The Zoom-Seder Ruling Reveals New Fractures and Coalitions in the World of Jewish Orthodoxy

From Ashkenazi and Sephardi to strict and lenient.





Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Meron, Israel on May 25, 2020. David Cohen/FLASH90.
Chaim Saiman
Last Word
May 28 2020
About the author

Chaim Saiman is the chair in Jewish law at the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University and the author of Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law (Princeton 2018).

I am honored that my essay on the Zoom seder and its implications for Shabbat in the digital era merited careful consideration by a distinguished group of scholars. In particular, I am grateful that Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, one of the signatories of the original ruling, had the opportunity to present the background and motivations behind it to an English-speaking audience.

In their responses, both Rabbi Bouskila (delicately) and Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier (directly) bring up the tensions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi approaches to halakhah and the marginalization of Sephardi rabbinic culture by the Ashkenazi clerical elite. At some level, it is hard to argue with their assessment. One need only open up the standard European printing of Rabbi Joseph Karo’s authoritative 16th-century code, the Shulḥan Arukh, to find that the Sephardi halakhist’s lean text is literally crowded out by a phalanx of Ashkenazi commentaries who occupy most of the real estate on the page. Sephardi commentators are either relegated to the outer margins or to the back of the book—if they make it in at all. As for Sephardi and Mizraḥi rabbis themselves, many have literally and figuratively adopted Ashkenazi rabbinic garb—the black hat and the black coat or kapote—and sometimes even the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew, while very few Ashkenazi rabbis have done the reverse.

I also agree with Aryeh Tepper’s assessment that this controversy has a great deal to do with debates within the Sephardi world. Most Ashkenazi reactions—whether ḥaredi or centrist/modern Orthodox—were relatively tame, whereas the sharpest critiques came from Sephardim. For instance, the Casablanca-born former Israeli chief rabbi Shlomo Amar wrote that he “could not believe that there were rabbis who permitted this,” going so far as to call one of the signatories a “Reform rabbi”—hardly a compliment in his view.

Only slightly less strident was Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, who exclaimed, “God forbid! [Using Zoom at the seder] is a great error, and it is prohibited to do in any manner. . . . Those who signed onto the ruling were mistaken.” Eliyahu cited those Sephardi authorities, including his father, the former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who took a strict view on the use of electricity on holidays and, he is certain, would reject the Zoom seder. Eliyahu claims that the halakhic tradition “accepted by all of Israel prohibits the use of electricity and computers on the holidays. This is the opinion of the overwhelming majority of rabbis in Israel and the Diaspora, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Moroccan and Yemenite.” These reactions may explain, in part, why three rabbis who initially signed the ruling later retracted.

Writing in Mekor Rishon, Israel’s leading religious-Zionist newspaper, Yehuda Yifrach puts the debate in the context of the struggle for rabbinic leadership following the death of the former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Rabbi Yosef, a Baghdad-born talmudic genius of unmatched proportions, could go toe-to toe with any Ashkenazi authority and worked mightily to raise the standing of Sephardi halakhah and “return the crown to its former glory”—that is, to restore the pre-eminence of Sephardi halakhah and culture. But embedded in Yosef’s program was a move to consolidate Sephardi halakhah under the banner of Rabbi Karo’s Shulḥan Arukh and thus eliminate ethnic and regional differences among the various Sephardi and Middle Eastern communities. To Yifrach, these efforts created a clear hierarchy in the Sephardic rabbinic world, reflected in the reactions of Rabbis Amar and Eliyahu, whereby the “hegemony of scholars tracing their origins to Baghdad, Aleppo, and Egypt marginalized the rabbis of the Maghreb.” With Yosef’s influence diminished following his death, attempts have been made to reassert the regional traditions and centers of rabbinic influence within Mizraḥi Jewry. The Zoom-seder ruling is one such example.

These efforts at centralization served to undermine those distinctively North African approaches to halakhah that, Rabbi Bouskila argues, emphasize the “human factor,” and which he contrasts to the “the conventional Ashkenazi conception” found in my essay. Variations of this idea have been put forth both by such rabbis as Haim Amsalem and Yitschak Chouraqui (the latter cited by Bouskila), as well as by such academic scholars as Zvi Zohar.

This view rests on contrasting both methodologies of halakhic decision-making and sociological differences in how each culture confronted modernity. In brief, the argument goes, Sephardi Torah study is more practical, plainspoken, and oriented towards the concerns of the moment, whereas Ashkenazi methods carry a more detached and “academic” flavor that, to their critics, emphasizes abstruse talmudic arguments over real-world considerations.

