Recently, Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph (the spiritual mentor of Shas - Sephardi political movement), was quoted in an article in Maariv in which he maintains that the mechitza (partition between men and women) was unnecessary at simchas (joyous occasion), such as weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs under certain circumstances. A question was asked, “If the mechitza caused family tension was it necessary?” Rabbi Yoseph responded, “Sometimes a family is not so pious, does not want a mechitza, and prefers that everyone sit together at one table. This is not something to fight over. If a mechitza is possible, then it should be erected, but if it is not, it can be done away with.” This approach to Jewish law is refreshing, especially considering the mounting chumras (stringent interpretation of the law) we see developing almost daily. Some of the chumras are especially burdensome and bothersome because they usually affect the shalom bayis (family harmony).
What makes the p’sak (religious ruling) even more interesting is that the rabbi is Sephardi, a Gadol (sage), and living in Israel. I never would have expected this “kula” from an Ashkenazi Rav of that stature. For a Gadol of that caliber to take such a position could only be possible if it was made by a Sephardi, because their fundamental “gestalt” differs dramatically from their Ashkenazi brothers.
The differences between a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi become apparent when one experiences Sephardi culture in Israel. I say Israel, because in America, the Ashkenazi influence is too overpowering and overbearing. Sephardi Jews attend Ashkenazi based synagogues and yeshivos, for the most part. Even if you are part of a Sephardi community with their infrastructure of shuls and yeshivos, they are still conscious of the Ashkenazi perception of them—thus tailoring their behavior based on standards of the Ashkenazim. Many of the Sephardi rabbis in America studied in Ashkenazi yeshivot so their hashkafah (religious outlook) was certainly influenced by the Ashkenazi dominated culture. Thus, the only place to get a pristine picture of Sephardic religious culture is in Israel.
As a rabbinical student studying Yoreh Deyah (section of Jewish Law) the text was rarely referred to as the Beis Yoseph, but rather by the moniker of Mechaber (general term for an author). Interestingly, when there was a distinct difference between the two, it was presented as a machlokis (difference of opinion) between the Mechaber and Ramah (minority opinion), not a machlochis between the Beis Yoseph and the Ramah. By doing this, indirectly the Beis Yoseph was depersonalized, while the Rama had a name and thus became personal. The issues weren’t presented as a difference between Sephardi culture and Ashkenazi, but between the Mechaber and Ramah. So that we never received a picture of an intellectually vibrant and effervescent culture that needed to be contended with. It was nameless and faceless. Interestingly, when Sephardim study the same text, they refer to the Mechaber as Maran Habet Yosef!
Even in Israel, the cultural differences between the two ethnicities are difficult to distinguish because of the Ashkenazi dominance of religion and culture. This seems to be changing, but the change is slow and sometimes barely perceptible. One of the most offensive images I ever had of a Sephardi rabbi in Israel was to see him behave as an Ashkenazi at the expense of his own rich heritage. It is bad enough to be a rabbi in Israel—because for the most part they are employees of the state, reduced too being seen as “pekidim” (common clerics). By definition, there is an immediate loss of status. Turning a Sephardi into an Ashkenazi adds insult to injury. The most glaring example, is to see a Sephardi rabbi dressed as an Eastern European rabbi, outfitted in a black suit, white shirt, no tie and a black hat. In time, their own identities will become stronger and they will shed the trappings of the Ashkenazi world.
What the Sephardim never absorbed into their cultural/religious heritage was the Ashkenazi approach to religion. At the risk of getting pummeled by both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, I do believe that Sephardim have a more wholesome and healthier attitude and approach to religion. Ashkenazim view religion as exacting and technical, with more chumras, less loving, less overlooking and less forgiving. Sephardim are very much the opposite. Of course, it really depends on what kind of Sephardi you are. By and large, they all have a more inclusive approach: more loving and forgiving minus much of the chumra mentality of their eastern European brothers. This is not to say that Sephardim are less pious or righteous than their Ashkenazi brothers—it’s that they have developed over the centuries a “rhythm” to their Jewishness that Ashkenazim can learn from. Their religiosity is not their second skin, but their primary skin. They have a genuine quality that defies replication. Ashkenazim, for some reason always appear as though they are trying to replicate what was lost. There is this constant adulation for years gone by and an eternal attempt to rebuild a culture that was, but is no more.
How is it, that the level of tolerance is obvious among the Sephardim, but visibly absent among the Ashkenazim? It goes back to the fact that Sephardim feel more comfortable in their skin because it is their only skin, while for Ashkenazim it is their second skin. As a result they are less comfortable and less tolerant. Perhaps the difference in the way the two edot (communities) wrap tefilin (phylacteries) is telling. Sephardim tend to wrap their tefilin around their arm outwardly while Ashkenazim wrap them inwardly. Would this in some way symbolize the difference between the two cultures? The Sephardim wrap the tefilin outwardly, in a sense being more inviting and accepting of those from the outside. In contrast, the Ashkenazim wrap the tefilin inwardly, representing themselves being insular and not open to those outside of their surroundings. This recent p’sak of Harav Ovadia Yosef isn’t earth shattering, but nevertheless very revealing of his empathy for Am Yisrael and the need to reach out and bridge the chasm whenever and however possible.