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Persian Judaism
One God, One Torah, and One Persian Jewish community

By Houman Kashani and Arash Lalezary
March 23, 2001
The Iranian

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 communities occurred.

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 community.

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, and reason.

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 like Moses."

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 overnight?

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 One.

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 came from.

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.

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