The Levantine Option

New York, NY, July 23, 2008
Sephardic Heritage News

It is always a wonderful surprise when I find independent confirmation of "The Levantine Option." Given the antipathy in many unenlightened quarters to the idea of "The Levantine Option" - that Jews and Muslims shared a common culture over many centuries in the Middle East, and it is this culture that will act as the salve through which the two peoples will be able to reconcile - it is of the utmost significance to find anyone who will support the matter publicly.

In an age where the Jewish agenda has been set out by elements that are either ignorant of or antithetical to the Sephardic heritage, discovering an individual who has come to learn of Sephardic culture on his own - and even to promote it - is deeply gratifying. Given this pathetic state of affairs that has been marked not only by an Ashkenazi ethnocentrism but by a perverse self-loathing among Sephardim who seem to be all-too-happy to assist in their own socio-cultural and political demise by abrogating their communal responsibilities and handing them over to others, any positive articulation becomes critical.

Such was the case when our dear friend Jacob Bender, himself a strong supporter and advocate of our Sephardic civilization, contacted me a couple of months ago regarding the important work being done by the artist, peace activist and scholar Thomas A. Block. Almost immediately - thanks to the Internet - I was able to communicate with Tom and begin to prepare this special edition of the SHU in honor of the brilliant work that he has been doing.

Looking at the abysmal state of affairs in the Middle East, Tom began to open up the book of history and learn what those of us who grew up in the Arab Jewish universe already knew: that Jews and Muslims shared many religious ideas and values.

Such is the core of what we have called "The Levantine Option."

I recently watched William Dalrymple's 2004 documentary "Sufi Soul" which provided a much-needed precis of Sufi culture in an age of religious extremism and fanaticism. In Sufism, Islam produced a truly reflective and compassionate civilization that welcomed all people under the rubric of Religious Humanism. Sufism brought together members of the different religions in harmony, peace and love.

In reading through the work of Tom Block, we see the ways in which Judaic thought in the Arab-Muslim world incorporated Sufi ideas and values. In a world of religious ferment and pluralism, what Tom calls the "Jewish Sufis" revolutionized the Jewish religious system in profound and earth-shattering ways. Legendary figures like Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses Maimonides, Bahye ibn Paquda and Abraham Abulafia, among many others, began to incorporate ideas from Islamic thought and Sufi wisdom into their religious texts.

The new Jewish mysticism was infused with philosophical and literary ideas that enriched Judaism and displayed the ways in which Judaism and Islam fruitfully interacted in the Middle Ages and early Modern period. The very cornerstone of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, is shown to reflect Sufi elements that were then passed along into the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe.

While today the very idea of mystical thought seems to have been hijacked by messianic chauvinists, the story told in Tom Block's articles is one of religious tolerance and mutual understanding; an important lesson in these benighted times.

I would like to thank Tom Block personally for helping me to prepare this special newsletter and for the wonderful work that he has been doing. As you can see from the articles, Tom has been bringing this message to American audiences and has created a website where people can learn more about the subject. He is now in the process of completing a book-length work for the publisher Fons Vitae that is sure to be a major contribution to the study of Sephardic Judaism.

At a time where the so-called "peace" movement is filled with money-grubbing charlatans and reactionaries, it is truly refreshing to see an individual with integrity and sensitivity to the major issues that animate Middle Eastern culture. When reading through Tom's work I find a kindred spirit whose religious and intellectual genius will surely assist us in our goal of restoring the noble Sephardic tradition to the world at large.

David Shasha, New York, NY, July 23, 2008