Monday, February 27, 2012

Black Jews

From time to time publishers and authors send me their books for review. I have recently been inundated with many such books and find it impossible to review all of them. But there is one book in particular that has caught my eye. It is the Koren Ethiopian Haggada – Journey to Freedom – edited by Rabbi Menachem Waldman.

This Haggadah is beautifully executed. It is a hard cover volume well bound printed on high quality glossy paper. It has full color and black and white pictures of Ethiopian Jews of the past and present.There are many illustrations of their customs and full color reproductions of rare documents.

Aside from being a a full featured Haggadah - it also tells the story of their dramatic rescue out of Ethiopia and into Israel. The text of the Haggadah is beautifully laid out on golden colored pages – Hebrew on the left and English translation on the right. What makes it fascinating is the accompanying narrative in English on white pages of the rich history and culture of our Ethiopian brethren. We learn of their migration from the days of Sancheirev through Egypt and eventually to Ethiopia where they have lived for tens of centuries.

Their rituals and customs date back to near biblical times. But the Judaism they had been practicing is hardly Judaism as we know it today. It had evolved orally and independently from ancient times. By contrast Judaism as most of us know it and practice it evolved from an Oral tradition redacted in the Talmud and ultimately recorded in the Shulchan Aruch. Ethiopians did not have the Talmud. According to the narrative in the Haggada it seems that everything they knew was handed down orally from one generation to the next.

Ethiopean Jews have have always retained their identity as Jews in the Christian culture of Ethiopia. Having no rabbinic literature to rely on. Their customs devolved only on the written law of the Torah – which they had.

Without the rabbinic law they practiced things like animal sacrifices for many centuries in the post Temple era. Evetually sacrifices fell out of use except for the Korban Pesach – eating it together with Matzah and Marror. Until recently several communities actually maintained a Parah Adumah.They adhered to the laws of Tumah and Tahara. Interestingly wearing Teffilin and putting up Mezuzos on their doorposts were not observed. Taharas HaMishpacha on the other hand was observed meticulously as they understood it.

Their belief system was based in the Torah. They also understood that they were part of the Chosen people of the One God - the God of Israel. They believed in Maamad Har Sinai – accepted the Nevi'im and the concept of Divine reward and punishment.

Their priests had a much higher function in their lives than our priests (Kohanim) do in our day. He was the one who guided their daily lives. Prayer was said only by priests in communal situations and general population would participate only by saying Amen. Prayers were recited in the Ge’ez tounge, an ancient Ethiopian language understood only by the priests and a few elders. In order for meat to be Kosher it could only be slaughtered by a priest.

Eventually Judaism as we know it had penetrated their world and some of our practices were adopted by them in their home country. But it wasn’t until they were brought to Israel in a massive migration orchestrated and carried out by the State of Israel in the early 90s that most started learning what Judaism was really all about.

Tens of thousands of them made Aliyah to Israel and they were surprised to see so many Jews that were not observant at all. Ethiopian priests saw their influence diminish and elders started incorporating the Talmud and Mishna into their lives. Judaism as most of us know it today was now quickly being adopted – modifying their traditional observance to be in accord with Halacha.

One could say that it is indeed a lost tribe found (which one is unclear). This is not a made up group of people who faked their Judaism just to get out of Ethiopia. They are Jews. Or are they? There is a catch 22 here. By accepting their status as Jews there was a Mamzer issue. By rejecting it, the Mamzer issue disappears.

If they are Jews and did not execute their divorces according to Halacha, then children of remarried women (who unknowingly still retained their status as married women) were possible Mamzerim. As there is no generational dispensation of that status, it was impossible to know who is and isn’t a Mamzer.

It have been told that the Israeli rabbinate Paskined that they were not Jews – eliminating the problem. Ethiopians were told to go through a conversion. And thus the Mamzer problem was solved. But it is insulting in the extreme to tell people who have considered themselves Jews for millennia living a rich Jewish religious lifestyle as they understood it for centuries, that we don’t believe them and they are not considered Halachicly Jewish.

I am not that familiar with the controversy other than what I just described. So I don’t really know how this issue has been resolved. What I do know is that Ethiopian Jewry has been fully absorbed by the State of Israel and a huge number of people have been saved from possible extinction in the now hostile regions of Ethiopia. When I am in Israel and I see a young Ethiopian Jewish soldier in an IDF uniform wearing his Kipa, I swell with pride. Pride in my people – the people for Israel for accomplishing this amazing feat.

For anyone who wants to know about this unique people, This Haggadah is a wonderful way to do it. Rabbi Waldman has dedicated many years of his life to Ethiopian Jewry and has learned a lot about them. He shares that with us in this book. I highly recommend it.