Was Biblical Ezra the Scribe ultra-Orthodox? What lies behind this seemingly silly question is a set of serious questions: When did Torah-observant Jewry divide into Orthodox, modern Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, etc.? Were Moshe Rabbenu, Ezra & Nehemia, Maimonides, Rashi, and Yehuda Halevi haredim?
This came to mind when someone asked me whether Ezra, the fictitious hero of Dawning of the Day, Rav Haim Sabato’s newest novel, was haredi.
For those who will be in Jerusalem on Monday after Simhat Torah (24 bTishrey) Oct. 16, there will be an evening devoted to the Dawning of the Day at 8 pm at Mishkenot Shaananim (Yemin Moshe, near Montefiore’s windmill down the block from the King David).Rav Sabato will speak (in Hebrew) and answer questions, and several literary critics will speak (in English).
The Friday English Haaretz published my review (co-authored with Jessica Setbon) of The Dawning of the Day, the exquisite translation into English translation (by Yacob Dweck a young scholar of Syrian descent) of R. Sabato’s K’Afapey Shahar. We know a lot about the book’s hero, Ezra Siman Tov, an Aleppo (Syrian) Jew living in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda. We even know that
Ezra Siman Tov has a secret – a dark, sinful secret. He hides from it, but it intrudes like a specter on his peaceful life in the Jerusalem community of immigrants from Aleppo (Halab). “For several years he wept and pleaded for his sin to be pardoned, and he scrubbed and scoured the stain with all his might.”
We know what is in his heart, but we have no idea what kind of kippah was on his head, how he voted, or where he sent his children to school (which would help us pigeonhole him). And we should be thankful we aren’t told, because there was a time when the religious were not clearly demarcated into various camps.
From the interview with the author in the current issue of the Jewish Action one can gain an inkling of the direction from which the author, R. Sabato, is coming. From a review of his earlier two novels, Aleppo Tales and Adjusting Sights, a picture emerges of an author, indeed an entire segment of Sefardi Jewry, that is complex and resists labelling. As we wrote in Haaretz, R. Sabato
presents a spiritual journey in which Ezra faces his troubled past. A simple soul living in an old neighborhood of Jerusalem, Ezra delights in the performance of everyday religious duties like donning tefillin and reciting psalms. He enjoys the camaraderie of his fellow Aleppo Jews in their neighborhood synagogue, and gains fulfillment through respectful relationships with admired sages
Were the Jewish people better off before the sub-divisions into different Orthodoxies?
Maybe someone who attends the Oct. 16 evening devoted to the Dawning of the Day will ask the author, “Was Ezra Siman Tov haredi?”