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The impact of modernity on a traditional Jewish community

The impact of modernity on a traditional Jewish community

The Jewish culture consists of but not limited to race, ethnicity, and religion (Yehoshua 2010 Pg.4). The determinant making a community of Sephardic is based on culture rather than genetics. Ethnically, Jews believe to be descendants of the ancient Israelites, but they originally belonged to the United Kingdom of Israel and the tribe of Judah. The Jews belong to an individual race separating them genetically and biologically from other people globally. The Jewish religion adheres to the teachings of ancient scripts recorded in Torah, although modernization has separated religion into Orthodox, Reform Judaism, Liberal, and Conservative. The modern Jewish thought was influenced by promises of emancipation, where they moved and multiplied attaining a population of approximately 2.5 million, with a majority living in Ottoman Empire and Eastern Europe by the end of 18th century (Fischer &Villani 2007 Pg.8).

Sephardic Jews are descendants of the Iberian Jews speaking a language called Judeo-Espagnol or Ladino (Yehoshua 2010 Pg.3). They were expelled from Portugal and Spain in the late 15th century. The Sephardic Jews lived throughout the Mediterranean but were deported to concentration camps most of them perishing during the Nazi occupation of Greece and Yugoslavia.

The majority of Jews live in Israel and the United States, and modernization has contributed to urbanization and diversification of most of their economic activities (Eizenstat 2014 Pg. 4). The entire Jewish community substantially had similar political, social, and economic features, but emancipation changed various restrictions on their residential locations, occupational choice, and other forms of social interactions (Yehoshua 2010 Pg. 6).This paper looks at the impacts of modernity in the traditional Jewish community, basing evidence on the Western Sephardim of America.


The Jewish community is obligated by the Bible to study Torah representing a Jewish law called Halakha that is a normative order determining their religious and social constitution. The modern Judaism is torn between the cultural ideals of the world’s larger society and only determined to express how its culture is distinct from the rest. All the Jews shared the same messianic hope everywhere throughout history but were later impacted in the 18th century by new post-enlightenment anti-Semitism and influences of the contemporary nationalism.

Modernization separated religion into orthodox, Reform Judaism, liberal, and conservative. The Orthodox Jews practice religion maintaining the most traditional beliefs and strictly observe the dietary laws (Eizenstat 2014 Pg. 4). They are always marked by their dressing code and appearance and practice Sabbath. The Orthodox Jews’ males undergo the ritual of circumcision during infancy and wear black suits and hats in adulthood (Eizenstat 2014 Pg. 4). Men’s hair is allowed in front of the ears and grows long and curly. Their women dress modestly and sometimes cover their heads with hats and other covering.

The Reform Judaism began as a movement in the 19th century to enlighten Judaism in line with the Western European ideas. They disregard commandments, traditional rituals, and norms, and instead are focused on the ethical dimensions of faith by rejecting practices of Orthodox Jews terming them dogmatic and outdated practices. The reformed Judaism’s Sabbath was moved to Sundays, and scriptures are not read in Hebrew, but read in vernacular. They neither observe dietary laws nor practice the ritual of circumcision, and never dress distinctively. The United States Jews practice Reform Judaism and are guided by the sense that religion must change and be reinvigorated with time.

The Conservative Judaism began to counter the radical nature of Reform Judaism in the 19th century. This religion thought Reform Judaism abandoned too much of Jewish culture. The religion retains many traditional practices, traditions, and beliefs and is sort of in the middle of Reform and Orthodox groups. This group of believers is the second in having most in the United States.

The Secular Jews identify Judaism as just a culture and not religion. They are Jewish by blood but do not practice Judaism or believe in God. They use Jewish as a form of identity, culturally and not religious. Most of the American Jews define themselves in terms of religion, affiliated with synagogues similar to their Protestants and Catholics in their neighborhood, not because of religious needs but because it is the expected suburban behavior in America. The American society stresses on ethnic roots, and the Jews need to recognize their ethnicity studying Yiddish, and naming their children Jewish names such as Ezra and Shayne instead of American names such as Elliot and Sheila because it is easier to display Jewish religion to the outside world than practice at home (Dimant 2017 Pg. 2).

The traditional Jewish community did not value display of ceremonial objects and was only used at homes or in the synagogue. Ceremonial objects that could not be used were put in the Geniza, where synagogue’s ritual objects and old books were stored. The traditional Jewish community would never create ceremonial objects for the purpose of displaying to the public, but the modern Sephardic Jews are spreading Jewish Museums. There were two major Jewish museums in the United States in the 1950s, and dozens were constructed after 1990, displaying how the Jewish community has been highly secularized. The modernized Jewish communities have a more practical goal on ceremonial objects and use museums to educate and provide a forum for the contemporary Jewish art to teach people values in a more visual way.

The Sephardic Jews experienced no religious reformation in their historical experience to divide Liberal and Orthodox Jews (Efron 2016 Pg. 5). However, individual Sephardism chose to practice their Judaism by living in common folds because their ideology does not allow them to live in clear-cut divisions. They worship in a wide mix and a variety of patterns in religious observance and can worship in any Sephardic synagogue. Sephardic Jews do not value isolation and seek to balance their lives both as Jews and part of the larger human society. Sephardic Jews are more conducive to interreligious tolerance because of their frequent social contact at a higher level of modernization.


