Shivim Panim ... the Torah, we are told, has at least 70 different reflecting angles of vision that might catch our attention. Often enough the most available "Torah reflections" have to do with our own rootedness in a particular Jewish context. In our case, we are a Cleveland Jewish community with primarily Ashkenazic roots.
In hopes of catching some different rays of Torah, I will assume the voice(s) of Jacob Culi and the succeeding rabbis and scholars who created the Me'am Loez Sephardic commentary. Perhaps this will serve as an early warm-up for the various commemorations that will occur in 2004 as the North American Jewish community celebrates the 350th anniversary of its founding by Sephardic Jews.
More modestly, I'm hoping that the reader will find that exposure to this perspective on Torah will have become friendly and accessible.
I will try to organize my comments each week through the following categories: halachic (Jewish law) clarification, aggadic (storytelling) enrichment, and issues of Jewish commitment and continuity.
We are likely to think our own 20th- and 21st-century adjustment to modernity and recovery of "continuity" is unique to our own Jewish struggles in North America. The origins of Me'am Loez challenge this notion.
Rabbi Jacob Culi began writing his commentary in the late 17th century for the Ladino-speaking Jewish community of Turkey. These Jews were rapidly assimilating and still reeling from the apostasy of Shabbatai Zvi, the proclaimed Messiah.
Culi became for that community both a Sephardic Rashi (commenting on every detail of the Torah) and Baal Shem Tov (encouraging the community to reclaim its Jewish soul). For one interpretation of why the commentary was named Me'am Loez, I am indebted to Rabbi Rosie Haim, whose roots are in the Turkish Jewish community and whose master's thesis at Hebrew Union College was a translation of Song of Songs from the Me'am Loez collection.
Literally, the phrase means "From a people of different, strange tongue." Its most famous usage is in the Hallel prayers (Psalm 114) which begins, "When the people Israel left Egypt, they left a people of a foreign language."
There is another way to understand this phrase. We Jews speak the foreign language. A web of non-Jewish words and concepts structure our everyday life and, as a result, Judaism has become the foreign language. Thus, the Me'am Loez interprets the biblical verses "I have already taken off my shirt how can I put it on again; I have washed my feet, how can I soil them" as a tale of a Jew whose mindset has become so structured by his new secular clothing that he feels that wearing the garments of Jewish tradition once again will be a strange and degrading act.