Tradition in the New World: Rethinking Sabato Morais
Maimonides and Sephardic Religious Humanism
The Sephardic tradition of research and science hinges in great measure on the following seminal passage in Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed:
It was not the object of the Prophets and our Sages in these utterances to close the gate of investigation entirely, and to prevent the mind from comprehending what is within its reach, as is imagined by simple and idle people, whom it suits better to put forth their ignorance and incapacity as wisdom and perfection, and to regard the distinction and wisdom of others as irreligion and imperfection, thus taking darkness for light and light for darkness. The whole object of the Prophets and the Sages was to declare that a limit is set to human reason where it must halt. (1:32)
Studying the sacred words of the great master of Cordoba we learn the most basic and elementary definition that set the parameters human investigation; the articulation of a foundational Religious Humanism that would provide human beings with a sensible way of balancing tradition with the needs of the moment.
Maimonidean allegory presented the Bible as a paradigmatic construct that leads the religious scholar to investigate further and to listen to the words of truth from whence they come. Wisdom in the Maimonidean epistemological system can come from anywhere and must be judged on the basis of what we know from the Prophets as well as from our own human investigations.
When looking at the second point Maimonides makes in his text, we see that he does not permit secular universal humanism to have the final say. Indeed, there are limits to our rational mind and the purpose of the Prophets and Sages was to set those limitations.
Jews and Conversos Usher in the Modern Era
With this Maimonidean paradigm in place, we see the rich and complex epistemological tradition that was available to Jews who saw in these principles a newfound ability to participate in a universal civilization. And this universal civilization increasingly came into play as the conditions for Jews in Christian Spain began to deteriorate. Iberian Jews were forced to convert to Christianity; after many years of interethnic coexistence and religious pluralism, the Spanish Catholics turned violent and obscurantist and attempted to turn back the many centuries of science and cultural progress, known in Spanish as convivencia, that had been made in Muslim Andalusia.
These converted Jews had a profound yet somewhat odd impact on the future of Iberian Christianity and its impact on the ushering in of what we know as the Renaissance. Many of the conversos maintained a crypto-Judaism that allowed them to transform their overt practice of Catholicism into a special and secretive form of Jewish-Christian practice. The conversos were able to combine a syncretistic faith that was anchored in their innate humanism.
As Jose Faur in his study In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity points out:
In this connection, it is important to draw attention to the fact that a large number of the most distinguished humanists in Spain were conversos. Moreover, many of the great religious humanists were of Jewish background, such as Juan de Lucena (born ca. 1430, died after 1500) (who, in addition to being the first printer of Hebrew books in Spain, was the Spanish envoy to the Pope), Juan Luis Vives (1491-1540), Juan de Valdes (died 1541?), Melchior Cano (1509-1560), Fray Luis de Leon (1527-1591), Sebastian Fox Morcilli (ca. 1526-1559), and probably Benito Arias Montano (1527-1598). The urgency of reviewing the values and institutions of Christian Spain became more evident with the first massacre of conversos perpetrated by the old Christians in Toledo, in 1449.
The values they represented were in turn transmitted in Europe by figures such as Erasmus and Montaigne (whose conversa grandmother was herself burned at the stake in Spain) and laid the ground for the Renaissance and the Reformation, the two harbingers of our modern civilization.
In the history of Jewish culture, these humanistic values were perpetuated by former conversos and the descendents of conversos in some new contexts. According to the scholar David Ruderman in his classic work Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe, one of the central places where this Sephardic Jewish Humanism was developed was the University of Padua, a place that was home to many Jewish doctors and intellectuals:
From the perspective Jewish cultural history, Padua’s medical facility was thus more than a center for training Jewish physicians. It was also a major vehicle for the diffusion of secular culture, especially scientific culture, within the pre-emancipatory Jewish communities of Europe. It provided one of the richest opportunities for Jews to familiarize themselves with the best of European civilization, an encounter that was unavailable to the overwhelming majority of their coreligionists. Ultimately, so formative an experience was bound to have a profound effect on the cultural priorities, values, and even self-image of such Jews.
We see that figures such as Isaac Lampronti and David Nieto, two great Jewish Humanists of the Enlightenment, were able through the agency of the Padua nexus to re-claim and re-establish the ancient birthright that was first generated by Maimonides.
Giambattista Vico and the “New Science”
It was during the 17th century that an important book was published which would have a major impact on the future of Religious Humanism – though that impact was in fact quite belated as the book did not become an immediate best-seller in its own time and its author died in relative obscurity.