Education in American Jewish community has a complex history with numerous shifts in its goals and orientation. The Sephardic Jews’ way of life reduced academic interest in the role institutions played in a political context in societies (Dimant 2017 Pg. 3). Jewish education with modernization has attempted to emulate and complement that of the American system and create lasting institutions preserving and sustaining the Jewish life. Traditionally, early Jewish settlers in America either paid private schools to educate their children or educated them privately in their homes. Education was not a communal responsibility throughout the colonial period in the 19th century. The American culture integrated education to inculcate socialization and Jews have become more integrated into the public education, where synagogues provide supplementary Jewish education with full-day Sabbath and afternoon programs (Yerushalmi 2011 Pg. 6).

Modernization influence Jewish immigrants in America to learn the language and values of their new home despite reverence for tradition on some Jews (Dimant 2017 Pg. 3). Modernization gave individuals freedom to study, explore, and invent resulting to the emergence of Jewish religious and cultural innovation. New kinds of religious communities developed as a result of modernization such as University Hillel’s and the synagogue of sisterhood. The progressive people among the Sephardim encouraged the young generation to study in western schools and advance academically and secure the limited economic and intellectual opportunities. The Sephardim set their visions on new worlds, migrating from one nation to the next, and would send money to their native countries, or return to their hometowns and live luxuriously.

Modernization on the highly migrating Sephardic was expensive because they were a member of a minority group in America. They depended on both economic returns to acquiring education and variation in culture with the larger community. The Sephardic responded to the demanding education by investing less in education, although the resistance operated at individual levels.

The Sephardic Jews adopted a method of study reflecting balance and proportion, with a wide curriculum in Sephardic schools combining general studies and study of sacred texts. They valued arts and science, beyond those emphasized by the sacred texts. Their curriculum in schools includes arithmetic, Torah, Poetry, Hebrew grammar, Philosophy, and Theology among others.

There was a sharp gender division with most schools founded by the Jewish Enlightenment advocating girls only, and mixed sexes in some cases. New immigrants were influenced by the American views and practices in education, and boys and girls started learning together in public schools. The Jewish leaders saw the need to perpetuate Judaism in America and adopted education system equal for boys and girls. The American Jews strongly valued public schools for providing general education to both genders and also as a means of ensuring acceptance into the American society.

Relationship with Non-Jews

The American Jewish community developed contact with their neighbors both on personal and collective levels, new possibilities brought by modernity. The relationship between Jews and non-Jews became more common, and people started intermarrying developing interfaith dialogue. Development of new categories of relationships between Jews and non-Jews was accompanied by anti-Semitism (Yerushalmi 2011 Pg.4).

Relationship with non-Jews began after years of emphasized dialogue, working together and growing concern of intolerance in religion. Jewish leaders took a proactive role in seeking dialogue with leaders of other dominions such as the Catholic Church and Muslim religion. In conjunction with Muslim peers, the American Jewish community facilitated Jewish-Muslim relations by adding classes on Jewish-Muslim relations in high school courses.

The Jewish community has strengthened with modernization by gaining support from other evangelicals. They employ a mixture of justice-based and biblical perspective to come to terms, although the conservative Christians are not reliable. Jews have learned to trust and value other religions, although they do not agree with other Christians on allowing abortion and same-sex marriage.

Traditionally, marriages were often arranged in all Jewish communities, but that has changed with modernization. Intermarriages were a powerful social taboo, and a Jews were disallowed to marry a non-Jew Israel. Marrying secular individuals was unusual within the Jewish culture, and divorce was legal apart from the Orthodox group. Men had the power to prevent their ex-wives from remarrying, and the court failed to recognize those who entered into other relationships. Children born outside of wedlock were considered illegitimate and could not marry within Jewish communities. Sephardic Jews intermarry and respect association with people they live with regardless of culture and religion because of influence by modernization.

Occupational choice

Traditional Jewish occupational choices were restricted and others prohibited by their local rulers. The ancient Jews were farmers, artisans, fishermen, and some were merchants. Jews were not allowed to acquire real estate outside their countries and were gradually alienated from agriculture by giving way to the native inhabitants because of various restrictions on the holding of land (Kuznets 2018 Pg. 43). There were no Jewish scholars by profession, and the Rabbis worked without pay until the 14th century and had other occupations such as being writers, statesmen, and artists. Occupations were determined by religious considerations, where printers were needed for prayer books and butchers for kosher meat. Jews became money lenders in the 16th century after Catholic Church forbid members to engage in money lending (Efron 2016 Pg. 6).

The Sephardic is unique as a result of modernization and is not the kind to refuse to serve in the army. They study a wide curriculum to become poets, diplomats, doctors, and scholars, judges, grammarians, and mathematicians among others (Efron 2016 Pg. 5). Other Jews after the 19th century engaged in primarily in a skilled occupation such as trade, craft, finance, and the medical profession. The occupational transition was brought by the implementation of educational reforms among Jewish rural populations. The implementation of educational and religious reforms within Judaism made Jewish farmers to invest more on their children’s education who opted to become merchants, though some of them were restricted by demand for urban skilled occupation (Kuznets 2018 Pg. 47).


