n our endeavor to shape a cultural pattern for American Jewish life, we might do well to look for some orientation that will help us determine our position in the stream of Jewish history. How should we regard the major trends of the past? To what period can we feel most closely related?
In the past thousand years two major traditions flowered in Jewish life, corresponding to the two groups that have successively held the spiritual hegemony: first the Spanish Sephardic; in the later period, the Ashkenazic.
The Sephardic group is composed of the descendants of Jews who settled in the Iberian peninsula during the Mohammedan period; Spain is called in Hebrew Sephard and these Jews are therefore known as Sephardim. Emigrated or expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, these Jews settled largely along the Mediterranean coast and in Holland, England, and their dependencies.
The Ashkenazic community includes the descendants of Jews who came from Babylon and Palestine to the Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe, and who since the later Middle Ages have spoken German or Yiddish. They are called Ashkenazic Jews, from the Hebrew word Ashkenaz, which means Germany.
Up to the 19th century, all Ashkenazic Jews who lived in the area bounded by the Rhine and the Dnieper and by the Baltic and the Black Seas, and in some neighboring regions as well, presented a culturally uniform group. At the center of this cultural period stood Rashi, the greatest commentator on the Bible and the Talmud, as well as Rabbi Jehuda the Pious and his circle. The spiritual development of the Ashkenazic period reached its climax in Eastern Europe, particularly with the spread of the Hasidic movement. Today the Ashkenazim form the preponderant majority of our people.
he Jews of the Iberian peninsula were responsible for the earlier brilliant epoch in Jewish history, distinguished not only by monumental scientific achievements but also by a universality of spirit. Their accomplishment was in some respects a symbiosis of Jewish tradition and Moslem civilization.
The intellectual life of the Jews in Spain was deeply influenced by the surrounding world. Literary forms, scientific methods, philosophical categories, and even theological principles were often adopted from the Arabs. Influenced and enriched in their writing and thinking by foreign patterns, Jewish authors were inclined to stress basic agreements between the doctrines of their faith and the theories of great non-Jewish thinkers. Indeed, they often seemed to emphasize the elements Judaism had in common with classical philosophy to the neglect of its own specific features. They were under constant challenge and attack by members of other creeds, and felt compelled to debate and to defend the principles of their faith.
In the Ashkenazic period the spiritual life of the Jews was lived in isolation. Accordingly, it grew out of its own ancient roots, and developed in an indigenous environment, independent of the trends and conventions of the surrounding world. Intellectually more advanced than the average man of their Germanic or Slavic neighbors, the Jews unfolded unique cultural patterns in thinking and writing, in their communal and individual ways of life. Tenaciously adhering to their own traditions, they concentrated upon the cultivation of what was most their own, what was most specific and personal. They borrowed from other cultures neither substance nor form. What they wrote was literature created by Jews, about Jews, and for Jews. They apologized to no one, neither to philosophers nor theologians, nor did they ask the commendation of either prince or penman. They felt no need to compare themselves with anyone else, and they wasted no energy in refuting hostile opinions.
There, in Eastern Europe, the Jewish people came into its own. It did not live like a guest in somebody else’s house who must constantly keep in mind the ways and customs of the host. There Jews lived without reservation and without disguise, outside their homes no less than within them. When they used the phrase “the world asks” in their commentaries on the Talmud, they did not refer to a problem raised by Aristotle or a medieval philosopher. Their fellow students of Torah were to them the “world.”
he Culture of Spanish-Sephardic Jews was shaped by an elite; it was derived from above and was hardly touched by the archaic simplicity, imaginative naivety, and unaffected naturalness of the humble mass.
In Spain, Jewish men of learning drew inspiration from classical philosophy and science. Frequently they took Arabic poetry and Greek ethics as prototypes. Jewish scholars absorbed themselves in research, designing their books frequently for limited groups, or even for single individuals. Their point of view was aristocratic. Their poems were often written in a Hebrew so complicated and involved that only the erudite could enjoy them. Under the influence of Arabic metric and rhetoric, the innate genius of Hebrew, with its chasteness, severity, and limpid strength, gave way to an arabesque manner. Writers reveled in fanciful, ornamental tropes that delight the fancy of the connoisseur rather than capture feeling. Employed to grace the facade of a sentence, words were grouped in fantastic combinations. And in books translated from the Arabic, the Hebrew was usually made to conform to the EMes of the Arabic original.