The book was the Scienza Nuova written by a humble professor of Rhetoric in Naples named Giambattista Vico.
There is no way to approach the subject of Religious Humanism in the modern period without touching on the work of Vico; a brilliantly innovative scholar whose ideas have been influential to modern thinkers as diverse as Marx, Freud and Durkheim. According to Jose Faur, whose article “Vico, Religious Humanism and the Sephardic Tradition” was the first attempt by a contemporary scholar to link Vico to Judaism, we see the importance of Vico for the Jewish intellectual:
To the Jew in particular Vico offered the intellectual tools to vindicate his own spiritual values and institutions and not to surrender to the dictates of rational secularism… As mentioned, Vico understands man in terms of history. But history is not merely a compilation of data. It is the perception of a specific set of values and conventions of a group or a society at a definite time, the awareness of categories of feeling and thoughts, what questions they asked, what they demanded of themselves, and what they expected of themselves. Vico conceives of poetry, myth, and religion as stages in the historical development of man.
As we see in a paradigmatic moment in Vico’s New Science:
The nature of human institutions presupposes a conceptual language which is common to all nations. This language uniformly grasps the substance of all the elements of human society, but expresses them differently according to their different aspects. We witness the truth of this in proverbs, which are maxims of a popular wisdom. For their meanings, while substantially the same, are expressed under as many different aspects as there are ancient and modern nations. (161)
This notion is strikingly echoed in a passage from Moses Angel, the headmaster of the Jews’ Free School in London, in his classic book The Law of Sinai and its Appointed Times (1858) with Vichian overtones:
Then, charity, which in the doctrine of abstract faith, means love for universal mankind, shall cease to be what concrete religion made it, love only for self and self’s imitators. Then, man shall acknowledge that true God-worship consists not in observance of any particular customs, but in the humble, zealous cultivation of those qualities by which the Eternal has made himself known to the world. The members of one creed shall not arrogate to themselves peculiar morality and peculiar salvation, denying both to the members of other creeds; but they shall learn that morality and salvation are the cause and effect of all earnest endeavors to rise to the knowledge of revelation. Men shall cease to attempt the substitution of one set of forms for another set of forms; they shall satisfy themselves with being honest and dignified exponents of their own mode of belief, and shall not seek to coerce what heaven has left unfettered – the rights of conscience. They shall strive to remove all obstacles to the spread of God-worship, by showing how superior the happiness, the intellectuality, the virtue of its professors; but they shall stop there, not even for the sake of securing their object preferring their own faith for that of another.
One can quite clearly see from these passages why Vico’s ideas would be attractive to Jewish thinkers who were, in the Maimonidean spirit, trying to balance their religious traditions with the imperatives of science and modern epistemologies which appeared to challenge those hallowed traditions.
Livornese Italian-Jewish Connections: Elijah Benamozegh and Sabato Morais
Two Livornese rabbis shared a common ground in the thinking of both Maimonides and Vico. Judaism was an a priori given, yet both Benamozegh as well as Morais felt the need to rationally account for the common elements in a pluralist world that have been in dynamic development making a universal civilization so necessary from a humanistic point of view.
In the writings of Vico both Benamozegh and Morais found a source that would permit them to reassert the legacy of Maimonides in a modern context.
According to Kiron:
Morais clearly shared with Vico and Benamozegh a religious belief in the common origin of all humanity created in the image of God. He applied this moral code universally to all people – what Benamozegh elsewhere systematically and explicitly formulated in terms of the Seven Laws of Noah. Moreover, Morais not only defended the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic tradition from their critics; he also aligned himself with the well-known views of yet another leading figure of the Italian Enlightenment, and an opponent of the death penalty, [Cesare Bonesana, Marchesa di] Beccaria in his 1764 work entitled Dei delitti e delle pene [On Crimes and Punishments].
In the lucid and prescient words of Benamozegh in his Israel and Humanity:
Men everywhere, impelled as much by ignorance as by pride, have attempted to trace their ancestry all the way back to our primal parents, while denying other peoples this same distinction of origin. If generous, they may permit these less favored groups to be mentioned in an appendix to their own history, where they themselves appear as the principal race of men. The foreigner or barbarian is thus presented as an inferior being whose nature remains coarse and whose development is incomplete. In refusing him the honor of common origin, we justify fighting with him, despoiling him, even killing him, as soon as our interest requires it.
One should not minimize the import of such a passage in the writing of this great Jewish master. The hard won victories of Maimonides and Vico should never be taken for granted; the sensitive and perspicacious idea that Benamozegh here articulates is that all human beings are equal and share a common goal: the restoration of God’s purpose in creating us; the very sense that men must build the world and care for the world that they have been given by God.
