Ladino Rabbinic Literature & Ottoman Sephardic Culture By Matthias B. Lehmann Indiana University Press, 280 pages, $39.95.
Until the end of the 15th century, the Iberian Peninsula was not only a Muslim enclave but also a site of dialogue between three religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The expulsion of Jews and Arabs irrigated their communities throughout the Mediterranean Basin, in what eventually became the Ottoman Empire. There, again, Jews and Muslims coexisted — or better, they thrived.
Matthias B. Lehmann, who teaches at Indiana University, is the author of an invigorating and thought-provoking study about the manifestations of rabbinic literature in the Ottoman region during the 19th century. At this time, the plethora of academic dissertations on similar aspects of Ashkenazic culture gives the impression that the Jewish sphere of influence reached only to the borders of the Pale of Settlement. But, lately, perhaps as a result of the way that American Jews are redefining their identity, a strong interest in other areas of the world, especially the Sephardic constellation, has garnered attention. And in times likes these, during which East and West are drastically polarized, nurturing such an interest might be taken as a sign of hope.
Lehmann is a clear thinker and an engaging writer. His focus is on the strategies that the Ottoman Jews, as a minority group, developed to find a balance as modernity knocked at the door. More concretely, he is interested in the crossroads where morality and culture meet. He opposes the nearsighted perception that rabbinic responsa in Ladino was only that, a response; instead, he perceives it as an agent of transformation. That transformation started with ethical modes within the confines of tradition. It ended in secularism. Indeed, his central thesis is that rabbinic literature set the foundation for Ottoman maskilim to rewrite the European classics, turn women into an engine of emancipation, and push the Sephardim to embrace secularism.
Rabbinic literature in the vernacular, Lehmann states, was neither difficult nor long-winded. Its most crucial quality was accessibility, for its objective was to translate the ideal of a Jewish household to modern times. He begins by meditating on Jacob Huli’s multivolume treatise, Me’am Lo’ez, an attempt to adapt the Torah for the masses by recommending ways to integrate ritual and contemporary life. The first volume was published in 1730. Huli set the stage for a number of other popular ethical manuals that made recommendations on all sorts of daily activities, from education to sexuality, from Zionism to technology.
Language and translation are Lehmann’s prime motifs. The Ottoman rabbis, he suggests, might not have been original in their viewpoint, but they were definitely committed to adaptability. Through a series of socializing institutions, such as the meldados (study groups in which musar literature was debated and, along with it, political, educational and cultural topics), Jews in the Mediterranean Basin reflected on their status. Like Yiddish among Ashkenazim, Ladino served as a unifying resource. For as the Sephardim struggled to find a balancing act between faith and progress, their grasp of the sacred tongue became tenuous. And although they were fluent in French, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Slavic and other languages, ethical debates were inaccessible unless they were rendered in the vernacular. The sections in which Lehmann discusses the elasticity of Ladino as a standard vehicle of communication are enlightening. He makes it resemble Spanglish in America, a cut-and-paste of various linguistic sources.
Lehmann is an anti-romantic. He’s scrupulous about his historical sources — recognizing, for instance, that the availability of rabbinic books doesn’t mean they were read. In fact, there isn’t any quantifiable information about patterns of distribution. Happily, nothing stops him from offering an honest picture of a minority that, on the verge of the 20th century, pushed its surroundings to embrace such principles as freedom, democracy and, yes, tolerance. Although he doesn’t dwell on it, the reader is able to recognize from Lehmann’s study that such intellectual giants as Alberto Cohen and Elias Canetti, byproducts of Greece’s and Bulgaria’s Sephardic community, respectively, are all Huli’s brainchildren. An astonishing genealogical feat any way one looks at it.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His latest book is “The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories” (Northwestern University Press).