On the lips of Ashkenazic Jews, Hebrew was freed from the golden chains of a complex rhetoric, and it came to be as easy and natural as the Hebrew of the authors of the Midrash in the early centuries of the modern era. This Hebrew was not like a festive Oriental carpet that is trod with measured step, but like a soft talit, like a prayer scarf, at the same time sacred and common, in which you can wrap yourself and be alone with your God. The Ashkenazim did not write piyutim, the elaborate and often complicated liturgical poems favored by Sephardic authors; they wrote mostly selihot, simple penitential prayers and elegies. They drew their style from the homespun prose of Talmudic sayings rather than from the lofty rhetoric of the Prophets. The thunder of the Book of Job is absent from their writings. Other rhythms and other tones prevail. The Hebrew of the Ashkenazic books on morality or piety is saturated with the sadness, yearning, and contrition of the Book of Psalms.
Further, the East European Jews created their own language, Yiddish, which was born out of a will to make intelligible, to explain, and simplify the tremendous complexities of the sacred tongue. Thus there arose, as though spontaneously, a mother tongue, a direct expression of feeling, a mode of speech without ceremony or artifice, a language that speaks itself without taking devious paths, a tongue that has a maternal simplicity and warmth. In this language you say “beauty” and mean “spirituality”; you say “kindness” and mean “holiness.” Few languages can be spoken so simply and so directly; there are but few languages that lend themselves with such difficulty to falseness. No wonder that Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav would sometimes choose Yiddish to pour his heart out and present his grievances to God.
n The Sephardic period every book or manuscript was a rare treasure. Few communities were fortunate enough to possess copies of all six sections of the Talmud. In the Ashkenazic period, Jews had all the texts; books were printed continually. The gates to the Torah were opened. Every community had the Talmud and the Code of Law, the Shulhan Aruch, the legal system of Maimonides, and the classical work of Jewish mysticism, The Book of Splendor.
Numerous Spanish Jews had possessed high secular learning. Their achievements in medicine, mathematics, and astronomy contributed greatly to the development of European civilization as a whole. And their translations of scientific and philosophical works from Arabic into Latin served as cultural mediators, making available to the European nations the treasures of literature and science then in Arab custody.
On the other hand, knowledge of Jewish lore does not seem to have been widespread among Spanish Jews. Young people were not accustomed to putting their minds exclusively to the study of the Torah. The educational programs drawn up for Jewish schools had but modest objectives. The celebrated poet and metaphysician, Rabbi Solomon Ibn Gabirol, complains that the people do not understand the sacred tongue. Rabbi Solomon Parhon, a grammarian who was a disciple of Rabbi Jehuda Halevi, wrote: “In our country (Spain) people are not well versed in the Hebrew language,” but the Ashkenazic Jews “are accustomed to think and speak in Hebrew.” Many Sephardic authors wrote largely in Arabic; even works dealing with questions of Jewish ritual, homilies on the Bible, commentaries on the Talmud, were written in Arabic. But to an Ashkenazic author it would have seemed inconceivable to write his works in a foreign tongue.
Because the ideals of the Ashkenazic Jews were shared by all, the relations between the various parts of the community—between the scholarly and the ignorant, the yeshiva student and the trader—had an intimate, organic character. The earthiness of the villagers, the warmth of plain people, and the spiritual simplicity of the maggidim or lay preachers penetrated into the bet midrash, the house of prayer that was also a house of study and learning. Laborers, peasants, porters, artisans, storekeepers, all were partners in the Torah. The maggidim—the term presumably originated in Eastern Europe—did not apply for diplomas to anyone. They felt authorized by God to be preachers of morals.
