Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Rav Uziel Renaissance




Ever since his death in 1953, most Israelis had never heard of Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, Israel’s first Rishon Le-Zion (Sephardic Chief Rabbi). One of the 20th century’s most prolific rabbinic scholars, and a prominent rabbinic and civic leader throughout the formative years of Zionism, Rav Uziel belonged to a different generation, and is thus an unknown figure to most modern Israelis. Every major city in Israel has a “Rechov Ha-Rav Uziel” (Rav Uziel street), but most who walk or drive that street do not know who Rav Uziel is. Thankfully, that is starting to change.

This week I met with Mr. Ezra Barnea, the Director of The Institute for the Publication of Rav Uziel’s Writings. A native and long time resident of Jerusalem, Ezra studied in the Sephardic Talmud Torah in the Old City, in the same buildings that now house our Sephardic Educational Center. An expert in Sephardic manuscripts, music and hazzanut, Ezra sits in a very small office in the Heichal Shlomo building in Jerusalem. His office may be small, but his work is larger than life. With no staff (except his adorable grandson who was in the office that day helping him out), a small advisory board, some dedicated volunteers, a few generous donors, and an old school work ethic combined with a pleasant personality that always greets you with a warm smile, Ezra Barnea has taken it upon himself to edit and publish the massive and precious treasure chest of manuscripts left behind by Rav Uziel. Sitting in Ezra’s office is a true inspiration. Surrounded by books, manuscripts, and a glass case containing Rav Uziel’s beautifully embroidered robe traditionally worn by Sephardic Chief Rabbis, Ezra has singlehandedly created a “Rav Uziel Renaissance” here in Israel.

In just under fifteen years, Ezra has edited and brought to publication 28 volumes of Rav Uziel’s writings…including two new volumes that just came out this week. These beautifully bound and well laid out books include 9 volumes of Rav Uziel’s halakhic responsa (Mishpetei Uziel) dealing with matters of Jewish ritual and civil life, his spiritual writings addressing questions of faith (Hegyonei Uziel), and his commentaries on the Talmud, Maimonides and Pirkei Avot. There are also special volumes addressing specific halakhic issues such as the function of rabbinic courts, the special laws relating to orphans and widows, and the complex laws governing the sabbatical year in Israel. A true treasure are the six volumes that collect all of Rav Uziel’s major speeches, addresses and letters, giving the reader an in depth look into the world of the formative years of the pre-state Zionist Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael, and of Rav Uziel’s active leadership during that period. The two volumes that came out this week are a beautiful collection of all of Rav Uziel’s writings on the topics of Shabbat and all of the Jewish holidays. These books are sold in Judaica bookstores throughout Israel, and now form an integral part of the libraries and Batei Midrash (Study Halls) of many Yeshivot and Jewish Institutions of Higher Learning. They are available to rabbinic judges, yeshiva students, or the educated lay person who is intrigued by the ever relevant classic Sephardic approach of a balanced and moderate approach to halakha, Jewish thought, Zionism, tradition and modernity, written by one of the 20th century’s greatest rabbinic leaders.



As if publishing these books was not enough, Ezra has also seen to it that Rav Uziel’s story be told on film. The result is a beautifully and professionally produced documentary that chronicles the personal life, leadership career and unique rabbinic approach of Rav Uziel – all in 85 minutes. Watching this film is a journey through several worlds: the Old Sephardic Yishuv in Jerusalem, the pre-State Zionist movement in Eretz Yisrael and the brilliant mind and kind heart of Rav Uziel. Photos, audio and video clips and interviews from family members, rabbis, students and even the entertainer Yehoram Gaon, all speak glowingly of a man who was a defender of tradition in a secular Zionist world, an ardent and pro-active Zionist who believed that the emerging State of Israel was clearly the hand of God, a rabbinic leader who embraced all facets of modern life, and a rabbinic scholar who combined intellect, knowledge, passion and compassion in every halakhic decision that he made. The film was screened on television in Israel, and met with glowing reviews. (I was so moved by the film that I have obtained the rights from Mr. Barnea to screen it at the SEC’s upcoming Sephardic Film Festival in Los Angeles this coming November. The film is currently being subtitled in English, and we are planning a special evening the night it will be screened at the festival. We are proud that our screening will mark the U.S. Premiere of this important film).

Books and films are powerful ways of reaching wide audiences, but if you want an educational message to become part of a society, you have to find a way of reaching students in established schools. I was so excited to learn that after much lobbying by Mr. Barnea, this past school year marked the launching in the Israeli school system of a new “Rav Uziel Curriculum,” officially produced by The State of Israel’s Ministry of Education. The curriculum includes an educational book and DVD with texts, photos, and educational exercises, all relating to the life and teachings of Rav Uziel. The book was produced in a way that it can be used for a variety of age groups. As such, you will find activities for first graders alongside suggested activities for high school students. This efficient system made it possible to introduce this curriculum throughout the Israeli school system, now making it a fixture in Israel’s required Judaic subjects.



