The following is an interesting correspondence between Maurice Sasson Peress and Rabbi Howard Joseph of the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal which should be of interest to Sephardim everywhere.
26 September 1999
We have been enjoying a period of peace and harmony under the leadership of our President, Mr Selim Moghrabi. Prior to embarking on a step towards modernisation, we should take a long breathe and consider the consequences. President Moghrabi, in his address Yom Kippur emphasised the fact that our Synagogue needs a man, a strong man, a hard-working man to succeed him as President. In stressing the issue, Mr Moghrabi was trying to avoid playing into the hands of the Maghen Abraham's' faction who have been advocating the separation of their services from the Spanish (in order to have the possibility of a lady President). Electing a lady President will no doubt weaken the position of the members who prefer to stay at the Spanish. If Maghen Abraham decide to part away, a minimum of fifty families, Iraqis and Moroccans will join them. The tax base of our Synagogue will be diluted, the beautiful Chapel towards Mr Joe Iny and his brother generously contributed will be vacant. Victor Mashaal is dreaming in Technicolour when he says one member leaves and 699 will stay. Fact is he will no longer be able to carry the flag unless he coughs amounts commensurate with the honour bestowed on his beloved. All we ask you to do, our dear Rabbi, is to respect our Sephardi traditions and be a stabilising factor in keeping us together.
Maurice S Peress
5 October 1999
Your recent letters provide me with the opportunity to offer my views as to the nature of Orthodoxy and the basis of unity in our Congregation. Other matters will be clarified if we can come to an understanding about these two fundamental issues.
An Orthodox synagogue is one in which the rule of Halakhic law and tradition is supreme and is interpreted and applied by an ordained rabbi who is trained to interpret and apply the legal tradition to contemporary issues.
This fundamental consideration is very different from non-Orthodox congregations wherein the members often decide on their own what should or should not be done without reference to Halakhic procedure. In some cases they may give much weight to Halakhah but are also influenced by what they call History and Tradition (Conservative) or disregard Halakhah completely in favour of what is convenient or comfortable (Reform).
But again, Orthodoxy has staked its emphasis and commitment to the Jewish legal tradition as the Word of G-d that must be obeyed. Orthodox Jews submit their questions to their rabbi and submit to his decisions.
If we are going to have an Orthodox congregation then we are all going to work for this principle and realise that the rabbi has a key role to play. Neither Maurice Peress, Victor Mashaal, Selim Moghrabi, Emile Fattal, David Kauffman or David Gabbay have the expert knowledge required to render Halakhic judgements. I do not know of anyone else in the congregation who does. If anyone of these or other members wishes to serve in an administrative capacity they can so be chosen by the members. But they cannot function as replacements for the rabbi and pronounce on what is or is not halakhically valid course of behaviour.
Furthermore, our congregation is constituted of members who identify with Orthodoxy and who may wish congregation affairs to be guided by Orthodox policies but they themselves are not completely observant in an Orthodox fashion. We call these kinds of people today the 'non-observant Orthodox'.
In some Orthodox synagogues none of the above type persons would be welcome to serve in any official capacity. In others they would not even be offered to go to the Torah for an Aliyah. Their lack of complete observance would disqualify them. In these congregations the members readily submit to the decisions of the Rabbi.
There are other factors in Jewish identity. These may include an attachment to community, past and present; nostalgia for a lost community or family traditions; attachment to Israel and charitable concern for Jews everywhere. However, for Orthodoxy the primary commitment is the observance of G-d's commandments in the Torah as implemented in the Halakhah.
So, nostalgia may be important but it is not enough to go on. If one or another group insists on its nostalgic vision to be implemented then there will be no room for other groups in our Synagogue. Halakhah does not work only on what was done in the past; it must decide for the present. Orthodox Jews ask their rabbis if heart transplants and in-vitro fertilisation techniques are permissible. The fact that one hundred or five hundred or one thousand years ago they were not done does not mean that they are forbidden. These questions are decided upon using the components of Jewish law from the Babylonian Talmud and subsequent codes and commentaries that relate to these questions. They are interpreted and applied. Sometimes a consensus of rabbis is reached and, sometimes, differing perspectives remain.
If we wish to create unity in our congregation it must be on this fundamental. If we wish to move to a stricter interpretation of Orthodoxy as noted above we can discuss this. However, it is improper to conduct these discussions without the Rabbi present. Otherwise the sources of Torah are absent and the discussion is no longer one based on Torah and for the sake of heaven.
On the question of whether or not a woman can be President of a synagogue both Hazzan Abbitan and myself agree that there is no Halakhic objection. An Iraqi rabbi, the late Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi who served as Chief Rabbi for many years, wrote that in voluntary situations people can give authority to a woman to be a judge in a religious court for civil matters, for example.
We also have the precedent of Golda Meir. Orthodox rabbis served in her cabinet and I do not recall any objection to her being chosen as a leader of a Jewish community. In 18th century Kurdistan, Asnat Barzani, a scholarly woman, succeeded her husband as head of a Yeshivah.
Finally, we have the example of Deborah, the Biblical prophet, judge and leader who ruled our nation over 3000 years ago.
So in my mind there is no religious Halakhic issue here. If there are other issues to be discussed in this matter then they should be brought forth but not under the cover of religion. Religiously I do not see any issue.
I know that some people are uncomfortable with the more elevated opportunities women have in Canada and other Western countries. But this is the reality. If we deny women valid opportunities in our communities we will lose the respect of our women for Judaism. This would be the end of our tradition for they would not teach their children about something that denies their dignity.
I hope that all those who wish to see our congregation continue in the ways of Orthodox Judaism will rally around the proper comprehension of this term and not use it so selectively promote their own special interests. I hope to continue to be able to have the opportunities to teach and explain to our members how an active, serious and devoted Jewish life can enrich their lives. I hope we can all work together to promote the observance of Shabbat, the dietary laws, regular attendance at the Synagogue all year long and all the other beautiful obligations by which Jews have lived for thousands of years but which now appear to be distant to many of our members. We would then be approaching the ideals of an Orthodox synagogue.
Rabbi Howard S Joseph
1) The occupational differences between men and women has been narrowing gradually since the French Revolution two centuries ago, even more so in the past 50 years of relative international peace.
However, even if the difference is now very small, we confirm the famous remark of one famous French deputy who said, "Vive la difference!" In fact, even if woman can now perform man's functions, can man claim to be able to perform the role of the woman who alone is capable of bearing babies?
2) As for the Rabbi describing members of a congregation as being non-observant Orthodox, this is obviously a contradiction of terms. How can an Orthodox Rabbi knowingly lead a congregation that is completely or mainly non-observant. Some people may regard such behaviour as reform through the back door.
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