Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Ethiopian Jews

Rav_moshe_feinstein_ej_1984Recently, I found Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s 1984 teshuva-letter on Ethiopian Jews stuck between two file folders. (You can click the thumbnail image for a larger, more readable image or download a PDF.) This letter was written in response to a question I asked through Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Rav Moshe’s son-in-law. He referred the question to his son, Mordechai, who then served as Rav Moshe’s secretary-assistant. What follows is a (rough) translation:

With the Help of HaShem

26 Sivan 5744

To the honored, my beloved grandson ha rav ha-gaon moreinu ha-rav Rabbi Mordechai Tendler, shlit"a, with blessings of peace and blessing and all good:

With my best regards,

Here as per your request, I reaffirm what you wrote in my name several years ago regarding the "Falashas," that it is known what is written in the responsa of the Radba"z, section seven, §9, that it is understood he considers them to be Jews; however for practical application of the law it is difficult to rely on this, for it is not clear if the Radba"z knew well the reality regarding them, nor is it clear whether up until our time their status has [remained the same and] not changed. But in regard to practical application of the law they are not mamzerim or the like, for the Radba"z mentions there that many many doubts apply to them. Review my responsa where I detail at length the qualifications of the rabbinical prohibitions regarding the legal status of ‘an illegitimate child of unknown fatherhood’ and ‘a child found in the street whose parents are (both) unknown’.

Regarding their Judaism, we must consider it a safek [doubt], and one must require of them true conversion before we permit them to marry within the Jewish community. Yet even before their conversion it is an active precept to save them from being drawn into a non-Jewish creed and from danger as the law is for any Jew, for "safek nefashot l’hakel" ["a doubt involving saving lives is judged leniently"] even where here the doubt is in their very status as Jews.

One should also know that even if in practical application of the law they are not Jews, nevertheless since they think they are Jews and sacrifice their lives for their Judaism, we are obligated to save them.***

As you mentioned, they should not be brought to the Land of Israel* unless they have underdone a conversion**, in order to not increase the concern for assimilation [i.e., intermarriage with Jews who do not have a doubt regarding their Jewish status and also a weakening of the faith of Ethiopian Jews themselves]. But if they have legally converted, and as I have heard they are doing, we shall consider them like all Jews, and one must assist them and support them for all needs of livelyhood, both physically and spiritually. And I suffered great aguish because I have heard there are those in Israel who are not drawing them close in spiritual matters and are causing, G-d forbid, that they might be lost from Judaism. And it seems to me these people are behaving so only because the color of the Falashas’ skin is black. It is obvious that one must draw them close, not only because they are no worse than the rest of the Jews – and because there is no distiction in practical application of the law because they are black – but also because one can say perhaps they are gerim [converts], and are therefore included in the mitzva "and you shall love the convert."

And I will conclude with the hope that the situation will improve, and in the merit in observing all the mitzvot, we should all soon merit to the ingathering of the exiles by our righteous messiah.

Your grandfather who loves you in heart and soul,

Moshe Feinstein

[All emphasis added.]

* Suggestions were made to bring Ethiopian Jews to Cyprus or Italy (or even the US or Canada) first to fulfill this request, but it proved impossible to do so. I told R. Mordechai Tendler this would not work. His answer based on conversations with his grandfather was to try anyway, which we did, and to note "safek nefashot l’hakel" in the teshuva. In other words, you have to save them no matter what. Rav Moshe wanted to give Baruch Tegegne and I brachot (blessings) to do so and asked us to come to the mountains, where he was vacationing, so he could bless us in person. Illness on our parts prevented this.

** Rav Moshe would later specify a giur l’humra, a form of pro forma conversion that allows conversion without first pushing away the potential converts and without first teaching them Jewish law. He would also later note that the Israeli Chief Rabbis’ decision on these matters should be respected.