Written out of History?
It therefore comes as something of an unhappy surprise that the prescient modernity of figures such as Elijah Benamozegh and Sabato Morais has been written out of the record of Jewish history.
Why is it that these two men are completely unknown to modern Jews and Gentiles?
While the issue of Benamozegh has been rectified to a minor extent with the publication of his Israel and Humanity in both Hebrew and English – and we now have an Internet website dedicated to his work that was born out of a major conference dedicated to his work held in Italy under the direction of Alessandro Guetta – the issue of Morais is as yet unresolved, though this too – as we will see – is in the process of being corrected.
Resurrecting Sabato Morais
Over the past decade, the scholar Arthur Kiron has been organizing the unpublished writings of Sabato Morais as Curator of the Judaica collections at the University of Pennsylvania library and has written many articles on Morais and his historic significance for the study of American Jewry.
Upon discovering his work, I was startled to find that the classical legacy of Sephardic Humanism was indeed transferred to these American shores even as the historical memory of Morais has been also erased from the record by scholars who have redrawn the map of American Jewish history.
Sabato Morais was born, as we have said, in Livorno, Italy where he was taught by the Hakham Abraham Barukh Piperno.
As Kiron puts it in his magnificent Doctoral Dissertation Golden Ages, Promised Lands:
One of the well-known familiarities about Italian Jews, and specifically the Jews of Livorno, was their open embrace of the ideas of enlightenment, emancipation and later the Risorgimento, the liberal movement for a united Italy. In this respect, the Morais family was not atypical. (p. 32)
This sense of liberal fervor was part and parcel of a traditionalism that went back to the Jewish experiences in Spain, from the time of Maimonides to the transformative age of the conversos:
Among this Sephardic population, the memory of the experience of marranism did not disappear. It persisted and distinguished its descendants who remembered with pride and awe how their forbears endured countless indignities, torture and even martyrdom to preserve and purify their faith. As for Jews elsewhere, but most personally for the Livornese descendants of marranos, the Inquisition became the very symbol of medieval darkness; Jewish enlightenment and emancipation signified the subversion of tyranny and the overturning of ignorance, prejudice and religious intolerance precisely for the purpose of being able to observe Judaism publicly. The Morais family of Livorno never lost sight of the personal, genealogical aspect of their heritage, how their marrano ancestors were denied the opportunity to live openly as Jews and how they suffered for their faith. Enlightenment and liberty primarily meant religious liberty to a figure like Morais, an emancipation from the threat the Inquisition symbolized to the practice of Judaism not emancipation from a superstitious priest craft that enslaved the mind. (p. 37)
Morais inherited the ideology of Maimonides filtered through the political changes of the reconquista that forced Spanish Jews to understand that there was a larger context of human liberty beyond the mere expression of parochial Jewish values; such was the ideology that laid the groundwork for the Renaissance.
Morais’ Humanism and His European Contemporaries
Kiron perceptively identifies the elements that distinguish Morais’ humanism from his European contemporaries:
His outlook, its historical specificity and distinctiveness, must therefore be distinguished from nineteenth century German-Jewish enlightenment-influenced currents such as the neo-orthodoxy associated with Samson Raphael Hirsch, of Frankfurt, to whom Morais has sometimes been compared. In his Biblical commentaries, for example, Hirsch promoted allegorical and symbolical interpretations of the Bible and Jewish festivals, and in his other writings minimized the national aspect of Jewish religious existence. Hirsch’s notion of derekh eretz, moreover, posing a coexisting duality between non-Jewish culture and traditional Jewish observance also can be distinguished from the integrative model of what Morais later called “enlightened orthodoxy” or “historical Judaism.” (pp. 40-41)
We thus see the manifold links that tie Morais back into the classical Sephardic tradition and to Maimonidean humanism; a humanism that had been rejected and then buried by the school of Nahmanides and his successors.
For Maimonides as for Morais there could not be, as there was for Hirsch and his neo-Orthodox school, a separation between Torah Judaism and general civilization (hence the need for a “union” such as the one posited by Hirsch as Torah ‘im derekh eres). And by restoring this medieval humanist tradition to its rightful place in European Jewish culture, Morais put himself in a perfect position to lead Jewry on the other side of the Atlantic; a place where the ideals of freedom and liberty were taking shape in the wake of American independence from England in 1776.
The history of American Jewry thus truly begins with the Sephardim and with Morais as a brilliant exemplar of the Sephardic tradition.
