July 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A further discussion on the topic introduced by Rav Chaim Strauchler.

Through my years in the rabbinate, I was and am still often asked which stream I belong to, Modern Orthodox, Charedi, Yeshivish, etc. My answer has always been that I belong to none of the above. When those who ask seem to be perplexed by my response, I answer that labels are not part of my tradition.

While researching the origins of Orthodox Judaism, I discovered that the earliest known mention of the term “Orthodox Jews” was made in the Berlinische Monatsschrift magazine in 1795. The word “Orthodox” was borrowed from the general German Enlightenment discourse, and used not to denote a specific religious group, but rather those Jews who opposed Enlightenment. During the early and mid-19th century, with the advent of the progressive movements among German Jews, and especially early Reform Judaism, the title “Orthodox” became the epithet of the traditionalists who espoused conservative positions on the issues raised by modernization.

Originating from a Sephardic background, my ancestors were never exposed to the different denominations. All Jews were part of the Jewish community without being labeled.

While Sephardic Jewry did not experience the Reform or Conservative movement, many Sephardic countries experienced modernization due to the French regime ruling their countries.

The rabbis dealt with this phenomenon in creative forms, finding innovative halachic ways of serving their communities without ostracizing anyone.

I would like to share a couple of examples.

Rav Yosef Messas, zt”l (1892-1874, Morocco-Israel) who served as the chief rabbi of Tlemcen, Algeria; and Haifa, Israel, describes in his responsa “Mayim Hayim” (volume 1, responsa 143), that as a young dayan sent from Meknes, Morocco to Tlemcen, one of the first challenging questions he had to deal with was the opening of kosher butchers’ businesses on Shabbat. He describes how he tried to persuade the Jewish community council to assist him but to no avail, after which he tried to convince the butchers to close on Shabbat, and while they promised him they would, they have not kept their promise. After months of many trials, the rav finally wrote a teshuva where he permitted them to sell their meat on Shabbat.

A second example is a correspondence between Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook (1865-1935, Russia-Israel) and Rav David Ashkenazi (1898-1983, Algeria-Jerusalem), the chief rabbi of Oran, Algeria. The background of the correspondence is that at the main synagogue of Oran (which apparently was one of the most beautiful synagogues in the world), there were gentiles playing the organ on Shabbat and Yom Tov. A certain Jew who moved from Eastern Europe to Oran attended the synagogue. Seeing that an organ was used on Shabbat caused him to send a letter to Rav Kook asking for his opinion. Rav Kook replied to this European Jew that it was forbidden. This Jew shared the letter with Rav Ashkenazi, who sent a reply to Rav Kook, chastising him for getting involved in his community and proving to Rav Kook that halachically in his case and for his community, it was permissible to use an organ on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Those great chachamim who had broad shoulders dealt with their communities without labeling anyone.

While, thankfully, no rabbi has to deal with such challenging questions today, each rabbi still deals with our congregations and each one with its challenges. At a recent shiur I gave in my congregation, we dealt with a relevant question to many kehillot: Is one allowed to give an Aliyah to a mehalel Shabbat (someone who desecrates Shabbat)? In my shiur, I quoted many poskim saying that as long as the mehalel Shabbat is not doing it B’farhesia (in front of a minyan), we are allowed to give him an aliyah. The main reason that numerous poskim write is in order not to push him away from Judaism.

Unfortunately, today things have changed tremendously and Jews are being labeled according to their way of dressing, the kippah they wear or the congregation they attend.

Though I am a product of the traditional yeshiva system, I have been blessed to belong to a family and community that taught me to be open and tolerant of everyone. I have also been fortunate to serve congregations that gave me the opportunity to be an independent thinker without limiting myself to any stream or philosophy, thus continuing the legacy of our great chachamim such as the Rambam and Rav Yosef Karon, among many others, and for that I am profusely thankful.

My father, z”l related to me on many different occasions that his father, Ribbi Ayad Acoca, zt”l who served as a dayan in Morocco, wished that one of his descendants would follow in his footsteps and become a rabbi. His prayers were answered, and I am proud to be the one who in my own humble way is living his legacy by living and perpetuating a Judaism that has no labels.

I am strongly convinced that at a time of much worldwide antisemitism, we should embrace the Sephardic approach of accepting all Jews for who they are, being tolerant and open to others who do not necessarily think like we do, dress like we do or received the same education or philosophy as we do.

My dream is that one day, all Jews will sit together and accept their differences for the embetterment of klal Yisrael.

May it happen speedily in our days. Amen


Rabbi Ilan Acoca is the rabbi of Congregation Bet Yosef in Fort Lee; Rav Beit Hasefer, Ben Porat Yosef, Paramus; Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Hamidrash, Vancouver, BC, Canada; Member of the executive of the Rabbinical Council of America; Member of Metivta Sephardic Educational Center; Author of the book “The Sephardic Book of Why.”

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