Conversion to Judaism is arguably Israel’s most controversial internal issue today. “Who Is A Jew?” and “Who Is A Rabbi” are core questions that stand at the center of Israeli society’s identity crisis as a “Jewish State.” Long before these became politicized matters between rival rabbinic factions in Israel, Rav Uziel dealt with these questions for the emerging Jewish state. Jews were coming to Eretz Yisrael from all over the world, and, as reflected in Rav Uziel’s halakhic responsa, intermarriage is nothing new in the Jewish world. As such, the halakhic questions of conversions and Jewish identity, the status of children from mixed marriages, and the halakhic requirements for conversions by rabbinic courts were all matters that Rav Uziel dealt with extensively during his career.

Because of this current crisis plaguing Israeli society (and Jews everywhere), Ezra has commissioned Israeli scholar Zvi Zohar to write a special book dealing with Rav Uziel’s halakhic approach to conversion. An expert in Sephardic Halakhic responsa (and a friend and lecturer at the SEC in Jerusalem and Los Angeles), Professor Zohar’s book will certainly present today’s rabbinic leaders with a challenge that – if accepted – will transform the world of conversion to something much less complicated, and virtually free of controversy. In his desire to foster a Judaism that was inclusive and welcoming, Rav Uziel legislated halakhic rulings that made converting to Judaism a positive and inspirational experience, without compromising halakhic matters. Rav Uziel’s approach was inspired by this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev, where we are taught that God “Loves the Stranger (Ger),” and that we “Shall love the stranger (ger).” The Hebrew word for stranger (ger) is the same word used by halakha for converts.  I look forward to Professor Zohar’s book, and the positive impact it will hopefully make for the Jewish people.



When I was with Mr. Barnea this week, I discussed with him my possibly undertaking the translation of selections of Rav Uziel’s works into English. One of my projects with the Sephardic Educational Center is to spread the good word of Classic Sephardic Judaism to as wide an audience as possible, and I feel that Rav Uziel’s works are the best place to begin. We spoke about creating an anthology reflecting a cross section of Rav Uziel’s halakhic responsa, his Jewish thought articles, and some of his speeches and letters. This would be a “Rav Uziel Reader,” and the goal would be to introduce Rav Uziel’s writings to the general Jewish public in the U.S., and to hopefully integrate his teachings into Jewish schools. Mr. Barnea was very supportive of this idea. To date, the only book about Rav Uziel available in English is an excellent biography written by my colleague Rabbi Marc Angel. Titled “Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel,” it is a book I strongly recommend. The creation of this anthology/reader would complement Rabbi Angel’s book, giving students the opportunity to read actual texts by Rav Uziel.

In the spirit of my suggestion to Ezra Barnea, and in the spirit of this week’s haftarah that deals with comforting the Jewish people after the destruction of Jerusalem, I will now translate a selection from the new volume on the Jewish holidays. Rav Uziel wrote these comforting and inspirational words after Tisha B’Av, 1933:

            We must remove this divisiveness that plagues us, and instead make our work as a community a reflection of peace and love. But who will stand and lead this change amongst us? This specific task belongs to the “Faithful in Israel,” our rabbinic and spiritual leaders. This belongs to them, because the Torah is not an alienating force; rather it is a force that brings people closer together. The true announcement of the redemption and the coming of the Messiah will only happen when the hearts of parents are drawn closer to their children, and the hearts of children are drawn closer to their parents. It is about time that the “Faithful in Israel” unite forces in their sacred work, and unite the entire Nation of Israel around them. Such unity, of spiritual leaders working together, unifying our people as one, will serve as our greatest source of comfort and strength, especially during these times when the waves of evil are spreading over all Jews -- (1933 – The Rise of the Nazis).

Quite a grand vision – rabbis working together, leading to the unification of the Jewish people. Indeed sounds messianic (especially the part about rabbis working together), but were he alive today, with the “waves of evil” once again threatening to spread over Jews, Rav Uziel would speak the exact same message.

This past week, I had three separate meetings in Jerusalem with potential partners who are all interested in my biggest dream for the SEC, and for the Jewish world – the creation of a new rabbinical training program that will train rabbis in the classic Sephardic mode of Rav Uziel. With the publication of his books by Ezra Barnea, the inclusion of his teachings into the Israeli educational system, Zvi Zohar’s upcoming book on conversion, the screening of the film at our festival, and the possible creation of a new English anthology/reader, this current “Rav Uziel Renaissance” will reach higher heights if and when we have a new generation of rabbis and educators who can teach and spread Rav Uziel’s teachings to a new generation of Jews all over the world.

