Prof. Zvi Zohar
Chauncey Stillman Professor of Sephardic Law and Ethics, Faculty of Law
Faculty of Jewish Studies, Bar Ilan University
Senior Scholar, Center for Halakha, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem
Academic Background and Fields of Interest:
As a high-school student in Israel, my attention was drawn to the existence of significant differences between the religious culture of Jews whose family originated in Islamic lands, and Jews whose family came from Europe. As time went by I surmised, that studying the written creativity of Sephardic hahamim (rabbinic scholars) in recent centuries might provide a key to understanding at least some of these differences. After completing my service in the IDF I spent almost three years studying in a Yeshiva Gevoha, and subsequently gained a B.A. in general philosophy and Jewish history. During these years I realized that neither in the ‘yeshiva world’ not in academia was there any focus on the writings of those hahamim. I decided to take this project upon myself, ultimately completed a Ph.D. at Hebrew University’s interdisciplinary Institute for Contemporary Jewry, in which I compared the halakhic responses to modernity of Syrian and Egyptian rabbis (analyzing topics not discussed in my M.A.).
This area of research – the halakhic and ideational responses of Sephardic/Mizrahi rabbis in the Middle East and North Africa to the challenges and developments of modern times – continues to fascinate me, and I feel like an explorer charting hitherto neglected realms of rabbinic creativity that reflect the halakhic and ideational responses of Sephardic/Mizrahi rabbis in the Middle East and North Africa to the challenges and developments of modern times. By doing so, I hope to encourage a global perception of Jewish culture, leading both Jews and non-Jews towards a more balanced picture of recent centuries in which the voices of rabbis and thinkers from North Africa and the Middle East join those of European and North American figures in the chorus of creative responses to contemporary realities.
My interest in the history and development of halakhic creativity led me to become involved in additional aspects of halakha, and to the study of halakhic development and change over broader historical times. These include a study of the variety of rabbinic responses to Jews whose behavior diverges radically from traditional norms (e.g., public desecration of the Sabbath), as well as several works devoted to the development of halakhic Giyyur (conversion to Jewishness) from rabbinic times to the present. These works on Giyyur aroused significant controversy, especially on the part of those who were displeased to see that the stringent position ongiyyur currently held by many haredi rabbis in Israel and abroad is but one of a wide range of positions to be found in halakhic literature. Interestingly, in 2010 there appeared a major rabbinic work titled Zera’ Yisrael by rabbi Haim Amsallem, whose findings concur almost fully with ours.
I am currently writing a work devoted to the halakhic creativity of the indigenous rabbis of Algeria under French rule. Of all Jewish communities in Islamic lands, that of Algeria was under direct European rule for the longest period of time: from 1830 to 1962. Algeria was declared part and parcel of Metropolitan France, and in 1870 all native Jews were declared full citizens of France. French Jewry regarded itself as having a civilizing mission towards Algerian Jewry, bringing their culturally underprivileged brethren into the light of European culture. The halakhic writings of local rabbis, born and trained in North Africa, provide a fascinating window into an inclusive, non-denominational Judaism striving to respond in traditionally creative ways to novel situations and change.
Two additional topics that currently draw my research interest are, (1) ways in which local non-Jewish legal systems have affected the content of halakhic decisions in recent centuries, and (2) the halakhic definitions of non-Jewish religions that can be found in writings by Orthodox rabbis since emancipation.
To sum up my work in general I will say, that while I all my writing adheres to what I understand to be the highest standards of scientific research, I also regard my work as a vocation: to make accessible to the scholarly and general public hitherto unknown aspects of rabbinic creativity over the ages, with a special emphasis upon the creativity of Sephardic/Mizrahi rabbis in modern times.
• ‘On the Relation Between Natural Language and the Language of Halakha’, [Hebrew] in: Rabbi S. Israeli, Rabbi Prof. N. Lamm, Dr. I. Raphael (eds.), Rabbi J.B.Soloveichik Jubilee Volume, Mossad HaRav Kook (Jerusalem) & Ktav (New York), 1984, pp. 59-71.
• Tradition and Change: Halakhic Responses of Egyptian and Syrian Rabbis to Legal and Technological Change, [Hebrew] Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, 1993.
• “Any Woman Who Engages in Torah Study Attains Many Merits” – the Attitude of Rabbi Joseph Mesas to Torah Study by Women, [Hebrerw]Pe’amim 82 (2000), pp. 150-162.
• ‘Religious Affirmation of Zionism as a National Liberation Movement: Aspects of the Thought of Rabbi Khalfon Moshe HaCohen of Jerba’ [Hebrew], in: Israel: Studies in Zionism and the State of Israel – History, Culture and Society, Vol. 2 (1), 2002, pp. 107-126.
• Transforming Identity: the Ritual Transition from Gentile to Jew – Structure and Meaning (2007, Continuum Press, London) [co-author: Avi Sagi].
• ‘The Sephardic Halakhic Tradition in the 20th century’, in: Studies in Contemporary Jewry 22, 2007, pp. 119-149.
• ‘The Rabbi and the Sheikh’, in: Jewish Studies Quarterly, 17 (2), 2010, pp. 114-145.
• ‘Sephardi Jurisprudence’, in: Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World, Vol. IV, pp. 291-306, Brill, Leiden, 2010.
• ‘Arabic Language and Middle Eastern Culture as Extolled by Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazzan’ [Hebrew],in: Avriel Bar Levav et. al. (eds.), Arab-Jews? A Controversy on Identity (published as a special triple issue of Pe’amim), Pe’amim 125-127, 2011, pp. 177-205.
• Teleological Decision Making in Halakha: Empirical Examples and General Principles, Jewish Law Association Studies XXII, 2012, pp. 331-362.
• Ve-Lo Yiddah Mimenu Niddah (an analysis of Rabbi Uzziel’s responsa on conversion to Judaism) [Hebrew], Jerusalem, 2012.
• Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East, Bloomsbury Academic Press, London and New York, 2013.