Morais and “Atlantic” Judaism: The Background
Sabato Morais, born in Livorno in 1823, left his native city in order to take a job in the Sephardic community of London that had been led, as we have said earlier, into the Modern Age by the great Hakham David Nieto (1654-1728), the author of a Spanish work on Jewish theology called De La Divina Providencia and a spirited defense of rabbinic Judaism in the style of Judah Halevi called Matteh Dan, also known as Ha-Kuzari ha-Sheni. Both of these works, naturally, were written with both the conversos as well as the Christian intelligentsia in mind. Nieto was probably the only Jew of his time to engage the scientific work of Isaac Newton – the same Newton who himself was schooled in the Hebrew language at Cambridge University by the Sephardic Rabbi Isaac Abendana – and opened the Jewish community in England to the influences of modern ideas less than a century after the readmission of Jews into England.
The match of London and Morais was quite a success:
In short, Morais, like those among whom he lived and worked, participated and in many respects pioneered Jewish embourgeoisement in an Atlantic Victorian milieu. The emergence of Jewish middle classes in Victorian settings was a new experience cast in the language of providential progress and religious enlightenment. During the nineteenth century when English imperialism was on the ascent, and Jewish immigrants continued to arrive on the Atlantic coasts in search of work, greater freedom and a better life, Victorianism acted as a hegemonic cultural force which set the tone for Jews in English-speaking lands undergoing acculturation and refinement to the dominant middle and upper class cultural patterns. (pp. 94-95)
This context is what Kiron has already called “Atlantic” Judaism as opposed to American or European Judaism:
With few exceptions, modern Jewish historiography has overlooked the existence of a trans-Atlantic Victorian Jewish historical experience. Typically, nineteenth century Jewish history in England and North America is imagined in the one-directional terms of waves of migration from the “Old World” of Central and Eastern Europe to Great Britain and the “New World.” The idea of an “Atlantic” Jewish experience, a straightforward concept in studies of early modern colonial Jewish life, is neglected during the nineteenth century or reduced to an exclusively Sephardic or “English” Jewish phenomenon too small in numbers and influence to require the need for further analysis. (p. 88)
After his short stay in London, Morais was encouraged by a congregant of Sha’ar ha-Shamayim to interview for the job of rabbi at the Spanish and Portuguese congregation in Philadelphia called Mikveh Israel. At first Morais demurred, but eventually decided to take the chance and travel to the “New World.”
“Enlightening” Orthodoxy: Morais Comes to Philadelphia
In 1851, Morais replaced the venerable Isaac Leeser as the rabbi of Mikveh Israel, a Sephardic congregation that continues to exist until this very day.
In his first Shabbat sermon at the synagogue, Morais articulated what would become his standard themes, themes that resonated among the many thousands of American Jews, Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike, who would count themselves as the great man’s followers:
True worship resides in the heart, and truly it is by purifying our hearts that we best worship God; still the ordinances which we are enjoined to perform aim but at this object: to sanctify our immortal soul, to make it worthy of its sublime origin… We must also be on our guard lest the essential should become secondary; we must take heed not to confound true devotion with false piety. The former is simple, modest, it does not strive to attract the attention of men, but like the devoted Hannah, it speaks with the heart, the lips move and the voice is scarcely audible. The latter is clamorous, affected, full of ostentation. (p. 127)
In characteristically self-effacing language, Morais drew upon the image of the “simple, modest” Biblical Hannah [1 Samuel 1:13] to convey his conception of true religious piety and duty. True worship, Morais explained, resembles the act of a humble yet devout woman, barren of child but not of faith, who personally addresses God, not through public ostentation, but almost imperceptibly through whispered prayer. This theme of unostentatious worship Morais never abandoned. (pp. 127-128)
Morais exemplified in his demeanor and his scholarship the values of thrift, humility, devotion, justice, integrity and many other ethical concepts – particularly what Morais called in his native Italian abnegazione, the sense of self-sacrifice that we all recall from our grandparents, an innate and intense part of the Levantine heritage. All these traits Morais inherited from his Sephardi forbears.
Around him Reform Judaism sought to gut the entire ritual framework of Judaism aiming to abandon the actual praxis of the traditional Jewish rituals while trying to maintain their core meaning. On the other hand, a fundamentalist Orthodoxy, exemplified in the pronouncements of the Hatam Sofer responded in reactionary terms to any sign of innovation.
Morais was violently agitated against the new reforms as well as the retreat into obscurantism.
