Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Ethiopian (Jews?)

Around twenty years ago, with tremendous famine ravaging Africa, the plight of the Beta Israel came before the world Jewish community. These Ethiopians claim to be Jews who had lived there for thousands of years, since the destruction of the First Temple. The question came before the world Jewish community in the 1980s whether to accept the Beta Israel as Jews and, not necessarily linked to the first question, whether to attempt to save them from persecution by securing their immigration to Israel. This is beside the need to save Ethiopians in general from famine.

Before we even begin, it needs to be said that the color of someone's skin is irrelevant to his status of being Jewish or not. There are unquestionably (and unfortunately) some Jews who are racist, but that bigotry has no place in an halakhic discussion.

I. The Ancient Question

This was not the first time an Ethiopian Jewish community came into question. In the ninth century, a traveler named Eldad of Dan emerged and created a big stir in the Jewish world. He claimed to be a member of an isolated Jewish community in Ethiopia that traces its lineage back to the tribe of Dan. Importantly, R. Tzemah Gaon wrote a responsum in which he seemed to accept this Eldad's claim. Centuries later, we find the Radbaz mentioning an isolated Jewish community in Ethiopia. There were large wars going on between the Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations in Ethiopia. On more than one occasion, "Jews" were captured and sold into slavery. The question arose as to whether these Ethiopian "Jews" were really Jews and must, therefore, be treated like Jewish slaves (eved ivri) or even set free (pidyon shevuyim). The Radbaz (Responsa, vol. 2 no. 219, vol. 7[(Divrei David] nos. 5, 9) ruled that they were Jews from the tribe of Dan and that, even though they acted like Karaites, it is not their fault because they are tinokos she-nishbu.

Is this sufficient to attribute full Jewish lineage to the community in Ethiopia claimin to be Jewish? There are a number of historical problems. First, the geographical description given by Eldad, that R. Tzemah Gaon had no ability to verify, does not match that of Ethiopia. Second, the historical communities claimed lineage back to the tribe of Dan. The current community claims lineage to Solomon. Third, there is significant evidence of intermarriage. Even a careful reading of the Radbaz's responsum indicated this, but there is other historical evidence to this as well. Fourth, even a student of the Radbaz, R. Ya'akov Kastro (Erekh Lehem, Yoreh Deah 267:14), indicates that there was a doubt at that time whether this community was really Jewish and this doubt was used for both halakhic leniencies and stringencies.

Further complicating this issue is that the Beta Israel do not issue divorces with a get, as we would require. Therefore, as the Radbaz pointed out, it is possible that women became married, divorced improperly and had illegitimate children with a future husband. This leads to a question a mamzerus, something we take very seriously.

II. Modern Responses

The messianic furvor of the nineteenth century did not lose sight of the Ethiopian communities. Luminaries such as R. Yisrael of Shklov, author of Pe'as Ha-Shulhan, and dignitaries such as R. Nathan Adler, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, attempted to establish contact with the Ethiopian community. R. Azriel Hildesheimer accepted the Ethiopians as Jews, based on an article by a R. Guggenheimer in Jeshurun in which he claims that they are descended from converts. Nevertheless, despite the doubts that R. Hildesheimer and R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook had about the origin of this community, they signed public proclamations about the importance of saving the Ethiopian community from Christian missionaries. R. Yitzhak Isaac Herzog wrote that if they are converts, most likely their conversions were not valid. However, we must try to bring them under "The Wings of Heaven" and convert them properly.

Despite all this uncertainty, R. Ovadiah Yosef (Yabi'a Omer, vol. 8 Even Ha-Ezer no. 11) ruled that the Beta Israel are full-fledged Jews from the tribe of Dan without any question of mamzerus. He did this quite simply, and with his typical assuredness, by simply denying the admissibility of any historical evidence, even from "frum" historians of the nineteenth century. Eliminating all of the doubts with such a broad stroke, R. Yosef simply relied on the Radbaz's ruling.

Most other contemporary posekim were unwilling to take such drastic steps. R. Eliezer Waldenberg, R. Moshe Feinstein, R. Elazar Shach, R. Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, R. Yitzhak Weiss and the Bada"tz of the Edah Ha-Haredis all ruled that the Beta Israel require full conversions before being considered Jews (cited in Tzitz Eliezer, 17:48).

R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De'ah 4:41) writes that there is no problem of mamzerus among them. However, the Bada"tz of the Edah Ha-Haredis and R. Yitzhak Weiss ruled that there is, as did R. Moshe Shternbuch.

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate ruled that the Beta Israel require conversion before being considered full Jews (but, curiously, do not require hatafas dam beris).

III. Practical Issues

The question arose in the early 1980s whether the world Jewish community should attempt to save the Beta Israel community. R. Moshe Feinstein wrote that we should, on condition that these people convert when they arrive in Israel. Otherwise, evidently, having questionable Jews mix into the Jewish community was too disastrous a result. R. Ovadiah Yosef, who fully accepted the Beta Israel as Jews, enthusiastically supported their rescue. R. J. David Bleich offered two cogent reasons that should move us to attempt to work on behalf of saving the Beta Israel: 1) Because gentiles considered them Jews and if they gain the impression that the world Jewish community will defend local Jews, other Jews will affected and 2) people will think that this decision is based solely on racial considerations. R. Menahem Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, evidently removed himself from this issue and took no stance on this controversy (I mention this because there is one blogger who is fixated on this point).

To my knowledge, the Beta Israel who arrived in the land of Israel did not convert. Someone please correct me if I am wrong. Furthermore, it is unclear whether all those who converted ever intended to become fully observant of traditional Judaism, which raises questions about their conversions (only of those who are non-observant of traditional rabbinic Judaism).

Another issue is whether Jewish schools may accept Beta Israel who did not convert. Because they are questionably Jewish, there are serious halakhic and social problems with this. R. Moshe Feinstein ruled that we should allow them into schools, despite the clear problems associated with such a move, because this would (hopefully) prevent the assimilation of possible Jews. However, others - such as R. Menahem Schneerson - ruled strictly on this matter based on the prohibition against teaching Torah to gentiles and the problem of socializing Jewish children and doubtfully Jewish children (i.e. marriage issues).

(Much of the material here was gleaned from an article by R. J. David Bleich in Or Ha-Mzrah that was printed in his Bi-Nesivos Ha-Halakhah. I am not sure which volume, but my photocopy is from pages 221-241.)

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