Jewish school in Shiraz
One God, One Torah, and One Persian Jewish community
By Houman Kashani and Arash Lalezary
March 23, 2001
We wrote the following article not because of any acrimony towards
the denominations -- especially of Jewish Orthodoxy; but rather because
of our love for our Traditional Sepharadic Judaism and our concern for
great divisions in the future. Indeed, we hope to promote unity within
our Persian-Jewish community.
Persian Jews living in the United States are on the verge of separating
into denominations -- just as the Ashkenazik Jews have. In order to better
educate the reader, we will attempt to give a brief, but hopefully insightful
depiction of the history and sociology of the major Jewish denominations,
and attempt to portray their strengths and weaknesses.
At the turn of the last two decades, with the Islamic Revolution in
Iran, tens of thousands of Persian Jews were uprooted as they moved their
families to metropolitan cities such as Los Angeles and New York. Arriving
in America, once again the Persian Jews were open to influences from the
surrounding communities. Also it was here that a meeting of the minds between
the Ashkenazik (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) and Traditional Sepharadic
We Sepharadim have many customs different from those of the Ashkenazim.
Never are these differences more prevalent than during the High Holy holidays
and Shabbat. Indeed, both Ashkenazis and Sepharadis have their own rich
traditions and practices, and no one is to judge if either is good or bad,
but rather we believe everyone should maintain their own traditions.
During the 19th century, Rabbi Moses Mendelsohn led the forefront of
the Reform movement in Germany as a result of the Enlightenment period.
He made radical revisions to traditional Jewish beliefs and practices --
he introduced reforms such as substituting Sunday for Saturday as the day
of rest, deleting every mention of the messianic redemption from Jewish
writings, removing circumcision (since he felt it was too barbaric), and
rejecting the dietary laws. His movement was more similar to a branch of
Christianity than to a denomination of Judaism.
The virtues of the Reform movement enwrap themselves in personal autonomy
due to the lack of authoritative religious base. Nowadays these people
espouse gay marriages, assimilation, intermarriage, and the feminist movement
with the introduction of female rabbis. Because of the high number of mixed
marriages (approximately 52%), Reform Judaism revoked the traditional maternal
descent law and constituted that a child can be a Jew if either the mother
or the father is Jewish. Interestingly, when Rabbi Mendelsohn died, his
two daughters and his son converted to Christianity.
As a reaction to the Reform movement, the Orthodox denomination was
created. Orthodoxy strove to maintain many of the old Ashkenazik traditional
values of Judaism by making them more strict. By insisting on a more strict
way of life, Orthodox rabbis believed that they could combat the forces
of the Reform movement.
We assert that there is no need for Orthodoxy within our Sepharadic
community since we do not have Reform within our Persian Jewish community.
We certainly have none of the dilemmas Ashkenazik Jews faced upon coming
to America. For example, we are fortunate enough not to have widespread
intermarriage and gay marriages within our community. Moreover, there has
never been an incidence of a female or homosexual rabbi in the Persian
Lastly, we contend that our community, for the most part, has not undergone
the forces of assimilation, albeit there is great tendency towards acculturation.
However, we argue that sociologically, Sepharadic Jews have acculturated
in whichever country they resided in -- whether in Spain, Algeria, Yemen,
Iraq, Egypt, or Iran. Indeed, Reform Judaism grew as a result of the Enlightenment
period. The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual movement during the
late seventeen and eighteenth centuries uniting the concepts of God, nature,
We argue that Sepharadic Jews historically valued these rational and
open-minded views -- this is because Sepharadic Jews, unlike the Ashkenazis,
have always welcomed modernity and valued advancement. For example, Judah
Halevi was a great poet and philosopher, Nahmanides (Ramban) was a rabbi
and philosopher, Rabbi Immanuel Bonfils studied astronomy, and so on. Furthermore,
as the popular saying has it: "From Moses to Moses, there was no one
Sepharadic rabbis such as Dr. Moses ben Maimon, The Rambam (Zichrono
Levracha, i.e., of blessed memory), were educated in secular subjects such
as mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, and medicine, as well as, religious
Talmudic studies. In fact some Sepharadic rabbinic academies included studies
of science and medicine as part of their religious curriculum circa 1000
AD. We, unfortunately, do not see many educated Sepharadic rabbis nowadays
with open minds keeping our Traditional Sepharadic heritage, without being
influenced by Orthodox Ashkenazim, Hassidism, or Chabadism.
We hypothesize that the main problem may be caused by the training of
Persian rabbis in Ashkenazik yeshivas where they become so influenced by
their strict teachings and traditions that they lose touch with our progressive
Sepharadic heritage. For example, we are increasingly seeing many Persian
rabbis becoming Chassidic and Orthodox by their way of dress (black hats,
black coats/robes, paeot, and so on), way of speech (with their Ashkenazik
accents), and unfortunately, also by their way of thought and practice.
In order for a rabbi to be worthy and capable of leading the Persian Jewish
people, they must at least have some training at a Sepharadic yeshiva.
One of the only few Persian rabbis we have the highest respect for is
Rabbi Hacham Yedidia Shofet who is the prime religious leader of the Persian
Jewish community worldwide. Rather than causing separation and alienation,
this remarkable rabbi (who is the former Chief Rabbi of Iran) has promoted
unity and acceptance to all Persian Jewish people. This pious individual
has indeed maintained our Traditional Persian Jewish culture, religion,
and identity while living in America, without becoming too extreme like
other Persian rabbis.