In the spirit of comforting messages after Tisha B’Av, it’s good to see the Classic Sephardic mode of Judaism – especially through the figure of Rav Uziel -- enjoying a renaissance, slowly but surely making it’s way back into Israeli society and the Jewish world.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Lost In Translation





“Our Passover Seder is translated into Arabic,” I used to tell my friends in school. “Arabic?” they responded in bewilderment, “that’s so weird! How could you translate a Seder into Arabic? Isn’t Arabic the language of the enemy?”

Growing up in a French speaking Sephardic-Moroccan home in Los Angeles, my sisters and I were never taught that Arabic was the “language of the enemy.” That is, unless we considered our parents “the enemy,” who spoke it amongst themselves when they didn’t want us to understand what was being said. I have vivid memories of Judeo-Arabic being spoken in my home. It was a “private” language for my parents, as well as a form of cultural communication for my parents and their friends. In fact, there are several jokes for which to this day, I don’t know the punch line, as they started out in French, and just when the suspense was it its peak, the punch line rolled out in Judeo-Arabic. When my sisters and I would beg my father to translate, the answer always was “I could translate, but it won’t be the same.”

I have come to understand my father’s principle of “I could translate, but it won’t be the same” to also mean that there are times when linguistic expression is often more powerful than the actual translation itself. Throughout my upbringing, the first chant at the Passover Seder that really made it feel like Pesach for all of us around the table sounded like this:

Haq’da Qssam L’lah lb’har âla tnass l’treq ‘hin khrzeu
zdoud’na min massar, âla yed sid’na oun’bina moussa ben amram haq’da n’khrzeu min had l’galouth amen ken yehi ratson.

My father chanted this during Yahatz, as he split the middle matzah. It was not a formal part of the Haggadah. It was a text that stood by itself, and although none of us understood a word of what was being said, we all chimed in, and we all had our own images and perceptions of how this moment was speaking to us.

For me, in the truest spirit of Passover, this Judeo-Arabic chant represented a journey through my roots. In a language whose words I did not understand, but whose tone and music evoked deep emotions within me, this chant helped tell me the story of Jewish life in Morocco. On the night where we are mandated to “tell the story,” here came a chant in a language I did not speak, yet told me the story of my Moroccan Jewish heritage more vividly than any history book ever could. It evoked images in my mind of my great-grandfather Rabbi Yosef Pinto, sitting at his Seder in Marrakesch dressed in a Jalabiya with a scarf on his head, breaking the middle matzah and recounting the exodus to his family in the same Judeo-Arabic. It transposed me back to the Moroccan Mellah (Jewish Ghetto), a place I’ve only been to in my mind, but a place that I nonetheless could hear, feel and even smell, especially at that moment. Haq’da Qssam L’lah even reminded me – because it was in Arabic – that Moroccan Jewry once had positive and cordial relations with their Muslim neighbors, something we’ve painfully lost today.


As the Seder journeyed on, it was peppered with other Judeo-Arabic chants. Examples include Had taam d’eef kleu zdoud’na fi ardi massar (Ha Lahma Anya – This is the Bread of Poverty) or Fkhrouz Israel mn masar (B’Tset Yisrael Mimitzrayim – When Israel Left Egypt – Psalm 114). These were the sounds at my Seder – raw, unfiltered and deeply authentic. Hearing the Haggadah in Arabic took us away from our first generation American milieu, and transposed us back to a place where Judaism thrived in a deeply spiritual fashion, enriched by a rich cultural world that enjoyed an intimate bond with the cuisine, spices, music and language of North African Arab culture.



With my parents no longer alive, my family continues our Judeo-Arabic chanting at the Seder. These chants continue to tell the story of Pesach – my Moroccan ancestor’s Pesach – to my children, in the original language of their ancestors. Pirkei Avot teaches us to “know from whence we come.” This is as important a story on the night of Pesach as is the master story in the Haggadah.

I am proud to raise my children to understand that, despite the ugly extremism of jihadists and fundamentalists, Arabic is still not the “language of the enemy,” and that Jews have a long-standing relationship with Arabic language and culture. It reminds my children that Jewish works of outstanding spiritual and intellectual stature, such as Judah Halevi’s Kuzari or Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, were written in Arabic, and that nobody accused these great minds of writing in the “language of the enemy.”

