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The Formation of Ottoman Sephardic Communal Identity in the Levirate Marriage Discourse /

  • Author(s): Cohen, Binyamin
  • et al.

In the aftermath of the expulsion in 1492, the Sephardic expellees in the Ottoman Empire developed a unique interpretation of levirate marriage (yibbum), a commandment obligating the brother of a man who has died without an heir to marry the deceased's widow. Heavily influenced by Iberian kabbala, the emerging Ottoman Sephardic yibbum discourse emphasized the extreme importance of reproduction and evinced an egalitarian social imagination. How can we explain the unique qualities of the expellees' yibbum discourse? In the past, scholars explained the emergence and nature of postexilic kabbalistic discourses by arguing that the expulsion was a traumatic catastrophe that led the desperate expellees to develop messianic theology. Others argued that the increased mobility of the expellees brought together previously isolated kabbalists in new intellectual communities that produced novel religious discourses. I suggest we shed additional light on the yibbum discourse, in particular, and the relationship between the expulsion and the turn to kabbala, in general, by approaching the expellees not merely as traumatized or passive recipients of the kabbalists' cultural production, but instead as agents shaping a communal and spiritual identity to suit their new social context. Deprived of established social structures and institutions, the impoverished expellees developed kabbalistic discourses that directly addressed their social predicament. These discourses displayed an egalitarian sense of communal identity and emphasized the extreme importance of the expellees' few assets, their offspring. In this context, the turn to kabbala after 1492 was not an attempt to avoid the harsh realities of the expulsion or a top-down dissemination of elite theology, but rather a communal effort to directly address the diasporic realia

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