As Kiron states it in his article “Varieties of Haskalah”:
In a polemical exchange in the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch in January of 1859, Morais responded to various Reformers’ attempts to eliminate or allegorize Jewish ritual observances. In the course of his argument, Morais elaborated on his understanding of mitsvot as an instrument of Jewish national survival for which Jews throughout their history had been willing to suffer martyrdom. In support of his view he cited rabbinic sources, such as Pirke Avot, and Sephardic philosophers such as Judah Halevi and David Nieto. “The supreme object of [the Jewish people’s] existence,” he explained, is the “glory of God.” What was ultimately at stake, Morais argued, was God’s reputation on earth: “Let all thy actions aim at the sanctification of the Deity.” The phrase “sanctification of the Deity,” of course, is a figure of speech that in Hebrew also refers to the ultimate worship of God through martyrdom (kiddush ha-shem). Morais, in fact, explicitly connected the two ideas, by recalling how Jewish “religious observances have preserved our nationality, what the Maccabees gallantly staked their lives for, and what our progenitors have ever fulfilled despite the bloody mandates of an Antiochus and the boiling cauldron of the Spanish Inquisition.”
We should not mistake Morais for a reformer. He was careful, as was Benamozegh, to maintain that Judaism was an ethno-cultural particularism with a set of ritual precepts, misvot, which had to be performed in accordance with the traditions of the Talmud. It is for this reason that Kiron consistently uses the term “Enlightened Orthodoxy” to describe the Morais weltanschauung.
As for the emergence of a rigid Jewish Orthodoxy we must also be aware that Morais was too much of a humanist to truly be considered “Orthodox,” and yet he was too conservative in a fundamental sense to really be a “Reform” Jew in the mold of an Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the home of Reform Judaism in America.
There is very little ambiguity about Morais’ actual beliefs and feelings in the matter when we read the following sermon:
In ascending this pulpit, I had indulged in an allusive [sic!] hope… This day, said I sanguinely to myself they who have been faithless to Judaism will bethink themselves and be restored to righteousness… Confident of encompassing so sublime an end, I then descanted upon the glorious principles enunciated by the religion in which you were born. To run into a blaze the reviving zeal that I imagined to have stirred in your breasts, I cursorily delineated the transcendent beauties of Judaism; the humanizing influence it has exercised; its final triumph over all the impediments that have obstructed its universal propagation. Yearning after your return to the Rock of Jacob, I endeavored by simple illustrations to imbue your hearts with an ardent wish to discharge your religious duties, to fulfill them as an honorable and delightful task. But alas! My hearers! I was lured by chimera for I feel at this very moment, I feel with unutterable grief, that scarcely shall the joyful sound of psalmody have died away from this edifice when many among you will almost forget its existence. I shall seek you here on the Sabbath proclaimed at Sinai, but you will be rushing headlong into the path of perdition. (p. 162)
Morais, by following the traditions that he learned growing up in Italy, traditions that brought him from Moses (the Prophet) to Moses (Maimonides), could not say anything but what he actually said. He continued to exhort his congregants to take on the yoke of the Halakhah, a matter that he saw in purely literal and not allegorical terms. One could not according to Morais be a Jew simply by meditating upon symbols and allegories.
Looking back to his youth in Italy, Morais did not separate his “Jewish” values from his own Italian patriotism. In fact, Morais had imbibed a great respect for the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini; a man who Morais gave his own passport to when he was exiled to England by the Italian authorities. The legacy of Mazzini continued to influence Morais in his American sojourn:
In sum, Morais not only embraced Mazzini as a kindred spirit of enlightened religious republicanism; in memorializing him, Morais rhetorically re-cast him in Jewish terms – though “not even a Jew” – as a patriot who “bore the highest type of a Hebrew, the deepest impress of a Rabbi, Aye: A Melchizedek was he, ministering at the altar of the Most High God”; “He labored for all mankind, in whom he recognized brethren, members of a vast family, created to attest the glory of the One Universal Father.” To Morais, Mazzini was more than a revolutionary. He eulogized his fellow patriot as a martyred priest. (pp. 200-201)
Morais was deeply involved in exhorting American Jewry to make common cause with their adopted land. He saw the United States as part of the larger framework of Jewish continuity enabling Jews to sincerely express their ancestral faith in a liberated and truly free context. To this end, and keeping in mind his visceral opposition to the Reform Jews, Morais rejected the new innovation of political Zionism that had been promoted in Eastern European circles as a form of secular messianism completely dissociated from the modern approach to Judaism that he espoused:
Morais objected to political Zionism not only on religious grounds, however, but for practical and political reasons as well. “Surely it does not require the sagacity of a Bismark,” Morais explained, to want to prevent such an entity from coming into existence. First of all, Morais thought the idea of a Jewish political restoration as unrealistic and “utopian.” Secondly, he feared that even if such an undertaking were to succeed, the creation of a Jewish state would threaten the progress being made by Jews in the diaspora integrating into liberal states, and would spark accusations of dual loyalties and anti-Jewish reactions of hatred and fear… Most important, however, was his belief that the desire for land could never supplant the universalist message and religious mission for which Jews throughout the ages had been willing to die: “It is indeed in such an issue that the hopes, cherished during ages of suffering meekly borned for a grand ideal, will find their realization? The very thought is an offense to the memory of the immortal seers in their illumined vision Israel stood purified seven-fold as the embodiment of a humanizing belief as the acknowledged educator of mankind… Not the mere possession of a patch of ground guaranteed by protocols is the aspiration of pious hearts among the remnant of the tribes… [Efforts to create a state] would prove worse than a chimera. It would be an absolute evil… (p. 239)
There was a firm consistency in his philosophy that placed universal Mankind at the very epicenter of Morais’ belief in the Divine plan for creation. While Morais continued to see the Jewish martyrdom of the Maccabees and the Spanish Jews as central to his understanding of Jewish history and the need for vigilance and perspicacity, he never lost faith in the ideal of universal civilization, as was also the case with Benamozegh.