*** Rav Moshe had long before signed a public letter with non-Orthodox rabbis calling for the immediate aid for Ethiopian Jews and for rescue. It is linked here. Rabbi J. B. Soleveitchik signed the same letter. This is the campaign the late Lubavitcher Rebbe refused to join.


Filed under Chabad and Ethiopian Jews, Chabad: Rebbes and the Abdication of Responsibility, Documents, Ethiopian Jews, History, Jewish Leadership

20 responses to “Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Ethiopian Jews

  1. Ma. Rabbi

    Where do you see a Giyur Lechumra? He says clearly that they require a complete conversion.

  2. PishPosh

    WOW!!! And a very excellent translation it is. It captures the context perfectly. Not to be flippant, but what a sweet old man Harav Feinstien was. I knew he was “a nice guy” as it were, but I didnt know till reading this letter that his heart was as great as his learning.

    Thank You Shmarya.

  3. MA Rabbi –

    As usual, your reading comp skills seem low. The quote: “Rav Moshe would later specify a giur l’humra …”


    PishPosh –

    Thanks. I did a rough, as did a friend. I ended up editing his.

  4. Ma. Rabbi

    My reading comp is just fine. You bring no proof whatsoever that Rav Moshe later said this.

  5. Try looking it up. It is NOT in dispute. Your knowledge of your teacher’s teshuvot and actions is appallingly weak.

  6. Ma. Rabbi

    The burden of proof is on you. If Rav Moshe ever made such a statement, please inform me which volume of Igros Moshe it is in.

  7. Vol 8, should be. And there is no burden of proof on me. This issue has been discussed in halakhic circles for years, circles you uquite obviously do not travel in.

  8. avrohom

    Hi Dear Shmarya, and Pish-Posh

    Reb Moshe actually uses the term “GERUS AMITI” a strong term (stronger than “sofek gerus”). SO although reb Moshe felt that they were sofek yidden (as he writes there) he did not want they should go to Erets Yisroel without the “gerus amiti” so that it does not increase “hitbolelut”.

    Shana Tova and a great Yom Tov to both of you,


  9. A –

    I realize that. Please see the footnote.


    Ma Rabbi –

    Last time I checked, any teshuva written after a book is published is not in that book. In other words, since Iggros Moshe is chronological, and since this teshuva dates from late 1984 or 1985, it would seem by default to be in Vol 8. It certainly can’t be in 1-6 and proabably not 7 either. Check the dates.

  10. Rav NMoshe’s yeshiva published a piece on this in its journal, I think in 1986. That may be the most complte source, and it may include the teshuva I posted as well.

  11. avrohom

    Hi shmarya,

    thanks for the footnote. I would appreciate if you can give me a direct reference. I will try to look it up.

    PErhaps there can a few ways to refer to gerus: 1) Meikor hadin (which would mean that it is prerequite midoraysso, in a form of “vaday”, “certainity”). 2) GIyur Mitoras Safek: Giyur in for of Safek, ie. in a state of a doubt, in which case it could be a giyur mideorayyso since it is a “safek deorayta”. 3) Giyur lechumroh: something like a requirement miderabbanan, where it is only a additional stringency.

    From the letter you posted it would appear that it is something like #2 and he calls it here “giyur amiti” (for we have a real strong safek on their status as he explained in the begining of this letter: 1) it is uncertain if the Radbaz knew all details, 2)IT is uncertain if the situations hasn’t change since then).

    Again if you find the reference i would be gfrateful to you.

    Shana Tova and gut yom tov,


  12. Should be in Igros Moshe vol 8

  13. avrohom

    Hi Shmarya,

    Sorry to bother you. Where in Chelek 8?

