Two women named Farḥa have shaped my outlook on the possibilities and challenges facing religious feminism in the Sephardic community: the first is the legendary Farḥa Sassoon and the second, Farḥa Koreen, my great-grandmother.

Both were of Baghdadi-Jewish extraction, but apart from that had very different social and religious trajectories. Farḥa Sassoon was an inheritor of the Sassoon banking dynasty, the “Rothchilds of the East,” and lived in Bombay and London at the center of the family’s financial empire and decision-making. Her entire life existed in the upper echelons of colonial-English and Jewish society: in addition to her business responsibilities as well as the thousands of requests she received from Jews around the world for philanthropic causes, she was an active Jewish citizen exchanging legal questions with leading rabbinic figures such as the Sephardic Chief Rabbis in Israel. Her family’s library in London contained innumerable books and precious manuscripts, such as a fragment of Mishneh Torah with the Rambam’s own handwriting in the margins! Farḥa was a community leader and scholar without parallel (that I am aware of) in either the Sephardic or Ashkenazi communities – all this at the turn of the 20th century.

She was one of many women who attended the weekly hour-plus drashot of the Ben Ish Ḥai in Baghdad’s central synagogue.

My great-grandmother Farḥa had a very different experience. Born into a poor family, she married my great-grandfather and first cousin at the age of 13. My great-grandfather was blind, and I presume that their economic situation did not improve during their lives in Iraq as they supported ten children, or after they moved to Israel in 1951 as an elderly couple. In spite of (or perhaps, as a result of) their poverty, Farḥa and her family were deeply religious: legend has it that she was one of many women who attended the weekly hour-plus drashot of the Ben Ish Ḥai in Baghdad’s central synagogue (who also was a teacher of my great-grandfather).

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Farḥa’s religious devotion was shared with me in the depiction of her many hours spent praying and reciting Tehillim, in addition to the flowery descriptions of her kitchen’s intoxicating fumes as she painstakingly prepared traditional Iraqi dishes with the utmost care for Shabbat and holiday meals. Farḥa, it seems to me, represents a much more common paradigm of Sephardic women in her generation, who lived in countries on the verge of western economic and cultural dominance, but were still fundamentally illiberal towards the enfranchisement of women.

Farha Sassoon, courtesy of historia.co

Sephardic Jewry never had a “backlash” period to the liberalization of Judaism by Reform Judaism, nor did it try and dialectically engage with modernity akin to Modern Orthodoxy.

An aphorism is used in the general description of Jewish life under Islam – it was never as bad or as good as European Jewry (as epitomized by the Holocaust at one extreme and liberal democracy on the other axis). Perhaps the same can be said of the current state of Sephardic Jewish feminism: it was never as bad, or as good as exists in the Ashkenazi community. Sephardic Jewry never had a “backlash” period to the liberalization of Judaism by Reform Judaism, nor did it try and dialectically engage with modernity akin to Modern Orthodoxy. So we are left somewhere in the middle.

Rav Ovadia warmly embraced the celebratory and religiously transformative nature of a Bat Mitzvah.

To provide an example, let us consider the legacy of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef on the question of Jewish feminism. On one hand, Rav Ovadia warmly embraced the celebratory and religiously transformative nature of a Bat Mitzvah, in contrast to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who viewed no religious significance inherent to a Bat Mitzvah and forbade it from taking place in a synagogue  (YO 6:29).

On the other hand, Rav Ovadia is often known for his slogans “to return the crown to its glory,” and to “put the word out according to the halakha” – for which he had in mind returning to the positions of Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulkhan Arukh (see end note 1). If Rabbi Karo ruled that women may not make a blessing on “positive time-bound commandments,” then none of the counter-arguments or even practices which developed after Rabbi Karo may be relied upon (YO 1:39). According to this approach, Jewish feminism can only make inroads insofar as they accord with a strict reading of the Shulkhan Arukh.

Perhaps as Farḥa Sassoon seems to have intuited her whole life in India and England, pushing one boundary after another, customs may change over vast geographical distances.

Within this framework, how can Rav Ovadia’s model answer novel halakhic questions, such as a partnership minyan which has some traction in the liberal Ashkenazi community? One potential answer to this question is by delving deeper into Rav Ovadia’s novel understanding of “minhag” or “custom.” For while Rav Ovadia’s halakhic predecessor the Ben Ish Ḥai writes dozens of times “here in Baghdad” to preface a ruling, Rav Ovadia quotes Rabbi Ovadya Hadaya (OH:28) that the Ben Ish Ḥai included this formula to limit his rulings for Baghdad (YO 5:29). Perhaps as Farḥa Sassoon seems to have intuited her whole life in India and England, pushing one boundary after another, customs may change over vast geographical distances. Thus, even according to Rav Ovadya’s strict emphasis on following customs of the Shulkhan Arukh, according to this new understanding that would not apply here in America (the Shulkhan Arukh is understood to have created customs for Eretz Yisrael).

Returning to my two Farḥas, we see the classic tension between innovation and change that typifies all religious communities facing modernity (and now we are even in a world of post-modernity). Farḥa’s life suggests a Sephardic Jewish feminism with no glass ceiling, while my great-grandmother Farḥa’s life suggests trying to preserve the old ways as much as possible, even in the face of mass communal disruption and change.

Farḥa’s life suggests a Sephardic Jewish feminism with no glass ceiling, while my great-grandmother Farḥa’s life suggests trying to preserve the old ways as much as possible even, in the face of mass communal disruption and change.

I have no simple solution for harmonizing the roles these two Farḥas play in my psyche. My intuition is that both their lives contain immense holiness and inspiration for our future. The Sephardic world lost so much religiously in its displacement to all four corners of the world: in Baghdad, groups of women used to gather by the Tigris river on 9 Av to wail, and formed in troupes for other ritual occasions (such as funerals and annual pilgrimages to the graves of tsaddikim, see end note 2). The name “Farḥa” means “joy” in Arabic. Let us revel in the joy that Jewish feminism has already brought to countless individuals, and bless a future where multiple kinds of joy may co-exist in the Sephardic community.

Eliyahu Freedman is a second year student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, originally from Toronto, Canada. 

  1. For more on Rav Ovadya’s methodology see mi’Maran ad Maran by Rabbi Binyamin Lau and the review essay by Dr. Marc Shapiro http://www.edah.org/backend/JournalArticle/Shapiro%20-FINAL.pdf .
  2. See Yitzhak Avishur, Women’s Folk Songs in Judaeo-Arabic from Jews in Iraq.

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