Here, in the Ashkenazic realm, the amalgamation of Torah and Israel was accomplished. Ideals became folkways, divine imperatives a human concern; the people itself became a source of Judaism, a source of spirit. The most distant became very intimate, very near. Spontaneously, without external cause, the people improvised customs of celestial solemnity. The dictates of feeling were heeded as commandments of highest authority. Jews began to know what it means: “From within my flesh do I see the Lord.”
Sephardic books are distinguished by their strict logical arrangement. They are composed according to a clear plan; every detail has its assigned place, and the transitions from one subject to another are clear and simple. Ashkenazic writers forego clarity for the sake of depth. The contours of their thoughts are irregular, vague, and often perplexingly entangled; their content is restless, animated by inner wrestling and a kind of baroque emotion.
Sephardic books are like Raphaelesque paintings, Ashkenazic books like the works of Rembrandt, profound, allusive, and full of hidden meanings. The former favor the harmony of a system, the latter the tension of dialectic; the former are sustained by a balanced solemnity, the latter by impulsive inspiration. The strength of the Sephardic scholars lies in their mastery of expression, that of the Ashkenazim in the unexpressed overtones of their words. A spasm of feeling, a passionate movement of thought, an explosive enthusiasm, will break through the form.
Sephardic books are like neatly trimmed and cultivated parks, Ashkenazic writings like enchanted ancient forests; the former are like a story with a beginning and an end, the latter have a beginning but frequently turn into a story without an end.
The renowned, painstaking grammarians of the Hebrew tongue came from among the Sephardim; the Ashkenazim are more interested in the dynamics of keen gematria—the art of finding implications believed to be contained in the numerical values of letters in Scripture—than in transparent, sober grammatical forms. In later times critical, literal exegesis of Scripture almost disappeared.
Eminently concerned with preserving the Jewish spiritual heritage, the Sephardim were unsurpassed masters at systematizing, collating, and codifying the scattered multiplex wealth of Jewish lore accumulated in the course of previous ages. The Ashkenazim were less eager to collect than to disclose, to probe for deeper meanings; for them, the prime motive was not to know and remember, but to discover and understand; it was not the final decision that was important, but the steps of the syllogism whereby it was arrived at.
In the code of law, Mishneh Torah, composed by that foremost Sephardic master, Maimonides, the matter is arranged according to logical concepts; the stream of laws and precepts is converted into an abstract system. In the Arba Turim, compiled by the Ashkenazic Rabenu Jacob, son of the Rosh (x4th century), which forms the basis of the Shulhan Aruch, the laws are arranged according to the daily routine of every Jew, beginning with his rising in the morning and ending with the night-prayer, the Shema. Maimonides’ system is logical, but the Arba Turim is a mirror reflecting life as it is.
Classical books were not written in Eastern Europe. The Talmud, the Mishneh Torah, the Book of Splendor, the Guide to the Perplexed, and Tree of Life were produced in other countries. East European Jews did not cherish the ambition to create consummate, definitive expressions. And because their books are indigenous to their time and place and rooted in a self-contained world, they are less accessible to moderns than those of Sephardic authors. The Ashkenazic Jews were not interested in writing literature; their works read like brief lecture-notes. They are products, not of pure research, but of discussions with pupils. The Ashkenazim rarely composed books that stand like separate buildings with foundations of their own, books that do not lean upon older works; they wrote commentaries or notes on the classical works of olden times, books that modestly hug the monumental walls of older citadels.
he Sephardim aspired to personal perfection and attempted to express their ideals rationally. They strove for tranquility of soul, for inner peace and contentment. Their ethics was at times bourgeois, full of prudence and practical wisdom. To follow the golden rule, to take a middle course and avoid extremes, was one of their most popular maxims. The Cabala remained a pursuit of the few; in contrast to the situation in Eastern Europe, the life of the people in the Sephardic community was hardly touched by the bold mystic doctrines of some of its rabbis.