The mass migration of the Sephardi and the entire Jew community in the mid-20th centuries to other countries radically changed them politically (Efron 2016 Pg. 5). They were forced to meet a variety of new challenges in their new environment where they had to rebuild their lives. Sephardi in Israel community reestablished to become part of a unique social and political experiment. They joined a national polity that defined itself as Jewish and their religion was given a state-sanctioned establishment status.

The Jews became part of larger nations with wider political and social spheres after Jewish Emancipation. Jewish ideologies on the relationship between Judaism and politics changed after they became citizens of nations with a variety of political systems (Dimant 2017 Pg. 8). The dynastic leadership too changed as leadership was democratized and priests gave way to rabbinic sages.

Modernization brought ethnic tensions, social, and economic divisions among the Jewish communities influencing their country’s politics. Sephardism accounted the majority of the Jewish population in Israel and voted overwhelmingly considerably strengthening powerbase of their preferred leader. They supported Zionism in reaction to emerging waves of anti-Semitism and to respond to other nationalistic movements. Sephardic Jews engaged considerably in social and intellectual intercourse with influential governments by frequently serving in official capacities taking an active interest in political affairs.

The high population of Sephardic led to dramatic voting out of office modernizing government because they were aggrieved by economic aggravation they were experiencing and voted for leaders who promised different approaches in dealing with economic situations (Ram 2013 Pg. 12). They shifted the balance of politics among other ethnic groups, economic classes, and age groups generating an enormous political backlash. Sephardic Jews had availability of skilled labor raising the overall productivity of the labor force in their new countries, and elevating tax revenue necessary to accommodate the pre-existing redistribution policies (Ram 2013 Pg. 16).

Role of Women

Judaism and feminism deeply conflict putting the role of women under pressure stretching from public life in the synagogue to the private life (Fischer &Villani 2007 Pg. 10). Men pray separately from women in Orthodox synagogues, or even relegated in some situations. The role of women is constrained by laws developed by males, having a couple of activities for men but women are estranged. There are laws with progressive aspects such as laws that prohibit women whose husbands deny them religious divorce from remarrying.

Modernization has changed the role of Jewish women considerably with the educational opportunities leading to the emergence of a new class of highly educated Sephardic Jews females (Fischer &Villani 2007 Pg.4). The women advanced and excel in health sciences and other fields while others pursue advanced degrees. Women successfully organized and boycotted on kosher butcher shops reacting on higher prices of kosher meat. They interrupted services in the synagogue during Sabbath to gain the support of male worshippers in their boycott and secure rabbinic endorsement.

The role of women has been altered in the American Jewish community as a result of influence from the American society. Traditionally, Orthodox group did not allow women in the synagogue, but currently, there are separate sections for women at major ultra-Orthodox conferences. However, Jewish women are dramatically lagging behind as other women are making significant strides in government, business, and non-profit sector. Only two out of forty organizations had Jewish women as CEOs as of the year 2000, in a study conducted a Jewish Women’s Project, indicating gender inequity within the Jewish community is a subject of concern (Eizenstat 2014 Pg. 4).

Modernization improved the role of women in religious leadership, where women can achieve good positions easily than in public secular sector (Fischer &Villani 2007 Pg.14). Women attain the roles of a rabbi and automatically higher status to take charge of major congregations. Despite breakthroughs in having women as senior rabbis, modernization has ensured synagogues team comprising of rabbis, senior workers, and educators at least has a woman rabbi. Leadership in religion has paved ways for Jewish women to do educational work and be school principles, hospital chaplains, and even synagogues educational directors.


Dimant, M., 2017. Religion and law in the western Sephardi community: some remarks from the case of Livorno during the early modern period. Vergentis. Revista de Investigación de la Cátedra Internacional conjunta Inocencio III, 4.

Efron, J.M., 2016. German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic (p. 5). Princeton University Press.

Eizenstat, S.E., 2014. The future of the Jews: how global forces are impacting the Jewish people, Israel, and its relationship with the United States. Rowman & Littlefield.

Fischer, L.F., and Villani, S., 2007. “People of Every Mixture”. Immigration, Tolerance and Religious Conflicts in Early Modern Livorno. Immigration and Emigration in Historical Perspective, 1, p.93.

Kuznets, S., 2018. Economic Structure and the Life of the Jews. In Culture and Civilization (pp. 47-51). Routledge.

Ram, U., 2013. The Globalization of Israel: McWorld in Tel Aviv, Jihad in Jerusalem. Routledge.

Yehoshua, A.B., 2010. Beyond Folklore: The Identity of the Sephardic Jew. Quaderns de la Mediterrània= Cuadernos del Mediterráneo, (14), pp.295-298.

Yerushalmi, Y.H., 2011. Zakhor: Jewish history and Jewish memory. University of Washington Press.

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