Celebrating Diversity

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I was also at a Shiva this week — a member of our community lost his brother, who lived in Israel, after a long illness. Their family is from Iraq, and praying in his home offered the opportunity to both hear the prayers and learn more about the minhagim, customs, of the Sepharadim, Middle-Eastern Jewry.

Baltimore may not be Brooklyn, but there are synagogues that are Belz, Satmar, Lubavitch, Persian, Sephardic and of course many praying in Nusach Ashkenaz, all within a one-mile radius (and I believe that there is a true Minhag Ashkenaz minyan as well). That offers an opportunity of which I think too few of us avail ourselves.

In the Sephardic tradition, Hagbah — holding the Torah up and open for all to see — is done before the Torah reading. The Torah, in a cylindrical wooden case, is removed from the Ark, the case is opened, and the Torah is paraded to the Bimah. The tunes, of course, are elegant and distinctly Middle-Eastern, in a minor key.

German Jewry enters the Amidah of each holiday evening service by singing Kaddish (starting with the verse VaYidaber Moshe… as said on Yom Tov) in a regal march that conveys both the joy and solemnity of the prayer to follow. Their dance with the Sifrei Torah on Simchas Torah, before returning the Torah to the Ark, is something that must be witnessed to be appreciated — I, at least, can’t describe it well in words.

The Chassidim of Karlin-Stolin bring fire and joy to their prayers and tisch — while the Slonimer Chassidim use somber tunes that employ a 12-note scale that you are unlikely to hear anywhere else. The two are nonetheless closely related, and apparently Slonimer Chassidim in the US will often choose to pray at a Stoliner shul.

With all of these different customs and traditions, one important point must be made: there is vastly more that all of these groups have in common, and I am not referring merely to that which is found in Torah MiSinai. Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Yemenite Jewry were separated for hundreds of years, at a time when international communication was practically nonexistent, and long-distance travel a risky venture.

Nonetheless, go into any traditional synagogue on the Sabbath, and morning blessings will be followed by P’sukei D’Zimrah (“Verses of Praise”), the Shema preceded by two blessings and followed by one, the Amidah, the Torah Reading, and Musaf (the Additional service for the Sabbath). Mourners sit Shiva on a low bench, for seven days. All of the differences are superfluous by comparison — additions made by sincere Jews to enhance sincere prayer in their communities. Anyone who knows how to follow the traditional prayers — according to any of these traditions — won’t be badly lost in a synagogue of any other. And it’s worth trying, just to better appreciate who “we” are.

A Yemenite at the Shiva house told me that there are actually two Yeminite forms of prayer — one attributed to Rav Yosef Karo which is close to the Sephardi Nusach, and one which they attribute to the Rambam which is, nonetheless, much like Nusach Ashkenaz, and may date to the Second Temple period. Much like Nusach Ashkenaz — after over 1000 years of separation.

This is what true unity is — everyone working together towards the same goal, sincere devotion to G-d and fealty to His Torah. It is part of the miracle of the Jewish people that we have developed many different unique and wonderful customs, all of which are trappings added to a common core that holds Jews together all over the world.

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9 Responses

  1. S. says:

    This is a nice article, but this: “Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Yemenite Jewry were separated for hundreds of years, at a time when international communication was practically nonexistent” is vastly overstated, even in the case of the Yemenite Jews. The “International Jew” stereotype came from somewhere, after all. Jews did travel, and were in contact with far-flung communities. There is a reason why these customs and laws managed to be so widespread. It is the same reason why we all have a Mishneh Torah and a Shulchan Aruch. The communities were less separated and isolated than portrayed.

  2. Toronto Yid says:

    dr. bill: It is true that there is much more tolerance within the Sefaradic community to those whose observance is weaker or lapsed. But I would make the following two observations:

    – there’s a difference between tolerating one whose observance has lapsed, and one who comes forward with an alternate non-halachic new form of observance (as has happened with Ashkenazic Jewry).
    – I note that even among those Sefaradic Jews who practice very little, they are still respectful to those who are more observant and to their chachamim. Perhaps this is because of the kinder treatment they receive from their observant brethren. But among Ashkenazim, it’s sad that people can’t distinguish between ostracizing the movement people belong to vs ostracizing the people themselves.

  3. dovid2 says:

    “some start hodu, some baruch sheamar but we all get to gether”

    If that were only so!

  4. David says:

    I find it slightly ironic that many non-Orthodox Jews think that Orthodoxy means only one thing and is monolithic.
    Some that are aware of these differences don’t understand why our toleration for other forms of Orthodoxy doesn’t also apply to them.
    “OK, Ashkenazim do one thing in their shul, and Sephardim do another, so we have women cantors with guitars, what’s the difference?”

  5. Nachum Boehm says:

    “The tunes, of course, are elegant and distinctly Middle-Eastern, in a minor key.”

    I think you mean harmonic major scale.

  6. Breinah says:

    Shows just how much more we have ein common than we actually think, yet highlighting our differences, which are small, but monumental.

  7. lacosta says:

    some start hodu, some baruch sheamar , but we all get to gether for kvod hahsem [ yechi chevod]…..

  8. dr. bill says:

    The one area where many traditional sephardi communities excel is in tolerating and dealing with members of their community whose observance has lapsed. their poskim have a very different approach than most western/ashkenazi poskim. the latter most often dealt with groups who had a different shittah, reform for example. the former dealt largely with non-observance per se. In Israel today one of those two approaches is much more relevant; it does not take a Ph.D. in sociology to figure out which it is! It would make for a yet greater ability to deal effectively with diversity.

  9. mb says:

    “In the Sephardic tradition, Hagbah — holding the Torah up and open for all to see — is done before the Torah reading.”

    Hagbah is almost certainly a polemic. Showing the text before the reading makes sense.
    Any idea why do Ashkenazim do otherwise?