What Morais understood even more clearly than Benamozegh was the need to lay out concrete and practical steps to pragmatically establish his program of Religious Humanism. In his life Moraiscreated and participated in many scores of organizations and institutions to achieve his ideal goals within a practical context, all of which are painstakingly listed at the end of Golden Ages. Reading the list is a fascinating way to really get a sense of who Morais was and what he stood for as a multi-faceted human being.
Morais was a founding member of the American Jewish Historical Society, a vice-president of the local chapter of the AIU, a supporter of the SPCA and the Indian Rights Association, the president of the YMHA, participated as a Freemason and in many other projects to help American Jews and Americans in general. He did this not merely to preserve the Jewish heritage, which he identified as Sephardic Humanism, but to work as a community activist and leader and be of practical use to his fellow citizens; to serve humanity with grace and honor.
Adab Manners: Morais’ Levantine Humanism
In addition to these institutional affiliations, Morais worked diligently to translate the classic works of Jewish culture into English and to write many articles and opinion pieces for the Philadelphia press, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, that would eventually form a veritable archive of Jewish lore, an encyclopedic compendia of the resources necessary for the proper functioning of the American Jewish community.
On his first Thanksgiving in Philadelphia in 1851, Morais preached to his congregation a vision of regenerated Jewish life in America based upon an image of Sephardic cultural openness. Taking as his starting point the so-called “Golden Age” of medieval Jewry in Muslim Spain, Morais traced the migration of this tradition to “the Italian schools” following the rise of “bigotry and fanaticism” after the Christian reconquista that culminated in the expulsion of 1492. Coming from Livorno and London, Morais hoped to extend this diasporic chain of Jewish cultures to America. The achievements of Andalusian Jewry provided him with his key historical paradigm. Morais called on his co-religionists to imitate this “illustrious example”: “Religious and secular lore flourished among them,” he declared, “poetry; the most stirring poetry which speaks to the heart and breathes pious sentiments, was cultivated in their academies. No knowledge, however abstruse, no philosophy, however profound, was neglected by the luminaries of our nation.” According to Morais, America, with its exceptional attributes and political freedoms, offered an unprecedented opportunity for the renewal of Jewish life based on the Sephardic model. (pp. 274-275)
By using translation to disseminate enlightened Jewish religiosity based on Sephardic and Italian sources, Morais introduced a kind of Jewish classicism to Victorian Jewish culture. His translations paralleled widespread Victorian efforts to translate classical and renaissance literature into English. As already seen, one of the means of becoming a refined person was through the study of classical and renaissance models of learning and the imitation of classical character traits of honor and virtue. (p. 294)
One cannot but be struck by the adaptation of an ancient Arabic concept, Adab, to Kiron’s description of Morais’ program of Victorian Judaism. Adab, in the words of the Arab poet al-Jahiz, reflects the nobility of Mankind:
A man who is noble does not pretend to be noble, any more than an eloquent man feigns eloquence. When a man exaggerates his qualities it is because of something lacking in himself; the bully gives himself airs because he is conscious of his weakness. Pride is ugly in all men … it is worse than cruelty, which is the worst of sins, and humility is better than clemency, which is the best of good deeds. [Quoted in Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, p. 52]
This concept of Adab, a product of the literary traditions and manners of Arabic civilization, functioned for Morais in nineteenth century Philadelphia exactly as it did for al-Jahiz a millennium earlier in Baghdad. The word Adab cannot really be translated idiomatically into English; the word is not merely a word, it is a way of living; an existential code that mixes together morality, literature, ritual and social behavior and much else.
