Intrigue and Revolution: Chief Rabbis in
Aleppo, Baghdad, and Damascus 1744-1914
by Yaron Harel

Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2015. 396 pages. ISBN: 978-1-904113-87-4.

Reviewed by Haim Ovadia

The names of the once glorious cities of Aleppo, Baghdad, and Damascus, are not only intertwined with the history of the Middle East and Islam, but they are embedded in Jewish collective memory as centers of Torah study, observance, and outstanding Rabbinic leadership. In this fascinating book, Professor Yaron Harel, an expert on the history of Ottoman Jews, takes the reader on a tour through the narrow alleys and the backcourts of these cities and their Jewish communities during a most tumultuous period. The years 1744-1914 were years of great changes in the world and particularly in Europe and the Middle East. Those changes, whether economic, cultural, or religious, did not leave the Jewish community untouched, despite efforts by some leaders to insulate their communities to outside influences. Harel focuses on the main cities of the countries known today as Iraq and Syria, but the reader gains important knowledge and understanding of other regions as well, mainly Jerusalem and Turkey. The author thoroughly perused the available records of the period, including the archives of the Ottoman government and of the Alliance Israélite Universelle. Harel’s mastery of rabbinical literature and its somewhat enigmatic language has enabled him to unearth a treasury of data which he successfully cross references with other historical records. 

For those who are familiar with the mythical status of the three cities and their legendary rabbis, and who complain that today’s rabbinic leadership and level of observance pale in comparison, there are two surprises in the book. One is that the Jewish world of the mid-18th to early 19th centuries was plagued with many of the maladies we consider contemporary, or in the words of King Solomon: “there is nothing new under the sun.” The second is realizing that even those rabbinic figures held in awe and reverence had flaws of arrogance, fanaticism, and self-interest. The book also questions the validity of the accepted division of traditions and practices between the communities of Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus as one realizes that those boundaries were blurred or non-existent as leaders and congregants migrated within the region and from outside.

Harel describes the rabbis of the period as not always chosen based on their knowledge, but rather because of their qualification as administrators and negotiators. We find many rabbis who relied on wealthy individuals and divided the city into warring factions of supporters of one rabbi or another, which resulted in financial bans and sometimes escalated into physical confrontation. These struggles (which in many cases stemmed from the opposition of the community to an imported rabbi, installed and imposed by the Ottoman government) included falsification of information, secret correspondence, and tactics of intimidation. In one extreme case, Rabbi Jacob Antebi of Damascus was held under house arrest by the request of the powerful Farhi family.

The intellectual and cultural revolution which swept Europe had a deep impact on the three communities. Many drifted away from traditional observance and practices, while the rabbis scrambled to provide an appropriate response to modernity, either by becoming more fanatic, mystical, and reclusive, or by ushering in the new era and working hand in hand with representatives of the Alliance.

One of the most intriguing developments in that context took place in the city of Aleppo. In the mid-19th century, Aleppo’s religious state is described in grim terms by the rabbis. They speak of laxity in laws of modesty, violation of Shabbat, cheating in weights and measures, displaying theological skepticism, and showing disrespect towards rabbis. In that background appears the brilliant and tragic figure of Rabbi Raphael Kassin who established a reform community, with the support of Christian and Muslim leaders, as well as of Jews of the middle and upper classes from the core Aleppo community. This act led to riots, controversies and fights in the marketplaces. The Ottoman governor intervened and forbade Kassin to try and gain support. Kassin was marginalized and eventually forgotten, and years later, rabbis from his family circulated traditions, according to which he lost his mind as a result of magical powers working against him. In the aftermath of the Kassin crisis the traditional scholars of Aleppo feared any sign of progress and of intellectual freedom, and in a stark contrast to Baghdad, whose rabbis promoted enlightenment, the books of modern commentator Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh were publicly burned in Aleppo in 1865. Harel’s conclusion, which has parallels in other religious movements and locales, is that the image of Aleppo as a city of Torah stems from the constant wars waged by a small group of traditionalists.

Another dent in the traditional image of Aleppo is the revelation regarding the background of a rabbi who immigrated to Argentina in his seventies, and wrote there an anti-conversion letter which became the cornerstone to the current decree in the Syrian community, forbidding the admittance of any convert into their ranks. According to reliable rabbinic sources of the period that rabbi “used subterfuge to learn the skill of slaughtering animals…” He was accused of bribery, and of “many violations of religious and moral laws, including eating non-kosher food, stealing, cheating and generally displaying contempt for the commandments” (p. 124).

The book is written in a clear language, analyzing the intricate histories of the rabbis of the three communities in chronological order, moving from city to city and from period to period deftly and seamlessly. The translation is fluid and engaging, not an easy task given the nature of the book and the many rabbinic texts quoted. The author should be commended for this thorough investigation of a period which has left an indelible mark on the religious life and practices of hundreds of thousands of Jews. One must also acknowledge that the period discussed in the book is immediately related to the state of the Sephardic world today, as many of the figures and works which still dominate this contingency are from that period or a product of it.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia is the rabbi of Magen David Sephardic Congregation of the Greater Washington area. He represents the tenth generation of rabbis in his family from Aleppo.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800