Yoel Pimentel, "Noble Savages: Rabbi Joseph Dweck’s Unenlightened View of the Jews of the Arab World"

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David Shasha

Jan 13, 2021, 5:52:33 AM1/13/21
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Noble Savages: Rabbi Joseph Dweck’s Unenlightened View of the Jews of the Arab World

By: Yoel Pimentel

Last October, a Jewish learning initiative called Torah in Motion posted videos of a 3-part series of shiurim given by Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the head Rabbi of London's largest Sephardi congregation.

The main subject of the lectures was the European Enlightenment, a period between the 17th and 18th centuries, when scientific and philosophical thought started to become more widespread throughout Europe.  R. Dweck discusses how this period affected the Jews of the time.

The three shiurim are available for viewing online:




Rabbi Dweck falsely claims that the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa never went through or were affected by the Enlightenment, but that only the Western Jews did.

He gives us an example of two Jewish communities living in the West: The Portuguese Sephardim, a community of Jews descended mostly from Iberian Conversos, and the Ashkenazim of Central and Eastern Europe.

During his shiurim, the Rabbi does twice remind us that he is not looking at this

subject as a historian, and that sometimes he is using generalizations.

The problem is that numerous times during the shiurim, R. Dweck makes statements which seem to go contrary to the historical record, and which only end up reinforcing racist stereotypes about Arab Jews.

He fails to discuss the different effects the Enlightenment had on Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews.  His generalizations unfortunately do not suffice. During the shiurim, the Rabbi claims many times that the Sephardi Jews outside of Europe had no learning beyond Torah or access to Western thought.

The first contentious issue is the assumption that Enlightenment and general studies was something achieved and understood by Jews living only in the West.  Rabbi Dweck doesn’t mention the Golden Age of Spain’s high culture, so influential to the emergence of European Modernity, as being influenced by the Syrian Umayyads and the transfer of their dynasty from the Middle East to Spain.

He does mention in the shiur that the Iberian Jews in Europe had enlightenment before the Enlightenment, but not that this was a result of the Arab culture they lived within or the Islamic world’s greater tolerance for scientific learning and poetry.

Throughout the shiur Rabbi Dweck instead prefers to use a Eurocentric East/West binary in his discussions. He connects the intellectual thinking of the Portuguese Sephardim in Europe to Maimonides but does not discuss the influence of Maimonides on the Jews in North Africa and the Middle East.

In fact, Maimonides also had an influence over non-Jews during his time living in Cairo. 

As stated by Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book on the Great Eagle, Maimonides attracted intellectuals from across the Muslim world:


Maimonides's fame also extended to the non-Jewish world. The educated circles in Baghdad esteemed him as one of the most outstanding men of the age. He exerted such an attraction that the young scholar Abdallatif, who lived in Baghdad, decided to visit Egypt in order to meet Maimonides, Having attended lectures by all the great teachers in Baghdad and having studied grammar, theology, jurisprudence, and medicine, he was convinced by 1189 that there was nothing more for him to learn in the city in which he lived. In 1911, he arrived in Cairo, hoping to make the acquaintance of Maimonides and two other scholars.


He sharpens the point as follows:


Ibn Abi Usaiba , the Arabic historian who later functioned as head at the grand hospital of Cairo, recalls in his History of Arabic Physicians that Maimonides (whom he must have known personally) occupied the first place among the physicians of his time both in theoretical and practical medicine.

By failing to reference the Islamic culture of Spain and its connection to the Middle East, Dweck misses a critical link to the Enlightenment process in Europe.

This process has been well documented by the late Professor Maria Menocal in her book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.

Professor Menocal explains the profound influence of Arab education and knowledge on the rest of Europe. She discusses the story of Petrus Alfonsi, a Jewish convert to Christianity who had likely grown up in southern Spain and found himself as probably among the retinue of physicians attending to Henry I, son of William the conqueror.

Petrus was a bit of a celebrity in the Christian places he lived, according to Menocal,  who

...had a level of learning that, customary as it might have been in the Jewish-Muslim circles of educated Andalusians, was astonishing in the far northern climes of Europe in the early years of the twelfth century.

Petrus became a widely read-author on high-tech subjects that were just beginning to be apprehended and covered outside the Arabic-reading world.

Menocal cites other instances of how Islamic Spain influenced the Western world.

