Ashkenazim and the Sephardic Pronunciation of Hebrew – Jewish Link of New Jersey

Posted By on February 21, 2020

Part 1

This piece will focus on how and why some Ashkenazic Jewsboth religious and (later) secularadopted the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew because they deemed it superior to the Ashkenazic one.

In the last two decades of the 18th century, concurrent with the rise of the chasidic movement in Eastern Europe, a pietist group was emerging in Germany. It was led by Rabbi Nathan Adler of Frankfurt. Rabbi Nathans followers regarded him as a man of God and a miracle worker. Under his influence they studied Kabbalah, demanded extreme standards of abstinence and self-purification, and conducted separate prayer service according to a special rite based on the prayer book of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria.

R Adler was a very controversial figure in the Frankfurt Jewish community and was eventually excommunicated in 1779 and again in 1789. A booklet entitled Maaseh Tatuim was published anonymously in 1790 (a copy of which I have in my collection) that attacked the actions of Adler and his followers. Some of the chief accusations against Adler included the complaint that they introduced substantial changes in both the text and the conduct of prayers: praying in the Sephardic rite known as Siddur HaAri and (unlike the chasidim) also of using the Sephardic pronunciation in prayer.

The historian Simon Dubnow now doubted the existence of a direct link between the formation of Adlers circle and the emergence of chasidism, and most other scholars who have considered the question agree. Some reconsideration of this position is now required, as the scholarly world has recently revised its view of the spiritual nature of early chasidism and embarked on a new assessment of its religious and social features. The new approach studies the beginning of chasidism in the context of the religious awakening then taking place in the world of kabbalistically oriented pietistic groups active in 18th-century Europe. We are therefore justified in attempting a reassessment of the link between the different manifestations of religious pietism appearing at the same time in Eastern and Central Europe. The Frankfurt pietist circle and the chasidic groups in Eastern Europe were established at approximately the same time: the early 1770s; both trends looked to the same sources for inspiration and sought to create a new ritual expression for new spiritual currents; both used the Hebrew term chasidim; they recognized the power of charismatic leaders and their authority to innovate new practices and there was a striking similarity between the two in prayer rites and other customs as well as in the nature of their deviations from accepted norms in their respective communities. (Elior, Rachel: Rabbi Nathan Adler and the Frankfurt Pietists)

The Jewish Enlightenment Looks to Sepharad as A Positive Model

The literature abounds on the subject of the Reform movement in Germany, using Sephardic Jewry as a positive model of what progressive Jewry ought to look like. Interest in all things Sephardic was all the rage among the Wissenschaft crowd in Western and Central Europe.

Todd Endelman writes in his article, Benjamin Disraeli and the myth of Sephardi superiority:

From the late 18th century, Sephardim throughout Western Europe, as well as Ashkenazim, deployed the myth to promote their own cultural, political and social agendas The pioneers of Wissenschaft des Judentums and the leaders of the Reform movement constructed an image of Sephardi Judaism that stressed its cultural openness, philosophical rationalism, and aesthetic sensibilities in order to criticize what they disliked in their own traditions, i.e., its backwardness, insularity and aversion to secular studies. In France, Austria, Germany, Hungary and the United States, communal and congregational boards erected imposing synagogues of so-called Moorish design, assertive symbols of their break with the unenlightened Ashkenazi past.

Before the end of the century, the myth of sephardi superiority was widely disseminated and available for appropriation by Jews and their enemies alike In their battle against racial myths about Jewish deformities, Jewish anthropologists drew on the Sephardi mystique to create a counter myth of their own: that of the well-bred, aesthetically attractive, physically graceful Sephardi, a model of racial nobility and virtue. In their work, John Efron notes, the Sephardi served as the equivalent of the Jewish Aryanthe physical counterpart to the ignoble Jew of Central and Eastern Europe.

This Ashkenazic sense of inferiority was obviously something new. As Ismar Schorsch put it: There is little doubt that beyond the worldwide influence of Lurianic Kabbalah (of which Adlers group and the chasidim of Eastern Europe are one exampleJ.D.), the religious culture of Spanish Jewry held but slight allurement for a self-sufficient and self-confident Ashkenazi Judaism in its age of spiritual ascendancy.

In fact, until the 16th century, Ashkenazi culture enjoyed higher status than the Sephardi one, (perhaps since Ashkenazi Jews had not converted to any other religion, i.e., had not become Marranos). Around 1500, when the first scholarly Hebrew grammar books were published in Europe, the authors naturally took the language of Jews living in France and Germany, that is Ashkenazi Hebrew, as the basis of their work, and Sephardi was regarded as a curiosity. In the epoch making grammar book (De Rudimentis Hebraicis, 1506) of Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), Ashkenazi Hebrew was the living language. It was only in the 17th century that European Hebraic scholarsthe so-called Christian Hebraistsdecided in favor of Sephardi reading. It was accepted by the great grammar (1817) of William Gesenius (1786-1842) as well, which formed the basis of modern Hebrew linguistics. Since the 17th century, everyone considered the Sephardi usage to be the scholarly standard and used it exclusively. Jewish scholarship (Wissenschaft) was now committed to Sephardi, and it became the ideal for the initiatives of the Reform movements.

With the advent of emancipation in Central Europe, German-speaking Jews gradually unhinged itself from the house of Ashkenazic Judaism. Inclusion in the body politic sundered a religious union born of common patrimony. Historians have tended to focus on the institutional expression of this rupturethe repudiation of the educational system, the mode of worship, and the Rabbinic leadership intrinsic to Ashkenazic Judaismwith special emphasis on the Western tastes and values that propelled the transformation of all areas of Jewish life With surprising speed, German Jews came to cultivate a lively bias for the religious legacy of Sephardic Jewry forged centuries before on the Iberian Peninsula without which they would have cut loose from Judaism itselfenabled them to redefine their identity in a Jewish mode.

The author is an independent scholar of history and translator of Hebrew text. Please contact [emailprotected] Check out Channeling Jewish History on Facebook for daily updates in your inbox.

Originally posted here:

Ashkenazim and the Sephardic Pronunciation of Hebrew - Jewish Link of New Jersey

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