This word clearly comes to mind when assessing Morais’ program to educate the Jews of America in his own era, an era that was heady with the ideals of emancipation and freedom.
The Forgotten Founder: Morais and the Jewish Theological Seminary
The final period of Morais’ life was noteworthy (and this detail is sometimes all we have left of him in the standard histories of American Jewry) for his founding of the first Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. The JTS was begun by Morais along with his colleague Henry Pereira Mendes of Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan and two Ashkenazi rabbis, David Davidson and Bernard Drachman – though the latter two had little impact on the vision that Morais brought to the very idea of a new seminary to train American rabbis.
The episode of the JTS is perhaps the most frustrating as well as the most contested in Morais’ biography. From Kiron’s perspective, Morais began the JTS as an organic outgrowth of his own Sephardic Rabbinic Humanism and after his death in 1897 the institution was closed down and reorganized along very different lines.
The early Seminary was established on January 31, 1886, after a decisive break with reformers and amidst the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to America, to train a new generation of native-born religious leaders committed to traditional principles. The second JTSA, under Schechter’s leadership, continued the work of training rabbis. Most importantly, Schechter revised the curriculum and reoriented the faculty to critical-historical inquiry founded upon a tradition of German-Jewish scholarship distinguished by figures like Leopold Zunz, one of the founders of the “Science of Judaism,” and the positive-historical Judaism associated with Zacharias Frankel and Heinrich Graetz. (p. 321)
Needless to say, the second incarnation of the JTSA (the additional “A” signified “America”) was very different – and some might even say antithetical – to what Morais had first envisioned in 1886. Instead of predicating the curriculum on the moral values and literary-philosophical tenets of Sephardic Humanism, Solomon Schechter (whose name is now synonymous with the JTS and the Conservative Judaism whose Day Schools are called by his name) developed a system based on the philosophy of the Wissenschaft Des Judenthums and sought to ground the Seminary on Wissenschaft principles of “detached” and “objective” scholarship, principles that were somewhat different from the ones Morais had developed at the first JTS.
As we now know, the Wissenschaft method of Schechter’s JTS became embroiled in a profound tug-of-war with the neo-Orthodoxy of Hirsch and Hildesheimer, exemplified by the other major Jewish seminary in New York, the Isaac Elchanan Seminary of Yeshivah University. These two seminaries have been at loggerheads with each other for decades now, reflecting the intense and passionate hatred that the Orthodox had for the reformers.
It is crucial to remember that Morais (and by extension the JTS that he founded with Pereira Mendes) refused the institutional affiliations of either Reform or Orthodox and maintained an independent Judaism in the Sephardic manner that was unified and self-integrated – a Judaism that refused to break itself into denominational pieces. Morais’ program for the American Jewish community was in many ways, as we have been consistently saying in our writings, a far more practical and reasonable program than the programs of the new denominations.
But Morais’ legacy was not to be.
Upon his death in 1897, Morais was mourned as a Jewish national hero by tens of thousands of the common folk that he ministered to throughout his life. Rather than climbing the ladder of notoriety as many other “professional” rabbis did, Morais disdained the honors and perquisites of the newly-emerging American rabbinate and chose obscurity over celebrity.
So when he died, Morais provided the following instructions in his will:
I will not have any oration, obituaries, memorial services, nor any kind of praise indulged in to do me honor. If my children wish to keep the seven days of mourning, let my sons do so morning and evening in the synagogue, and my daughters in their home. No title whatsoever must be attached to my name. On the tomb stone [in Hebrew]: “Shabbetai Morais,” [in English] “Sabato Morais” and the date of death shall suffice. (p. 408)
Amazingly, Morais, who conducted polemics in his lifetime on the necessity of believing in the dogma of bodily resurrection, instructed his children to bury his body between two slabs of quicklime and not in a casket. He explained that he
… disliked a hurried burial, and the exposal of the body. Unless I die of a contagious disease, let my corpse remain unburied until signs of putrefecation are visible. Then dispense with the usual washing, as practiced by our people, but let me be wrapped, with the clothing which I happen to have on, in a sheet. Let quick lime be put in the grave, in which I shall lay without coffin, and another layer of quick lime on the top of me so that the flesh be speedily consumed. (p. 409)
Morais claimed that Benjamin Artom, the chief rabbi in London, was interred in the same manner.