Petrus himself "popularized Dialogue in Christian Europe, itself with roots in the traditions of religious Dialogue going back at least as far as Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid."

Menocal is not the only scholar to point out the connection between enlightened education in Europe after the arrival of Islam in Spain.

In her 1988 book Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World, the historian and religious scholar Karen Armstrong mentions the transfer of knowledge from Spain to Christian Europe and its influence on taking Christian countries out of the Dark Ages.

The historic intellectual and cultural advance of Non-European civilizations is

remarked upon by Armstrong as follows: “The Arabs regarded Europe as a poor, savage backwater, that had nothing to offer them.” And in reference to the offer by a Frank to Usama Ibn Mundiqh (1095-1188), a Syrian diplomat, to have his son educated in Europe: A truly cultivated man would never be guilty of such a suggestion.

In his book Sunlight and Shadow:The Jewish Experience of Islam, Lucien Gubbay describes how

as late as 1793 the Emperor of China reacted with incredulity to a proposal from King George III of England to establish diplomatic relations with him on an equal footing. To him, Western Europe was still a barbarian land, beyond the pale of civilised life; and he regarded the King's letter as a gross impertinence.

We might also need to be reminded that one of the world's first universities was established in Fez, Morocco (al-Qarawiyyin, 859 CE), by a lady called Fatima al-Fihri, and the Al-Azhar University was established a century later in Cairo (972 CE).

In the first shiur R. Dweck states (in reference to North African and Middle Eastern Jews) that

they continued and carried on with their investment in Torah thought. That meant they could sit and study Torah alone. Their innovations in Torah continued contained entirely within their Torah texts without having to really worry about what was going on in secular society. It was all self-contained.

In their book The Sephardim, Rabbi Dweck's predecessor Rabbi Abraham Levy and Gubbay state the following:

... the traditional Sephardi attitudes of accommodation and tolerance may have something to offer modern Jewish society, deeply polarised towards its extreme. They point out that the terms 'Orthodox' and 'Reform' are both Ashkenazi concepts- as indeed was reform in response to the European Enlightenment, and the vigorous reaction against it.

They continue:

In their better periods, Sephardim managed to achieve a rare synthesis between their own intense religious consciousness and the world around them. They led well-balanced lives, both as devout Jews and as members of society at large. This was demonstrated by the breadth of their learning and accomplishment- not only in Judaism but also in the full range of secular activity. Sephardi interpretation of Jewish law was marked by an openness and tolerance which resulted from many generations of living at ease with their neighbours.

In the Sephardi world we find many examples of a varied curriculum in Jewish institutions.

Historian Mark Mazower describes the intellectual culture in the Ottoman Empire in

his book Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950.

In the book he explains how many rabbis in Salonica were scientists and how the Jewish students would learn subjects such as science and Arab Humanism alongside religion.


Equipped with the wide-ranging interests of the Spanish rabbinate, exploiting the familiarity with the holy sources that their availability in translation offered, these scholars simultaneously kept in touch with the latest intellectual fashions in western Europe and pursued extensive programmes of study that took them far beyond the confines of scriptural commentary. They applied Aristotle and Aquinas to the tasks of Talmudic exegesis, engaged with Latin literature, Italian humanism and Arab science, and were not surprisingly intensely proud of the range of their expertise.

He humorously notes that the Jewish ladies had a taste for the aesthetic and dressed so extravagantly that the rabbis had to ask them to tone it down. He also describes an encounter between the Jews of Salonica and the Jews from Livorno in Italy. The Salonicans were taken aback by the high-class Western dress of the Livornese.

Although on a surface level, things such as language, culture, and clothes were different from that of Europe, the various groups of Sephardim were all acculturated to aspects of the local culture they lived within without compromising on their own Jewish observance.  This is one of the main differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim which Dweck does not mention when asked. This sharing of culture is known in Spanish as "La Convivencia" (a sort of co-existence, mingling).

This difference in relation to non-Jews and secular culture is well-documented in the book The Sephardic Jews of Bordeaux: Assimilation and Emancipation in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France by Frances Malino.


In regards to legal emancipation she writes:


The Sephardic Jews had not abandoned their corporate status, but their silence on this issue was useful. When the time came they quickly dissolved the nation and professed surprise and indignation that the Ashkenazic Jews still wished to live apart. In fact, for a long time the leaders of the Northeast were willing to sacrifice their enjoyment of active citizenry for a retention of autonomy. 