But Ashkenazic ethics knows no perfection that is definable; its vision aimed at the infinite. Never compromising, never satisfied, always striving: “Seek higher than that.” The Ashkenazic moralist or Hasid was exalted; he yearned for the transcendental, the preternatural. He somehow felt that not only space, but also the soul was endless. Not for him the tranquil contemplation, the gradual ascent. What he sought was boundless fervor, praying and learning without limit or end. For though the seeker is engaged in a persistent struggle with the material and finite and cannot escape himself permanently, he can at least aspire to divest himself, in short moments of ecstasy, of all earthly concerns.
What distinguishes Sephardic from Ashkenazic culture is, however, primarily a difference of form rather than a divergence of content. It is a difference that cannot be characterized by the categories of rationalism versus mysticism or of the speculative versus the intuitive mentality. The difference goes beyond this and might be more accurately expressed as a distinction between a static form in which the spontaneous is subjected to strictness and abstract order and a dynamic form that does not compel the content to conform to what is already established. The dynamic form is attained by subtler and more directed means. Room is left for the outburst, for the surprise, for the instantaneous. The inward counts infinitely more than the outward.
he dualism of Sephardic and Ashkenazic did not disappear with the tragic expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Sephardic strain, striving after measure, order, and harmony, and the Ashkenazic strain, with its preference for the spontaneous and dynamic, can both be traced down to the modern period. The Sephardim retained their independent ways in custom and thought and refused to amalgamate. In their seclusion, a severe loyalty to their heritage was combined with a feeling of pride in the splendor of their past. Their synagogue services were like silent mirrors of the ancient rite. The spontaneous was tamed, the unbecoming eliminated. But the continual trimming of the offshoots tended to suppress any aesthetic drive in the roots.
The Ashkenazic Jew, on the other hand, remained averse to constraining the fluent into stiff forms. Kept spiritually alive by a sense of the immense rather than by a sense of balance, he would not yield to the admonitions of the few systematically minded scholars in his midst. The passion for the unlimited could not be conditioned by a regard for proportion and measure.
Much of what the Sephardim created was adopted by the Ashkenazim and transformed. Under the spell of the Hasidim, the rich and ponderous speculations of the Sephardic mystics were stripped of their tense and stem features without any loss of profoundity or earnestness. The lofty and elaborate doctrines of the Cabala were melted into thoughts understandable by the heart.
In modern times the Sephardic mentality was perhaps best exemplified by Spinoza. Indeed he owes many elements of his system to medieval Sephardic philosophy; and though he rejected its predominant aspirations, his thought pushed certain tendencies inherent in that tradition to extremes. His aristocratic intellectualism, for instance, led him to divide sharply between the piety and morality of the people and the speculative knowledge of the few. God is conceived of as a principle of mathematical necessity, a sort of logical shell in which all things exist; logical thinking alone can bring men into a relation with God. Personalism of any kind is excluded. It is remarkable how limited was the influence of Spinoza’s philosophy even upon those Jewish thinkers who departed from religious tradition.
The stream of Sephardic Jewish culture was not confined, however, within the so-called Spanish-Portuguese communities. In the modern period, its influence permeated other Jewish groups, especially in Germany. It was the admiration of 19 th-century German Jewish scholars for the Sephardic Middle Ages that determined the mood of the modern “Science of Judaism” (Wissenchaft des Judentums).
The scholars of emancipated German Jewry saw in the Spanish period the “Gold-en Age” of Jewish history, and celebrated it as a happy blend of progress and traditionalism upon which they desired to model their own course. In their research they went to the point of applying the cultural standards of the “Golden Age” to the literature of later centuries. For some Jewish scholars, any Jewish literature dating after 1492, the year in which Jewish life in Spain ceased, was not considered worthy of scholarly investigation. Their example was followed in forming the curricula of the higher schools of Jewish learning, which gave no place to works written after 492 and before the beginning of modern Hebrew literature.
This desire for inner identification with the Spanish Jewish period reflected itself in the synagogue architecture of the 19th century. Liberal Jewish synagogues in Central Europe were built in the Moorish style as if the stucco arabesque, horseshoe arches, and dados of glazed and painted tiles were the aptest possible expressions of the liberal Jew’s religious mood.