Moreover, in Ashkenazi lands, the confrontation between Judaism and modernity produced sharp social and ideological divisions, first with the emergence of Reform Judaism in Central Europe and then with the rise of the Haskalah, secular Zionism, and socialism in the East—compounded by growing secularism everywhere. In response to these frontal assaults on traditional Jewish law and theology, a self-consciously orthodox movement emerged that sought to maintain the integrity of the tradition by erecting high legal and social barriers—an approach that would eventually come to characterize ḥaredi Judaism. Thus, for many Ashkenazi rabbis, a presumptive halakhic rigidity was more than a jurisprudential attitude, but a way of affirming commitment to Judaism itself.

The experience in Muslim lands was less extreme in both directions. Modernity did not witness the eruption of an ideological assault on the religious establishment nor did it spawn an Orthodox reaction. In these countries most Jewish communities included members who ranged from the strictly observant to the loosely affiliated, but were not divided by clear denominational or ideological lines. The Sephardi halakhic tradition therefore lacks the undercurrents of fear of external influences or of a slide towards secularism that defines certain trends in Ashkenazi halakhah, and as a result tends to be more lenient. In contrast to their Ashkenazi counterparts, many Sephardi halakhists attempted to include rather than write off the variegated practices of a laity that was neither strictly observant nor religious indifferent.

This, at least, is the historical account that informs the approach of Bouskila and his colleagues. While this analysis gets much right, I wonder if it both overgeneralizes the differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim and fails to capture important countervailing trends.

First, as alluded to above, this dichotomy ignores more recent movements within Sephardi culture connected to the emergence and political success of the Shas party alongside the formation of a distinctly Sephardi brand of ultra-Orthodoxy which displays many features of its Ashkenazi counterpart. Benjamin Brown, a leading scholar of contemporary halakhah and society, has pointed to far more conservative currents within Sephardi halakhah, and Ariel Picard has argued that, upon their arrival in Israel, Sephardi halakhists, confronted with more ideologically aggressive forms of secularism, responded in ways quite similar to their Ashkenazi counterparts.

Second, the marginalization of more moderate halakhic sub-streams is not limited to the Sephardi realm. Perhaps parallel to the situation in the Maghreb, pre-World War II German-Jewish Orthodox communities were better integrated into Gentile society and halakhically more moderate than their East European counterparts. Yet following the Holocaust they have struggled to maintain their distinctiveness and have generally been absorbed into either the ḥaredi or the Modern Orthodox communities. Moreover, American Modern Orthodoxy has experienced a much-discussed “rightward” slide—i.e., a tendency to greater stringency—while its Israeli equivalent, the religious-Zionist community, has seen the crystallization of a distinct “Torani” segment that is characterized by stricter observance and greater emphasis on religious devotion. Taken together, these trends point to a broader set of ideological contests, spanning the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide, both between leniency and stringency and between centralization of authority into the hands of internationally revered rabbis and a version of what Catholics call “subsidiarity,” where ultimate authority rests in the hands of local and congregational rabbis.

Finally, I also wonder whether placing “sensitivity to the human condition” as the hallmark of a distinctly Sephardic halakhic approach is the best way to capture the dynamics at play. Take, for instance, the oft-quoted tale of the shtetl rabbi who stayed up all night searching for grounds on which to rule that a chicken presented to him by an impoverished widow was kosher. Likewise, many Orthodox rabbis today, of all ideological bents, are fond of referring to the importance of the “fifth section” of the Shulḥan Arukh—a work divided into only four sections—which demands recognition of the human realities embedded in every legal question. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the most authoritative ḥaredi Ashekanzi halakhist of 20th-century America, was renowned for rulings that seemingly bent talmudic rules every which way to account for human needs.

In these times especially, I am reminded of a responsum by Rabbi Yitzḥak Yaakov Weiss—head of the anti-Zionist and most ultra of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox rabbinical courts—who permitted a patient with a highly infectious disease to bring his t’filin to the hospital, even though they would have to be incinerated afterwards out fear of contamination. Normally, halakhah would prioritize preventing the desecration resulting from the destruction of these sacred items, but Rabbi Weiss permitted it on mental-health grounds: for the patient in question, the inability to perform the daily ritual of donning t’filin would cause distress so severe as to outweigh other factors. Shifting our focus to a very different segment of the Orthodox world—those women and men who chafe at the inequality between the sexes found in traditional halakhah—it is largely liberal Orthodox Ashkenazi rabbis who have searched for avenues of flexibility.