Last, the Nation established a Talmud Torah (an elementary Jewish school maintained primarily for the poor), although its continuous existence is questionable.  ...the Sephardim stressed decorum, orderliness, and tranquility; prohibited use of the rod, which they viewed as retarding the educational process; and most significantly introduced French and arithmetic into the revised curriculum of March 20, 1774.

The Sephardic Jews in her research are described as already teaching non-Jewish subjects to their children and integrating into French society, whereas the Ashkenazim lived separately and maintained their own dress and customs which cut them off from the outside world. This caused issues when the Jews in France were seeking emancipation and the Sephardim for a long time received privileges and rights as a specific group of Portuguese Jews, instead of having a united front with their Ashkenazi co-religionists.

In Dweck’s shiurim, the scholarship and history on Sephardi Judaism is largely overlooked in favour of numerous stereotypes which have been very popular in Ashkenazi racist discourse.

He describes the Torah of his late grandfather-in-law, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef in this manner.

Quoting Rabbi Simcha Wasserman he refers to Yosef's Torah as not having been

"sharpened by the knife of Haskalah."  

He also mentions how Sephardim moving to Israel in the early days of the state felt inferior to the Ashkenazim and adopted the dress, speech, and learning methods of their European counterparts.

But he does mention that there was prejudice towards the Sephardim and attributes this to the opinion that they had not gone through the Enlightenment, repeatedly omitting that they already had access to a wider arena of knowledge for centuries, including philosophical thought, dialogue, and later, Western thought.

He does not correct this misleading and incorrect view of Sephardi arrivals in Israel, instead saying:

They had no clue about any of the sophistry, the sophistication of thought of the nuanced nature at how it was these things needed to be addressed.

Rabbi Dweck doesn't consider that the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's Torah, which focuses on the minute details of Jewish law, is more reflective of the Ashkenazi-dominated world in which Yosef lived from the age of 4, than that of his native Iraq or the wider Sephardi world.

Former Israeli underground Zionist agent, turned Mizrahi activist, Naeim Giladi, explained in an interview with Harold Channer the connection between the Middle Eastern Jews and the Sephardim in the West, elucidating how in the Babylonian academies subjects such as astronomy were studied alongside Judaism and that this multi-subject learning environment was also common in places such as Spain:


They built, like today, like the colleges, at that time they call it Yeshiva. But it is not a Yeshiva like today. Today it's just religious, but at that time no. Many sciences, astrology, accounting, many many things. And medicine. There were three colleges like that. One Sura, one Pumbedita and one Nehardea. 

Giladi describes the Middle Eastern Jewish learning centres historically as "not like the yeshivas of today", referencing today's culture of young religious Jews only studying religious Jewish texts at the exclusion of everything else.

How is it that this Babylonian tradition got lost and the Torah of Ovadia Yosef and the institutions he established in Israel came to lack a wide range of knowledge and learning?

In Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's native Iraq the Jewish community was represented at all different levels of society.  They had access to a wide range of scientific education and cultural symbiosis. They had access to Western culture, products, and learning and very often lived with non-Jews who shared linguistic and cultural characteristics in a similar manner to the Jews of Spain.

Many Jews in Iraq and Egypt were left wing activists in the early 20th century, were polyglot, and read both Eastern and Western literature and religious thought.

A cursory glance at the Wikipedia entry on Iraqi Jews reveals that many Iraqi Jews

held positions of high office in their native country, something that they were unable to duplicate in Israel, where they were viewed as being inferior.


A tome of intellectual output from the Jews of this region called Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought: Writings on Identity, Politics, and Culture 1893-1958, edited by Moshe Behar and Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, contains 33 essays from a selection of 19 Middle Eastern Jewish intellectuals.

The broad range of subjects include Islam, Zionism, Communism, British Colonialism, Feminism, Multiculturalism, Ashkenazi racism, Arabic language education in Israel, and much more. Most of the writers who appear in the volume have been almost completely overlooked by the Jewish education system.

The history of Middle Eastern Jews is poorly understood or unknown to most Jewish students today.

Rabbi Dweck honestly admits in his shiur that his own education was at the hands of mostly Ashkenazi teachers at Hebrew Academy in Los Angeles and Yeshiva University, before studying under the tutelage of Ovadia Yosef. It would seem that much of this Sephardi past was not taught in these institutions.

Rabbi Dweck makes a critical and true assessment on the poor ability of Sephardim to maintain and build new institutions of learning of their own. That does not mean however that Ashkenazim working in Sephardi institutions have no obligation to learn and teach outside of their own Jewish culture.

Sephardim should also be free from the type of harassment witnessed in response to the recent statement released by a group of Sephardi Rabbis in Jerusalem permitting the use of Zoom for seders during the Pesah holiday. This ruling relied on an older ruling by Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel which permits the use of electricity on Yom Tob. 



How can Sephardi institutions be established in this type of threatening environment?

And why did Rabbi Dweck and his contemporaries remain silent on this very public affair in which signatories to the ruling were harassed?

Rabbi Dweck makes two interesting statements regarding Sephardim and education, that are likely the result of contemporary and not historical trends.

He says that Haredim were learning nothing but Torah and "that's all that the

Sephardim were doing as well," and Sephardim "never really had an opportunity, really, to study, you know, secular learning, not that they would want to".

The study of science and philosophy by Sephardim in a religious environment in Jerusalem was covered recently by Rabbi Yonatan Halevy in his shiur Exploring Jewish Giants: Rabbi Shemtob Gaguine in which Halevy discusses the historic Doresh Zion Yesiba of Jerusalem:


Halevy states the Yesiba, founded in 1866, had a curriculum that taught "Judaic as well as secular studies that includes math and languages."

The aversion to secular studies was largely an Ashkenazi tradition.  Until this day, Post-Enlightenment, there is a large section of the Ashkenazi world who, in monastic fashion, shun outside culture and education and who also shun friends and family who wish to leave their communities or be members of other groups. Many schools in Israel do not teach science today, including numerous non-Haredi religious schools.

Dweck ponders on the Sephardim arriving in Israel:

Even when they come into Eretz Israel and the founders of the state are Ashkenazi Jews, what happens to the Sephardim that don't know from the things that they know.

He states that Ashkenazi rabbis and their works were affected by the Enlightenment; but Haredim studied nothing but Torah, creating a disorientated picture of what the Sephardim were facing in Israel.

Rabbi Dweck's misguided statements and beliefs about Arab Jews were typical of the beliefs of Ashkenazim in Israel at the time and this caused untold suffering for Sephardi immigrants.

Professor Ella Shohat describes in her 1988 essay Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims how racism worked in Israel, how it kept non-white Jews inferior and how this still affects Sephardim today.

The Egyptian Jewish intellectual Jacqueline Kahanoff describes in one essay, how Sephardim in Israel were often refused services in stores and were treated so badly that they often lost their temper and resorted to shouting. 

Stories of the poor treatment of Sephardi Jews arriving in Israel abound, including of the Al-Kuwaiti brothers, popular and respected musicians in Iraq and Kuwait, arriving in Israel in their best suits, only to be covered in disinfectant.

Exclusion from certain jobs and neighbourhoods was not uncommon for Sephardim and the racism reached a climax with the theft of Yemenite babies:


R. Dweck tells us about Sephardim arriving in Israel and, unfortunately, he says that "the Sephardim didn't feel they measured up and to a certain degree they didn't", with no mention of the discriminatory policies that caused many Sephardim to lose their culture, confidence, and sense of pride.

Dweck also states:

Sephardim that moved to the United States did not look at higher education as paramount. They didn't even understand it.

And that Sephardim had "no knowledge of how to live in the West," even though there are numerous examples which undermine this point, as presented in my essay.

Kahanoff herself left Egypt to live in Paris and New York before settling in Israel.

Much earlier, Indian-Iraqi Jewish intellectual, Flora Sassoon (1859-1936), multilingual and an expert in Judaism, left India for England where she was noted for her hosting in high society. She was also permitted to read from the Torah when she was visiting Baghdad for three months.

Nissim Rejwan, a noted historian of Iraqi Jews and Middle Eastern politics, taught himself English and French whilst working at a foreign language bookshop in Baghdad and wrote and published his books in English. Arab Jews had both religious and secular education, both Western and Eastern culture.

Dweck further backs up his statement by mentioning the disinterest in secular education in his own Syrian community in New York saying:

Once a person finished basic education they went into business. The boy's went into business and the girls got married until at least 10 years ago.

He goes on to say:

... there were certain families that encouraged their children into higher education," but "it was definitely frowned upon and looked on as a waste of time."

Has this attitude to education anything to do with not experiencing the Enlightenment or to do with a change of leadership in the New York Syrian community that brought educational standards in line with that of the strictly Orthodox Ashkenazim?

Rabbi Dweck neglects to mention that in many parts of the world, including Europe, completing a basic education and being literate, was a luxury for many centuries. Such education necessitated having a family that owned a business, with international contacts and who spoke numerous languages, putting them in a very privileged position, sometimes even into high society.

Indeed, how many people in England went into University in 1970, and how many go today? 

Rabbi Dweck is not the first member of the New York Syrian community to present

that community's history as being like the Ashkenazi Haredi communities of say, Lakewood or Gateshead.

The book Aleppo: City of Scholars by Rabbi David Sutton does something similar, which caused Professor Zvi Zohar to write a 27 page rebuttal of the book presented in the Sephardic Heritage Update newsletter:



Rabbi Dweck has recently been involved in founding a Sephardi learning group called 'Habura' in which students learn about Sephardic Rabbis and their halacha, seemingly without the historical background to Sephardi Judaism which I have presented here.

Ironically, Professor Zvi Zohar has become an advisor to this group! 

Zohar’s presentation to Habura on Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel (1880-1953) and his Jewish Humanism and openness to the general studies greatly contradicts R. Dweck’s statements regarding Sephardim and education:


Zohar also gave the group a presentation about Rabbi Israel Moses Hazzan (1808-1862) and his openness to wider learning in an Arabic context:


How R. Dweck came to the conclusion that Sephardim “never had an opportunity, really, to study, you know secular education, not that they would want to”, is possibly explained by the learning environment of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef which seems to have been against the historic trend for Sephardim and closer to the Jewish environment of Ponovich than Baghdad or Salonica. 

The situation for Sephardim in Israel and their assimilation into the thinking and learning methods of the Ashkenazim have been the subject of many studies in the social sciences.

An article written in 2013 by Israeli journalist and political activist Uri Avnery cites a number of issues related to Ovadia Yosef’s time as the Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel and the creation of his political party SHAS:


A point which stands out in Avnery’s article called “Ovadia’s Choice” is the nature of the religious institutions run under SHAS:

In them nothing is taught but holy texts, rather like Muslim madrassas. Their graduates are unfit to join the labor force. Of course they do not serve in the army.

I’m reminded of an encounter of my own at a Tel Aviv beach frequented by Israel’s religious. I was approached by two young Sephardi men dressed in the style of clothing typical of religious Jews from Eastern Europe, who ridiculed army service.

A middle-aged Yemenite resident of Beit Shemesh once remarked to me that Maimonides was Haredi, with his books being the evidence! He remarked that Maimonides only learned general studies and worked because he had no other choice, despite the fact that Maimonides was deeply critical of individuals earning money from Torah. In fact, a close friend of mine whose family hails from Libya told me how shocked his father’s family had been to discover Jews making a living from Torah in Israel.  

Anti-Sephardi racism and its effect on Jewish education is barely touched upon and in Habura's recently published newsletter.



Rabbi Dweck tells us that understanding how Sephardi Judaism came to be lost is "beyond the scope" of that group. The crucial differences between Sephardim and Ashkenazim are not mentioned, or are not understood. The historic differences of Jews living under Islam and those living under Christianity are not mentioned, nor is the reaction to discrimination from non-Jews and how this affected the different communities’ response to the outside world. No sources are shared for the rabbi's opinions and only in the second shiur does he produce a volume of halacha from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The three hours provided to Rabbi Dweck to speak were more than enough to break down some of the generalizations and to provide a richer background to Sephardi Judaism and its literary and cultural heritage, which he sadly did not do.


Yoel Pimentel is a Librarian from London with experience of working in local government, research and as a former project supervisor for the School of Oriental and African Studies, London (SOAS). A graduate of Aberystwyth University, Wales, Yoel currently lives in Israel where he has worked for library software company Ex Libris and as an employment trainer. He is currently involved in long distance swimming and is a keen book collector. 


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