Hand in hand with the romantic admiration of the Sephardim that became one of the motifs of Reform Judaism in Germany went social aspirations, too. The social standing of the few Sephardim in Germany was superior to that of the Ashkenazim, and the leaders of the new Reform movement, anxious to develop a new and more advanced way of Jewish life that would abandon the traditional forms still adhered to by the Jewish masses, often blatantly imitated the manners of the Sephardim. In the Portuguese synagogues they found that solemnity and decorum which they missed in the old shul. It was hardly for scientific reasons that the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew was introduced in the early “temples.”
In consequence, the modern Ashkenazic Jew, particularly in Central Europe, often came to lose his appreciation of the value of his own original way of life. He developed an embarrassed aversion for the dramatic, for the moving and vivid style, whether in the synagogue or in human relations. For him dignity grew to mean something to be achieved by strict adherence to an established, well-balanced, mannerly form undisturbed by any eruption of the sudden and spontaneous. Thus Hermann Cohen wrote in 916 that the elimination of the dramatic manner from the worship of East European Jews would turn the synagogues into “seats of true culture.”
This lack of understanding for and alienation from the values of the Ashkenazic traditions became complete. Describing the way in which the Hasidim prayed, a prominent Jewish historian, in a work first published in 1913 and reprinted in 931, could write:
The [Hasidic] movement did not signify a gain for religious life; the asset that lay in its striving for inwardness was more than cancelled out by the preposterousness of its superstitious notions and of its unruly behavior. . . . According to its principles, Hasidism meant a total revolt against the divine service (sic!); nothing could have made the untenability of the latter more striking than the fact that great numbers of people should turn away from it, not out of scepticism or doubt, but out of a most intense yearning for piety. . . . Hasidism contributed to the deterioration rather than to the improvement of the divine service . . . its noise and wild, restless movements brought new factors of disturbance. . . . It is no wonder that at such a time complaints were made about the lack of devoutness and attention, about the disorder and interruptions. The divine service stood in need of a thorough renovation and restoration if it was to survive. The modern age [read: the Reform movement—A. J. H.] supplied both.
n Looking for an orientation for American Jewry, it seems clear that neo-Sephardic modes do not represent the spirit of our own generation. Often they only conceal, or even eradicate, precious elements deeply rooted in the inner life of our people. We cannot afford to dispense with the niggun, the spontaneous note that rises from within, simply for the sake of acquiring solemnity and artificial decorum, qualities that hardly express the essential mood of the modern Jew.
Our generation can hardly think of Jewish religious life as an objectivized, ceremonious cult, repeating what is derived from whatever philosophy happens to be in vogue at the moment, and strictly congruous with contemporary tendencies. Though the analytical study of Jewish literature and history carried out by the neo-Sephardic movement has greatly enriched and widened our knowledge, its pedantic and abstract knowledge must be supplemented by inwardness and spontaneity, by the common experiences and expressions of the people, by the powers won in struggle with immediate problems, by grief and joy.
We still carry deeply rooted prejudices against the Ashkenazic heritage, particularly as it was developed in Eastern Europe. That prejudice has divided us and distorted our sense of values—it has also had tragic results. In our zeal to expand the scope of our intellectual endeavors we should beware lest we lose the sense of that which is our very essence. Hardly a better mirror exists in which to recognize the unique features of our own origins than the cultural life of East European Jewry. This must not be measured by Sephardic standards—to do so would be equivalent to weighing the beauties of Gothic architecture on the scales of classical Greek. On the other hand, if the right categories are applied, unique values will be revealed.
Magnificent synagogues are not enough if they mean a petrified Judaism. Nor will the stirrings of creative life in Palestine find any echo if brilliance is held more important than warmth.
In the elementary textbooks of Hebrew in use a quarter of a century ago, there was a story of a schoolboy with a poor memory who had a hard time finding his clothes and books in the morning. One evening he hit upon an answer to his troubles. He wrote on a slip of paper: “The suit is on the chair, the hat is in the closet, the books on the desk, the shoes under the chair, and I am in bed.”
Next morning he began to collect his things together. They were all in their places. When he came to the last item on the list he went to look for himself in the bed—but his search was in vain.