Indeed, just as some Sepharadic Jews in Denver, Colorado have done,
it is time to recapture our Sepharadic practices to the exclusion of Ashkenazi
practices. Rabbi Joseph Carro (Zichrono Levracha), who was born in Spain
in 1488, wrote the Shulchan Aruch (the compendium of the Jewish laws);
however, because of Carro's Sepharadi background, the Shulchan Aruch did
not include Ashkenazi and Polish customs. Although the text was available
to them, Ashkenazi Jews were unwilling to accept the code as authoritative.
Therefore, some of Rabbi Carro's rulings were later replaced by Rabbi Moses
Isserles who lived in Poland.
Both Rabbis Carro and Isserles's works comprise the basic code of Jewish
halacha for all Ashkenazik Jews and many Sepharadic Jews. However, there
are many Sepharadi Jews, such as those living in Denver, who (correctly)
believe that the Sepharadi halacha should be used, excluding Rabbi Isserles's
work which includes Ashkenazi customs and practices.
Despite many beneficial influences the Ashkenazi Jews have had on the
Sepharadi Jews, including scholarly Judaism and economic resources, Sepharadim
have been plagued by an onslaught of problems and moral corruption from
their Ashkenazi counterparts. Not only have we begun to identify with terms
like Reform and Orthodox, but also we have began loosing our Persian culture
as we assimilate and follow Ashkenazi influences.
It is important to delineate one of the gross mistakes of Orthodoxy.
Just before the rise of Adolph Hitler (Yemach Shemo), many Eastern European
Jews were contemplating on emigrating to America to lead a life of prosperity
and freedom from the Jewish ghettos. But unfortunately, many of the insular
Orthodox Ashkenazi rabbis discouraged Jews from doing so, for they saw
America as the "Medina Treifa" (unkosher land).
In addition, other Jews were beginning the process of establishing Israel
as the new Jewish state, but the Orthodox denomination was against the
establishment of the state of Israel. They cited numerous sources in the
Talmud and the Torah that stated Israel was not to be established until
the coming of the Messiah. Consequently, many Jews needlessly perished
in the gas chambers and death camps of the Holocaust due to their rabbis'
narrow-mindedness. What is ironic now is that most Orthodox Ashkenazik
Jews now live in Medinat Israel, and the once "Unkosher Land"
which they now call America.
It is time for our Persian rabbis to renounce Orthodoxy, Conservatism,
Reform and especially Chabadism, and maintain only our Traditional Sepharadic
Judaism. And instead of Shomer Shabbat, i.e., the complete and strict observance
of the Sabbath (according to Orthodox rabbis) being the major factor in
defining an observant Jew, we propose the term Shomer Israel being the
indicator of a Traditional Sepharadic Jew.
As educated men, we often find ourselves questioning the rationale behind
many of the strict laws and regulations that Persian Jews have adopted
since their arrival in the United States. The first example is the use
of the telephone for leisure calls on Shabbat. We never understood how
this is considered "work" or the involvement of electricity makes
it "touching fire." This case was further puzzling when on a
Friday night, a loved one on vacation called home to wish his mother and
grandmother a good-Shabbat. Had he sinned? Or were the smiles on the women's
faces evidence of his mitzvah?
Furthermore, it is in our Persian Jewish tradition to be with our families
on Shabbat to sing songs, say blessings, and be with the ones that we love
the most. This was easily possible hundreds of years ago when most families
lived in small villages or towns. They did not need to drive or travel
to a family member's house on Shabbat.
However, living in America, we obviously realize that most families
live much farther away and thus the only way for them to be together on
the Holy Sabbath is to drive. But most rabbis tell their congregations
that driving on the Sabbath violates the laws of Shabbat (except, of course,
Safek Pikuak Nefesh, i.e., the saving of a person's life).
However, in our tradition it is equally as important for us to be with
our loved ones. The rabbis recommend these people who need to drive to
simply stay over someone's house so they don't transgress a sin. These
rabbis seem oblivious to the fact that Persians, for the most part, have
large families and it is impractical to do so (and can consequently cause
separation within many families). Does it sound rational to have several
families-including one's grandfather or grandmother, mother and/or father
in law, uncles, aunts, cousins and their children-all stay in one house
There is no doubt in our minds that an observant Jew should wear a kippah
to show their respect in front of the Torah when praying before God-but
is it really needed to wear one throughout the whole day? Orthodox people
wear it because they say it shows that they fear God (Yirah Shamaim) and
that it reminds them that there is always a higher force. Perhaps the reason
why most Sepharadic Jews do not wear a kippah (except, of course, while
praying) is because we believe one should always be in awe of Hashem, without
needing a kippah to constantly remind us of our devotion to the Omnipotent
Indeed, we are all Jews whether it be Traditional Sepharadic, or Reform,
Conservative, or Orthodox Ashkenazik; we all have come from the same ancestry.
We are all brothers and sisters, e.g., what happened during the holocaust
showed how much it was a loss to all Jews no matter what background we
However, it is time for more of our Persian rabbis to open their eyes
and be more realistic and pragmatic. It is time for them to realize that
their fanaticism can and definitely will be counterproductive to our future,
for it will only cause more division within the Persian-Jewish community
and within many families as well.
Let the Ashkenazi mistake of separation serve as an example for us not
to follow. Do not let the irrevocable schism in the Ashkenazi community
happen to our community. We have lasted so long because we have NOT denominationalized.
There is One God, One Torah, and One Persian Jewish community. We were
always one-and we should always remain as one people!
Houman Kashani attended Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles,
earned his Bachelor of Sciences in Physiological Science from UCLA, and
is currently a medical student attending Northwestern University Medical
School. He is also a board member of Eretz Cultural Center in Reseda, California.
Arash Lalezary earned his Bachelors of Science from UCLA in Biochemistry
and is attending St. George Medical School.