Bridging Traditions: Demystifying Differences Between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews
Rabbi Haim Jachter / Maggid Book / OU Press 2022
Reviewed by Rabbi Barry Gelman
Rabbi Haim Jachter is uniquely qualified to write Bridging Traditions: Demystifying Differences Between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. Rabbi Jachter, who is Ahskenazi, and who studied and trained in Ashkenazi yeshivot, has led a Sephardic congregation for over twenty years.
By his own admission, he has not always been an expert on Sephardic traditions and he credits mentors and teachers who have helped him along the way. Waiting for Rabbi Jachter to write this book was well worth it as it is a remarkable and important work.
The book is of great value in helping Ashkenazim and Sephardim understand the roots of their particular practice, as well creating a sense of reverence for the particular customs of each community. In so doing, Rabbi Jachter does a great service toward the goal of achdut (unity),one of the stated goals of the book. “The goal of Bridging Traditions is to broaden every Jew’s perception of “we” to include all Jews,” Rabbi Jachter writes. “Every Jew should take special pride in the practices of his particular shevet / sub group. At the same time, however, every Jew should feel a sense of oneness and unity with all Jews.”
Rabbi Jachter does what is often missing in the conversation about Sephardic halakhic practice: to distinguish between the various communities and their approach to Jewish law. The chapters on Moroccan Jews and Yemeniate Jews are incredibly insightful in this regard.
For example, Rabbi Jachter includes this interesting tidbit in the name of Rabbi Shlomo Amar (Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem). “It should be known that the customs of Morocco are numerous and diverse. It is a community consisting of hundreds of cities and villages, each one different from the other. What was the custom in Fes was not so in Marrakech, and both of these are different from Meknes and Sefrou…”
Rabbi Jachter adds a great touch at the end of the book by including “tributes” to some of the great Sephardic poskim (religious decisions) of the modern era. He delineantes the uniqueness of each one giving the reader an insider-outsider understanding of these great figures.
Rabbi Jachter also delves into theology in the chapter about the inclusion by Spehardic Jews of the phrase “V’Yatzmah Purkaneh V’Karev Mishiheh (bring forth His redemption and hasten the coming of His Messiah). (Hassidic Jews who pray according to Nusach Sefard - a blend of Ashkenzic and Sephardic traditions with a heavy dose of the customs of Rabbi Isaac Luria also include that phrase). Ashkenazim typically do not include “V’Yatmah…”
Rabbi Jachter quotes an explanation of the disparity in the name of Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun. Based on a dispute in the Talmud (Bavli, Sanhedrin 99a), where it is suggested that while there will be a messianic era, there will be no messianic king, Rabbi Bin Nun argues that those who include the additional phrase believe in the eventual advent of an actual messianic king, “While those who omit these words believe that there will only be a Messianic era, but no human Mashiah (Messiah).”
Rabbi Jachter is quick to reject this possibility, noting that such an approach is “untenable” as the position suggests there will be no messinic king is rejected in the Talmud. In this regard, Rabbi Jachter is treating this theological question the same way halakhic questions are dealt with. Rabbi J. David Bleich wrote similarly and claimed that before the debate in the Talmud was settled the question was a live one, but after the Talmud settled the matter, it is improper to believe that there will be no messianic king.
Rabbi Dr. Marc Shapiro (The Limits of Orthodox Theology pp. 1411-143) notes that such an approach is qustionable. Here are his words: “ To begin with, we have already seen that Maimonides explicitly states that issues of belief are not matters of Halakha…” As Shapiro notes, the standard procedure used to resolve halakhic disputes are not relevant in cases dealing with belief. Furthermore, Shapiro writes that “it is essential for Halakhic disputes to be settled because everyone must know how to act. This is purely a practical consideration, entirely absent when dealing with matters of belief.” This is not to suggest that Maimonides would accept the rejected position, it is just that the rejection would be based on other methodologies.
This approach fits in well with Rabbi Jachter’s overall project of illustrating how different practices are part of the tapestry to Judaism. (For more on this, see Menachem Mendel Kasher, Hatekufah Hagedolah 118, 145.) The great value of Bridging Traditions is the stress on the unity of the Jewish people and how all of the divergent customs come together to create a beautiful tapestry.
Rabbi Gelman's book reviews are a joint project of the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC and the Jewish Herald-Voice.
Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the ERJCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism.