Opinion & Comment About the Falashas An Halachic Statement
To the Editor:
“More and more goyim want to move to Israel” (9 Iyar) and the intended immigration of thousands more Falash Mura reminded one of the statement of Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt”l: “Ethiopian `Jews’ are not Jews at all. It’s a falsehood, sheker vekozov.” (tape 853).
The keenness of some Sephardi religious authorities to allow them in is thus doubly perplexing, and a great deal of ignorance, wishful thinking and emotion clouds the subject.
The original Falashas believed themselves to be descended from Jewish nobles of Jerusalem who escorted the Queen of Sheba home from her visit to Shlomoh. This belief is challenged by scientific theory which holds them to be of pure Ethiopian stock, part of the Agaw group of tribes of Cushitic origin, indistinguishable physically and psychologically from their fellow Ethiopians. Most of the great Ethiopicists of the last century, especially Conti Rossini of Rome, Cerulli of Milan, Polotsky of Jerusalem, Leslau of California, Rodison of Paris, Ullendorff of London, and Rabbi Dr. Maurice Gaguine of Manchester, rejected the concept of an authentic Jewish source for the Falashas as being historically unwarranted.
Rabbi Gaguine, whose thesis on Ethiopic studies has been entered by universities as the definitive work on the subject, noted (“The Falashas: Fact and Fiction,” 1985) that the Falashas: 1) called their place of worship masgid — “mosque” in Arabic; 2) had no knowledge of Hebrew or Aramaic, reciting all their prayers in Ge’ez; 3) used only the Ethiopic Bible, which includes Apocryphal books excluded from our Tanach, such as Tobit, Judith and the Wisdom of Ben Sirah; they did not possess any Sefer Torah in scroll form, but read from a book; 4) did not use Tefillin, Tallis, Tzitzis or Mezuzas; 5) observed the Sabbath without any light, fire or heated food, and kept the Festivals on different dates and in styles markedly different from our own; 6) performed animal sacrifices forbidden by the rabbis since the destruction of the Temple; 7) practiced a crude form of Shechitah, not in accordance with the sophisticated and painless method laid down in the Codes; 8) made no ritual distinction between meat and milk; 9) circumcised boys, as do all Ethiopians, but omitting the vital per’iah, as mandated by the Din. They subjected girls to excision, that is common to most African tribes. Both the operations on boys and girls were performed by women; 10) practiced monasticism, a movement totally alien to Judaism, as an important part of their theology which was a mixture of pagan, Judaic and Christian elements; they had no knowledge of the Oral Law or of Talmudic interpretation; 11) allowed the title and performance of Cohanic functions to persons of non-Aharonic descent; 12) Chalitzah was unknown to them; ironically, those who wish to recognize the Falashas as Jews would by definition be classing many of them as mamzerim, since the written Get was also unknown to them and matrimonial and genealogical records non-existent.
There is evidence that Jewish merchants from Arabia spread a form of Judaic culture throughout Ethiopia during the pre- Christian Aksumite era. The available historical, linguistic, cultural and semantic evidence suggests that the Falashas are probably descended from those pockets of resistance that clung to this Judaic culture against the fierce Christian penetration of Ethiopia.
Claiming filiation from Jews is a fairly common phenomenon whereby colonized minorities tend to identify their plight with that of Ancient Israel e.g. the African-American “Black Hebrews” of Dimona, who claim to be the real Jews, with Ashkenazim and Sephardim as the impostors!
Some claim that the Falashas are connected to the Tribe of Dan. Yet The Talmud rules that because they lost contact for so long with the spiritual leadership of the Tribe of Judah, all the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel are halachically goyim to all intents and purposes (Yevomos 17), but that in Messianic times they will return and accept again the Torah of Moshe.
The consensus of almost all Halachic authorities was that there is such room for doubt as to the Falashas’ Jewishness that they require a formal conversion procedure. This was the plan until the Ethiopian immigrants were incited almost to riot at Ben Gurion airport in 1985 by anti-religious elements to refuse to undergo any conversion, not even simple ritual immersion in a mikveh. Some Rabbinic authorities, under political pressure, backtracked on their ruling, now holding that they are full Jews not requiring any conversion!
It is advocated that any conversion be performed on an individual basis outside the Land of Israel, not out of “racism” as some claim, but as a matter of upholding Torah Law. Whilst acknowledging their courage in wanting to be identified as Jews, the Falasha lineage is so suspect that for them to be accepted by all Jews as a bona fide part of the Am Yisroel, Halachic conversion is a sine qua non. The Falash Mura even more so.
“Be careful not to state a false halacha which in itself is prohibited. Do not tell them that we consider them definite Jews. Rather, tell them that we are unsure of their Jewishness but we are prepared to educate them in the Torah of G-d and His commandments. Until they convert, do not consider them in practice to be definite Jews, even regarding counting them for a minyan or calling them to the Torah. Do not embarrass them but do not flatter them” (Igros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 4:41).
We await with keen anticipation the time when the Moshiach will reveal from which of the Twelve Tribes each Jew truly hails (Rambam, Hilchos Melochim 12:3), and the Ingathering of the Exiles when, “The L-rd shall set His Hand a second time to recover the remnant of His people that shall be left, from Ashur and from Mitzrayim, from Patros and from Cush and from Elam and Shinar and from Chamas and the isles of the sea” (Yeshaya 11:11)