    Otoh, I found from Chacham Ovadya quoting Reb Moshe mentioned here before:

    שו”ת יביע אומר חלק ח – אה”ע סימן יא

    ד) גם הלום שמעתי שהגאון רבי משה פיינשטיין שליט”א, כתב מכתב להר”מ טנדלר, ביום כ”ז סיון תשמ”ד, שאף שהרדב”ז כתב שאין ספק שהפלשים יהודים משבט דן, לדינא קשה לסמוך על זה, כי לא ברור אם הרדב”ז ידע היטב את המציאות אודותם, וגם לא ברור אם עד זמנינו לא נשתנה מצבם. ע”כ. [וכעת ראיתי שחזר לכתוב כן לנכדו הרב ר’ יעקב טנדלר במכתב מיום כ”ח סיון תשמ”ה].

    Which seems to be the letter you mentioned. and in both cases Reb Moshe holds that they are “sofek yehudim” and need gerus missofek. Chacham Ovadya objects to his opinion on this very point. It seems clear that Reb Moshe did not holds that there is only a need for “Gerus lechumroh” but a higher level of “gerus”: “gerus missofek” as i explained before.

    A great Yom tov to you,


  14. Anonymous

    It seems that virtually 100% of the 20,000 2001-2006 Falash Mura undergo Halachic geirus ie mikveh and hatofas dam.

    Is it known how many of the 100,000 Falashas of 1984-98 underwent Halachic geirus? 20% or even less?

  15. Scott learn your facts before your campaigns

    Modern scholars of Ethiopian history and Ethiopian Jews, such as James Quirin, Steve Kaplan, Kay Shelemay, and Harold Marcus, consider the Beta Israel to be a native group of Ethiopian Christians, who took on Biblical practices, and came to see themselves as Jews. As Paul B. Henze explains:

    These groups came into conflict with the military colonies and Christian missions which were the main instruments of the extension southward of the Ethiopian state. They may have been joined by dissidents or rebelling northern Christians who felt their interpretation of ritual, sacred texts and traditions of art represented a more ancient Israelite connection than Orthodox Monophysite Christianity itself. The Beta Israel can thus be understood as a manifestation of the kind of rebellious archaism that has often come to the surface in Christianity — e.g. Russian Old Believers and German Old Lutherans. Assertion of Jewish derivation, they felt, provided them with a stronger claim to legitimacy than their Christian enemies. (Paul B. Henze. Layers of Time. Palgrave, 2000. p. 55)

  16. 1. Learn your halakha before you campaign.

    2. There are other scholars who disagree, including Wolf Leslau.

  17. “Is it known how many of the 100,000 Falashas of 1984-98 underwent Halachic geirus? 20% or even less?”

    They were discouraged from converting, more by the actions of Orthodox rabbis than anything else. If Rav Moshe and Ovadia Yosef had been listened to, this would not be a problem today. Unfortunately, haredim and Mafdalniks chose racism over halakha.

  18. Scott learn your facts before your campaigns

    Moshe Feinstein, Elazar Shach, Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, and Shlomo Zalman Auerbach have all ruled that the Falashas of the Beta Israel is seriously suspect.

    Wolf Leslau is one scholar, I mentioned 5 scholars who are more respected above.

    I find it odd that you listen to modern scholars regaridng everything in Judaism besides the Falashas!

  19. Ziv

    Shamariya and all of you gazilion liars…what do modern scholars know about the Falasha – by the way they are called Baita Yisrael in contrast to the name Ashke-NAZI. Your claims are all false. Many Beita Israelis count/trace several generations of Jewish family lines. Did any of these scholars translate any Amharic scholarly works?

  20. Addis Ababa Baby

    I went to Jerusalem once and saw Ethiopian guards standing at the malls and the HaKotel wall for hours without moving. (just like the royal british guards). Not to mention that it was really hurting to hear their stories of the past and their fate in that freaking israel.
    Israel is like 1910 in America in the South. I wouldn’t be surprized to see if you american jewish race masterminds start buring the David star (as opposed to the cross of the KKK) and walk around the Deizengoff, Mea Shearim, and Beni Brak to boast your white jewish supremacy!

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