Image: a cartoon light bulb by ElisaRiva via

Today, teaching a class about Sephardic Judaism, I was burbling along with the usual lecture about the Golden Age of Spain when a student asked me a brilliant question:

So, all this had to be in private, right?

Earlier I had outlined the rules under which dhimmis operated in Islamic Spain. One of those rules was that all Jewish or Christian religious activity had to take place in private – no public menorahs, no creche in front of Town Hall. So the question made perfect sense: if Jewish religious activity had to take place in private, wasn’t all Jewish activity private?

If I were a cartoon, I would have had a light bulb over my head at that moment. Suddenly I understood why it was that so much of Sephardic cultural accomplishment took place in the secular realm. The Sephardic Golden Age saw accomplishments in love poetry, in music, in mathematics and medicine.

The religious accomplishments of the culture were mostly scholarly – things that could happen in a quiet private space. Also, while there is a deep spirituality in Sephardic Judaism, it too is private: much of it is mysticism and of that, much was secret.

So my answer to the question was that no, only the religious accomplishments were private. The rock star poets of the Golden Age circulated their secular poetry in the public sphere, keeping their religious poetry for the synagogue. Science and mathematics are purely secular. And philosophy deals with even religious subjects at arm’s length.

It was a moment in history when Jews were welcome to participate in the secular culture. Jews could excel in the secular realm, because the surrounding culture didn’t force us into a religious straightjacket.

One question opened up a whole aspect of Sephardic history to me.

This is why I love teaching. This is why we never finish learning Torah.