The more important social analysis in my view focuses less on which authorities are sensitive to the human condition but instead asks which human conditions they are most sensitive to. For Rabbi Yitzḥak Weiss, it is the ḥaredi patient who cannot fathom going a day without donning his t’filin. For Rabbi Feinstein, it was often Orthodox immigrants or their children seeking to navigate religious commitments in the new realities of the 20th-century America. For many Sephardi rabbis, it is the affiliated and traditionalist, though not strictly observant, members of their communities. For liberal Orthodox Ashkenazi rabbis it is the observant women and men who struggle to square their devotion to halakhah with the egalitarianism of the surrounding society. All these rabbis are responding to the human needs of their constituents. The critical question is which human needs are deemed worthy of serious rabbinic attention—and why.

 

Rabbi Shalom Carmy’s response, very different from the others, focuses on the self-abnegation and sacrifice embedded in halakhic observance, requiring that even thoroughly religious goals must at times be set aside. Carmy zeroes in on the ruling’s assessment that, in the absence of their grandparents, younger generations may not attend the seder, taking it as evidence that the parents’ generation failed to produce a seder that their adult children would find sufficiently compelling. On these grounds, he expresses skepticism that the Zoom seder’s “stopgap measure to keep nostalgic religious affiliation afloat” can “remedy the educational weaknesses . . . that its defenders genuinely want to ameliorate.”

Whereas Carmy sees the ruling as emerging from a position of weakness, Bouskila and Tepper see it as coming from a position of strength, reflecting “the cultural confidence of a resurgent community,” in Tepper’s words. Here, attending to the difference between Israel and the Diaspora offers useful context. The most vibrant elements of Diasporic Orthodoxy are those that see Judaism foremost as a religion rather than as an ethnic or cultural identity. By contrast, as Camil Fuchs and Shmuel Rosner describe in their recent book, the large middle of the Israeli religious and political spectrum is best described “JewsIsraeli”—a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardi combined with a distinctive Israeliness where Judaism reigns as the unchallenged dominant religious force. Rather than religious beliefs or practices per se, this community is bound together by a common Jewish/Israeli cultural experience twinned with a generally right-of-center political outlook. Perhaps for this reason, their religious observance shares more with the Sephardi model, which historically responded to a community with a spectrum of religious observance, rather than to the sharp categorical divides between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox inherited from Ashkenaz.

Viewed through an Israeli lens, the Zoom seder can been seen as a triumphant move that promotes key social, religious, and familial values in a time of great social and psychological stress. Yet seen through the Diasporic perspective of a minority faith under siege by its host culture, it can signal the resignation to flaccid and uncertain spiritual commitments that Rabbi Carmy bemoans.

 

Lastly, I’d like to turn to Aryeh Tepper’s central critique of my essay: that my failure to understand the internal Israeli/Sephardi dynamics behind the ruling led me to misread the motivations behind it. First, as explained above, I generally concur with his reading of the religious contestations that stand in the background. Second, I am quite familiar with Rabbi Shloush’s collection of responsa, Ḥemdah G’nuzah, and his fascinating electromagnetic, halakhic, and homiletic analysis of electricity and its permissibility on holidays, but my conversations with members of Shloush’s family showed me that even among his followers assent to the Zoom-seder ruling was not unanimous.

More fundamentally, where I part ways with Tepper is that my article was never an attempt to explain why the Maghrebi rabbis issued their ruling. My interest is in why—above and beyond so many other coronavirus-related decisions—the Zoom ruling took the world by storm. It received near-instantaneous reactions in the Hebrew and English-language Jewish press, and in Israeli popular culture, and was then picked up by the secular media, first in Israel and then around the globe. This attention then required rabbis and scholars across the spectrum who rarely intervene in debates among Sephardi authorities to weigh in on, and generally to oppose, what in halakhic terms is surely a defensible position. As one New York rabbi told me, “I now have Ashkenazi partners in Manhattan law firms—who I am pretty sure know next to nothing about Maghrebi rabbis or their traditions—asking me whether they can rely on the Zoom ruling.”

I continue to maintain that these facts have relatively little to do with the issues raised by Tepper, and are best explained by a reflexive sense, present even amongst those who are not halakhically sophisticated or observant, that this touches on how to keep Sabbaths and holidays from being overrun by the technology that inevitably infiltrates our lives.

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More about: Halakhah, Religion & Holidays, Zoom Seder