundations of Sephardic Spirituality": "Sephardic tradition eschewed extreme positions, trying to keep as many Jews within the fold as possible. It is no accident that Sephardim never broke into various religious movements, as did the Ashkenazim."

    The religiously analphabetic world of Ashkenaz, as seen today in Lakewood, Bnei Brak, and Meah Shearim is one type of extremism which led to the extremism of the haskalah, whereas in the Sephardic world, the ideals of torah, maddah, Jewish unity, intellectual openness, peaceful, positive relations with all people, and a pleasant, lenient, halakhic approach led to a religious life that was open, tolerant, humane, intellectually vigorous, and much-beloved. Scholars like Hakham Uziel, Hakham Yosef Faur, Rabbi Angel, Yisrael Moshe Hazan, Eliyahu Benamozegh, Hakham Haim David HaLevy, and others best represent this worldview. Instead of minimializing and rejecting, we seek to accommodate and make sense of the world, and how modernity can magnify our lives while staying planted in our principles. This is the key to our religious vigor. Loving truth, taking a Hillel approach, and being receptive to all is the key to Sephardic life.

  3. Asher Meza says:

    According to Rabbi Rakefet of YU (Israel Division) das torah actually began in the Agudah Convention of 1917 as a ploy by the Rabbis to cement their authority on the Jewish people. Before then the term was never used, with the Exemption of the 1 time it appears in shas, in Chullin when referring to a tradition of removing the sciatic nerve.

  4. Asher Meza says:

    I agree with your statement regarding most Sephardim prior to the 13th Century but today the opposite is actually true. Remember it was Sephardim who gave the Zohar to the world and even till today (among Hareidi circles) it is Sephardim who are the most mystically (kabalistically) inclined. This is clearly the case with the Sephardim who live in Israel which make up the bulk of religious Sephardim. Granted their american counterparts seem to take a more rational approach mainly due to their high levels of assimilation among most of their brothers in the diaspora but since the 14 century this hasn't been the case.

  5. Asher Meza says:

    Honestly if one had the choose between the Tosafot and the Zohar, its better to choose Tosafot. Which is the main difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues today.

  6. I am not against the Zohar I am Sephardic by the way question what did Maimonides think of it?

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