After my father’s passing a few years ago, I found the translation of the text we read while breaking the middle Matzah: This is how the Holy One Blessed be He split the sea into twelve separate paths, when our ancestors left Egypt, through the leadership of our master and prophet, Moses son of Amram, of blessed memory. Just like God redeemed them and saved them from harsh labors and brought them to freedom, so, too, may the Holy One Blessed be He, redeem us for the sake of His great name, and let us say, Amen.

Sounds – and feels -- so much better in the original.


(originally published in The Jewish Journal 4/4/12)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Agnon's "Spin" On Desecrating Shabbat





From where do we derive what is permitted and forbidden on Shabbat? Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei (our double Torah portion this week) describes the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in full architectural detail. Every step is outlined, every piece of raw construction material is listed, and every artistic craft is spelled out. Just prior to all of this detail, Moshe gathers the entire community and introduces the instructions to build the Mishkan with the following commandment: “These are the words that God has commanded for you to do. You may work during the six weekdays, but Saturday must be kept as a holy Shabbat to God.”

Immediately following this reminder to observe Shabbat, Moshe then proceeds to describe the full instructions for building the Mishkan. From this juxtaposition of the commandment to observe Shabbat and the full details of the various labors needed to build the Mishkan, the rabbinic tradition derived that the prohibited labors on Shabbat are the very labors needed to construct the Mishkan. The rabbis read Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei like architects and artists, breaking it apart into different categories and genres of labor. They derived a total of 39 forms of labor (or, more specifically, “creative acts”) needed to build the Mishkan, and they ruled that these 39 forms of labor are, in fact, the prohibited labors on Shabbat. 

These labors are listed in the Mishnah (Rabbinic Laws), Tractate Shabbat , Chapter 7:2: “The primary labors (on Shabbat) are forty less one: Sowing, Ploughing, Reaping, Binding Sheaves…” etc

The sixteenth prohibited labor listed by the Mishnah is called “toveh,” which means “spinning.” The technical description of “spinning” is the act of twisting fibers (or threads) together to produce long threads.

The labor of “spinning” brings to mind a thought-provoking tale written by S.Y. Agnon, the 1966 Nobel Prize laureate from Israel.

The story is titled “K’neged Otam Shekov’im Yeshivot Shel Ts’chok V’Kalut Rosh” (Against Those Who Establish Gatherings of Laughter and Frivolity):

            The story is told of a woman, who, every Shabbat, after she finished praying and studying the week’s Torah portion, would sit at home alone and spin yarn –so that she wouldn’t be sitting with her neighbors when they busied themselves with idle gossip.




            One Shabbat morning, Moshe Rabbenu was taking a walk. He came to the city of that very woman. He saw the Shechinah (Divine Presence) resting over one particular house, so he entered and found that one woman sitting and spinning yarn.

            He said to her, “My daughter! Don’t you know that today is Shabbat?”

            She said, “I know today is Shabbat.”

            He said to her, “And don’t you know that work is forbidden on Shabbat?”

            She said, “I know it’s forbidden to work on Shabbat.”

            He said to her, “If so, why are you spinning?”

            She said, “And what else should I be doing at this hour?”

            He said to her, “You could pray, or you could read the commentaries to the Torah portion.”

            She said to him, “I already finished my prayers, and I already read the week’s Torah portion.”

            He said to her, “If that’s the case, then go and sit with your neighbors, and do not desecrate Shabbat.” So she stood and set aside her work and went to their company.

            The following Shabbat, Moshe Rabbenu saw that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) was no longer resting above that same house. He entered and found that woman sitting with her neighbors, engaged in conversation. And what were they talking about? About this one who made for herself a dress worth so much, and that one whose husband bought for his wife a pearl necklace, this one’s son who cast his eyes on that one’s daughter, and the daughter who cast her eyes on another one’s son. And so it was: they sat and gossiped about frivolous things. When Moshe saw all of this, he said to the woman, “My daughter, return to your work and do not occupy yourself with such foolishness.”

            Therefore, a person should always be very careful not to occupy himself with frivolous matters on Shabbat.

What message does Agnon convey in this bold and daring tale? What moral is imbedded in this creative interplay on Shabbat between, on one hand -- a pious woman who prays, studies Torah, and then chooses to sit at home spinning threads rather than hanging out and gossiping – and Moshe, God’s authoritative prophet and lawgiver, the ultimate symbol of Torah and Rabbinic authority?

Agnon challenges us to reconsider and expand the concept of Hillul Shabbat --“desecrating Shabbat.” Given the ugly damage that gossip creates in society, Agnon’s story posits that if God had to choose between the two, then God would most likely prefer for one to sit and spin threads on Shabbat than to sit on Shabbat and spin tales about others.