About every six months, JOFA’s staff sits down to brainstorm our programmatic goals for the upcoming weeks, months, and year. It’s an opportunity to take stock of where we are, look at what we’ve accomplished, and identify key areas where we could be doing more work. The idea for this blog series emerged from one of these self-reflective moments, when we realized that JOFA has done relatively little to address the unique experience of Sephardi women in Orthodoxy.
At this point, I would usually move on to outlining some of the questions we wish to raise through the blog series. But there’s a far more fundamental issue that needs to be addressed first, and that is the problem of nomenclature.
The title of this blog series is actually rather misleading. It suggests that either A) we’re only talking about women of Spanish or Portuguese descent, or that B) we mean to include a much larger group of women of various origins, but have failed to create an accurate, all encompassing term.
The correct term for my Jewish heritage is actually “Edot HaMizrach.”
I imagine that you, as well as most readers, presumed that our intention was Option B, and perhaps you didn’t even give a second thought to the term “Sephardi.” Perhaps you didn’t know that because my parents were born in Iran, the correct term for my Jewish heritage is actually “Edot HaMizrach,” that the nusach of my siddur is not “Sephard,” and that, no, it is not “just like being Syrian.”
We often use the term Sephardi to refer to Jews from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), North Africa (Morocco and Tunisia), and the Middle East (Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen). In some sense, this is a useful category because these disparate geographic regions tend to be united by the halakhic traditions that we follow. (I hesitate to use the word minhag because our customs are quite different from region to region.)
Sephardim come from three continents, Ashkenazim come from one.
But the fact of the matter is that it is somewhat absurd not to make a distinction between these regions. Persians and French Moroccans might both say selichot the entire month of Elul, but there are differences in the nusach of our prayer books, the tunes we sing, and the special foods we eat on holidays.
There is no question we can problematize the category “Ashkenaz” in the same way I am problematizing the term Sephardi. But there are two primary ways in which these groups differ from each other. First, the term Sephardi is used to lump together people from a much wider geographic range. Sephardim come from three continents, Ashkenazim come from one. Although these continents were once united by single empires, those empires have not existed for centuries.
Our particular needs and identities as non-Ashkenaz members of the community simply go unaddressed.
Second, Sephardi culture, heritage, and practice by and large does not have a voice in American Modern Orthodox communities. In our day schools, we rarely teach students Sephardi halakha. Sephardi Jewish history is often missing from Jewish history curriculums. Our particular needs and identities as non-Ashkenaz members of the community simply go unaddressed. The lack of attention to Sephardim within the community at large serves to exacerbate the problematic nature of this category altogether.
The world of Orthodox Jewish feminism is no exception to this phenomenon. We fail to look at specific challenges Sephardi women face in participating in ritual life, taking on positions of leadership, and reshaping communal attitudes. I will allow the blog posts in this series to demonstrate what these obstacles may look like, but I will share one key example.
We fail to look at specific challenges Sephardi women face.
One of the cornerstones of Jewish Feminism has been the creation of partnership minyanim, where women can participate in leading prayer services. The halakhic principle upon which these minyanim rest is that women, like men, are obligated in prayer. Therefore women can recite prayers like pesukei dezimra on behalf of the whole community.
The problem is that according to certain mainstream Sephardic authorities, the fact that women do not have the same level of obligation in prayer means they cannot exempt men from their obligation. According to the Yalkut Yosef, women cannot even recite the blessings flanking pesukei dezimra because it would be considered uttering G-d’s name in vain.
This halakhic reality poses a serious problem for how Sephardi women can participate in partnership minyanim, but it is not an issue that has been addressed. Sephardi women are left caught between the decision to rely on psak which has not accounted for our ethnic heritage, or trying to broach the topic with a Sephardi posek who could very possibly dismiss the notion of partnership minyanim altogether.
Through this blog series, we hope to raise awareness about the diversity of identities within the Sephardi camp, but also to explore what Orthodox feminists can be doing to make sure all those women are being represented in the work we do.
Shira Eliassian is the JOFA Blog Editor. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Religion at University of Chicago Divinity School.