Morais: A Portrait of an Engaged, Activist Rabbi
So what are we to make of the man who now, in the wake of the sterling and brilliant spadework of Dr. Arthur Kiron, the personal keeper of the Morais legacy in this country, has been made so clearly known to us?
Sabato Morais was most certainly the last authentic Sephardic hakham who ministered on these shores. We have highlighted the figure of Elijah Benamozegh and the many rabbis who lived and worked in the Levant, but there were no authentic old-world Sephardic sages who developed the traditions of Sepharad in America.
Morais wrote and preached in English and developed his Jewish pedagogy on the fertile grounds of American culture in the nineteenth century. He took decisive stands on slavery and the Civil War, on the Death Penalty and on the vital economic issues of the day. He was firmly committed to what we call Jewish orthodoxy (lower case “o”) in its traditional formation. But this did not prevent him from adopting positions that were seen as anathema to the Orthodox (higher case “o”), then as now; positions that were creative, visionary and flexible.
He began to work inside the Jewish community at a time when a professional clergy was transforming the very model of rabbinical engagement. He was beloved by the masses and scorned by some of his peers, who would finally have the last say in the matter of how American Jewry would develop and how even the very history of American Jews would be written. Morais’ beloved Philadelphia became the home to academic Jewish learning in this country with a legion of scholars such as Cyrus Adler and Isaac Husik who radiated out of the Morais circle and became professors at Dropsie College, founded by the Sephardi philanthropist Morris Dropsie, a member of Mikveh Israel, the University of Pennsylvania, and the JTS.
Morais has been punished for what he stood for and what he represented.
Meek and humble, Morais lacked the streak of belligerence that has come to permeate the American Jewish community and has been globally exported. Morais sought to empower the weak and oppressed and support the unfortunate. At his funeral anarchists stood side-by-side with the upper-crust of Philadelphian society. Those anarchists and blue collar workers came out of respect for the work Morais had done over the years to help them in their struggles to achieve dignity and justice.
Sabato Morais was a man who rejected a pay increase from Mikveh Israel because it was not approved unanimously by all the members of the congregation. He was a man who asked for a pay cut during economic hard times such as those during the Civil War. Who was invited by the aforementioned Pereira Mendes in New York to take over Shearith Israel as Pereira Mendes, the rabbi of the largest Synagogue in New York, offered to become Morais’ assistant!
Morais had the common touch and was beloved by the common people. He made teaching and mentoring his priority rather than self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, the two factors that seem to ensure the legacies of “great men” in our times.
Arthur Kiron: Biographer Extraordinaire
We must point out the magnificent job that has been done by one lone scholar, Arthur Kiron, to preserve and promote the legacy of Morais for our Sephardic community. Kiron is, as was Morais, a self-effacing and humble man who believes that Sabato Morais was the finest Jewish rabbi that ever lived in this country. He has superbly etched the figure of Morais utilizing the most rigorous standards of scholarship, but has consistently throughout his writings understood the larger existential significance that underlies the historical reconstruction of the life of such a giant.
While other scholars are satisfied to present the “facts,” Arthur Kiron has brought back to life not merely the dry and stale biographical details of a man who history has forgotten, but has brilliantly reconstructed the entire range and breadth of Morais’ world and cultural civilization.
There are no words in my lexicon to adequately express my personal appreciation for what Dr. Kiron has done.
Golden Ages, Promised Lands: The Victorian Rabbinic Humanism of Sabato Morais is perhaps the most important work of scholarship that has ever been written on the American Jewish experience, out of the eyes of its most brilliant and articulate representative Sabato Morais. It is a work that will have a deep and abiding impact on the future of Sephardic Studies in this country and a profound significance for the way in which the history of American Jewry has been understood and written.
This book has totally redefined the manner in which American Jews must see their collective past and has a deep and lasting importance for the way in which they can construct their future; a future that, based on the conundrums and seemingly intractable conflicts of the present, truly needs to know and reintegrate a figure such as Sabato Morais back into its very midst.
When Jonathan Sacks published The Dignity of Difference a couple of years ago, little did I know that his Religious Humanism (a thing that has recently come under attack by Sacks’ own Orthodox community in London who have been working to depose him) had been set out by a rabbi many years earlier under radically different circumstances in a world that may seem different from ours, but less different than we might think.
The need for the principles that Kiron has called Victorian Rabbinic Humanism are desperately needed for a Judaism that, just as it has forgotten Morais, has most certainly forgotten its very foundational essence.