In one of the synagogues, during the Shabbat prayers, I found an old book with a blue cover: a Jewish philosophy textbook from the Sixties, edited by Rabbi Shaul Israeli, the Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz HaRav. In between the Kabbalat Shabbat psalms, I leafed through its pages, knowing there was no way – but, who knows? As I expected, not a single Sephardi Sage since the Golden Age in Spain, over 500 years ago, was mentioned. Monochromatic Judaism.
Two years ago, it turned out that the situation today, in the second decade of the 21st century, hasn't changed: In the new Jewish philosophy textbook, the list of Sephardi Sages dating after the Golden Age amounts to only one, among the hundreds of others from European countries.
This disregard wasn't new to me; I had long been familiar with it, as a graduate of the educational system. But I have nevertheless met up with a new approach in recent years – the approach taken by my place of work, Kol Israel Haverim.
Many have had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with the Daily Sage project – HeHacham HaYomi – a database of the Sephardi sages of recent centuries that presents the life stories and a selection of learning of many sages: some nearly forgotten, redeemed by the project and reintroduced to Israeli society. You may meet them at the website, in study leaflets and through the app, in video clips and promotional material, and learn about this new world.
This project would not have been created had there not been a lack, and had it not been for several impassioned individuals bearing a new vision: to share with Israeli society an entire and previously unfamiliar realm. This trend - recognizing a current lack while noting the thirst and need for change – has brought about additional meaningful changes. One of them is the Biton Committee.
The Erez Biton Committee or, as it is officially named, the Public Advising Committee for Deepening the Identity of Mizrachi and Sephardi Communities in the Educational System, was established last March. It proposes to introduce all Israeli schoolchildren to the wealth of the Sephardi tradition, riches to which they haven't been properly exposed to date. There are seven members in the Committee, including poet Erez Biton, Chairman, Dr. Yehuda Maimaran, our CFO, Rabbi Professor Moshe Amar, who teaches in the Sha'arei Uziel program for Israeli rabbis, and others. Dr. Yehuda Maimaran leads the committee on Contemplative Thought.
The choice to renew the educational system by including mizrachi voices may also evoke various types of resistance. Some might claim that studying the tradition of a particular Jewry could create divisions between different groups. Others might consider that the study of traditions from the Diaspora belongs to history lessons but is irrelevant to the state of Israel's educational system.
"The committee is not seeking to create competition between the identities struggling in the arena of Israeli society, on the contrary," Yehuda says, explaining the committee's approach. "The idea is to create a space where a unifying and loving identity can be expressed. That is the perspective from which we are approaching the entire issue of integrating Judaism from Islamic lands. It's an approach that has been typical of this Jewry over years – it comes from unity and love. We had no sectorial terminology but emphasized what is Jewish and what unites Jews. It's an approach whereby coming from Ahavat Israel – the love of Israel – we can overcome the hardship and pain, the thoughtlessness and gaps. The potential contribution of this approach to the educational system is the reinforcement of the fact and understanding that we are one nation."
Yehuda also relates to the claim that the past is irrelevant. "Judaism from Islamic lands contains huge treasures of values and reflective thought that form the basis of approaches that are extremely relevant to our lives today as individuals and as a community: relations between religious and secular people, national cohesion, issues concerning conversion, religious courts, social gaps and so on." You can listen to a discussion on the issue at the bottom of this page from "Radio Bli Hafasaka" [in Hebrew].
We are familiar with this world in our organization: For years the various Kol Israel Haverim programs have gathered these materials – whether for study in leadership groups, for school program processes or the Daily Sage database. Content that deals in identity, human dignity and social responsibility and that proposes a different approach that is worth sharing with Israeli society.
What can we expect to see on the bookshelf in a few years' time? What will the educational system look like after the committee's conclusions are implemented?
"The change will not take place only in Jewish studies", says Yehuda, referring to the actualization of the committee's vision, "but also in Zionism, literature, history, art, excursions and different disciplines and in informal education as well, where a more extensive and inclusive narrative will be presented."
We can but hope that in the future, as a result of the committee's work, the educational and Jewish bookshelf will be more expansive, relevant and meaningful.