Foundations of Sephardic Spirituality
The Inner Life of Jews in the Ottoman Empire
By Rabbi Marc D. Angel, PhD
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006, 202 pages
ISBN 13: 978-1-58023-243-2
ISBN 10: 1-58023-243-4
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 8, 2009
The December 5, 2009 New York Times reported that many citizens of Turkey fervently want their country to return to be a Muslim land, as it was when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. "The Ottoman Empire conquered two-thirds of the world but did not force anyone to change their language or religion at a time when minorities elsewhere were being oppressed." However, the Times also reports that these "proponents are glossing over the empire's decline and (are) glorifying an anachronistic system that…was mired in corruption and infighting in its latter years."
Jews were a small part of the Ottoman Empire during its ascendancy and its decline. What was their life like, socially, culturally, politically and religiously? How were they treated by the empire? Did they suffer a devastating decline like the empire? What caused the Jewish decline?
Rabbi Marc Angel answers these questions and more in this well-written and very informative history of Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire. The book was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, and should have been the winner.
The Ottoman Empire, grounded on Muslim law, was founded in 1299 and ended in 1922. Modern Turkey, a secular state, is its successor. Jews, as reported, were granted freedom by the Ottoman Empire to observe their religion and customs, but their social life was restricted in many ways. Their life under the Muslims was usually more tolerable than under the Christians who all too often expressed their contempt for their mother religion with brutal murderous anti-Semitism. The Muslims mistreated people of other faiths, but Jews and Christians were considered to be "People of Scriptures" and were tolerated. Toleration is an interesting and telling word because no husband would dare turn to his wife and say, "My dear, I tolerate you."
The Ottoman political fabric and the life of its people started to decay and fray in the later parts of the sixteenth century, the same time that Jewish life in the empire began its decline. What caused the Jewish disintegration? Are these destructive cancers present in today's Jewish society, eating away at its glory?
Rabbi Angel is very careful, considerate and sympathetic in describing the decline. There were many factors: economic, sociological, political. A basic internal problem was the rise of a kabbalistic/midrashic type of Judaism, the belief that life is controlled by outside amorphous generally evil forces, and a misguided usage of midrash, thinking that the ancient parables that the rabbis taught were true history.
The majority of Jews accepted the notions of kabbala after the horrendous expulsion from Spain in 1492, when many Jews escaped to the welcoming arms of the Ottoman Empire. Confused over the reason for the expulsion – was it the hand of God or some other force? – many Jews accepted the mystical notions in kabbala and convinced themselves that humans lacked the ability to combat the semi-divine beings that were causing the evil they experienced. They slipped into a life of passivity, of anti-intellectualism, of seclusion from secular studies, and a mystical reliance on an outside non-human force to save them.
Rather than think for themselves, they became convinced that they must rely on the teachings of sometimes mediocre rabbis who lacked a secular education even when the rabbis issued instructions that were as blatantly wrong and absurd as declaring that black is white, a Jewish version of papal infallibility.
Many Jews stumbled and sank in the muddy life draining waters of superstition, into a fundamentalist spiritual worldview of focusing their lives in otherworldliness, passivity, piety, repentance, and a disdain for secular study and worldly business.
This deterioration led millions of Jews, including many rabbis, in the mid-seventeenth century, to believe that Sabbatai Sevi was their longed-for savior. They were so misguided, so ignorant of reality, that even when this false messiah converted to Islam to save his life, some still continued to be convinced that he was the longed-for Jewish messiah. Some retained this remarkable whim even after he died.
This tragic history is by no means unique to the Jews of the Ottoman Empire. The tragic and life draining impacts of the misunderstanding and misuse of kabbala and midrash struck every other Jewish community. This problem continues to be evident in our own time in many Orthodox circles.
Rabbi Angel spends most of the book describing the five century history of this people, focusing on their inner lives, their beliefs, customs, feelings of self-worth. He tells of renowned scholars in this community who had Jewish and general wisdom. He draws on the folk wisdom of the Jewish masses, especially as manifested in the rich Judeo-Spanish tradition.
Angel describes the confrontation of Ottoman Jews with the challenges of modernity and Western influences. By the latter half of the 19th century, this impressive segment of the Jewish people underwent a process of finding a balance between the claims of tradition and the demands of the modern world.
Jewish life that flourished in the Ottoman Empire no longer exists. The once significant people are now dispersed, primarily in America and in Israel, almost indistinguishable from other Americans and Israelis. Has their culture died?
Rabbi Angel shows that it has not. For these people produced many important books with meaningful lessons that he describes, books read today in Jewish houses of study, synagogues and homes, inspirational books, books with significant content, books that will influence the thinking of many people for generations to come. The Judeo-Spanish culture—intellectual and folk—still has much to teach the Jewish people.