I recently exchanged emails with a friend in Jerusalem. He is adamant. Ethiopian Jews are not Jewish. To bolster his point, he cites DNA evidence, evidence that, at most, can indicate that Ethiopian Jews not descended from the southern tribes of Israel, primarily Judah and Levi. He also cites Hebrew University’s Steven Kaplan, who believes Ethiopian Jews adopted Judaism in the early Middle Ages as part of a wave of Judaization sweeping Ethiopia. (Kaplan himself fully supports EJ aliya and absorption, and is very clear on those points.) There is also evidence of this noted by another academic who specializes in Ethiopian song.
The point of this post is not to refute this belief, but I will make one simple point regarding it: Nothing these academics believe and nothing in that DNA evidence precludes conversion to Judaism. In other words, at best this evidence proves not that Ethiopian Jews are goyyim, but that Ethiopian Jews may be converts. And, when you factor in what academics of equal stature say in opposition, or what many others say – based on solid evidence – about the lineage of Ashkenazi Jews, for example, or the ‘unity’ of the Tribes of Israel, one quickly realizes that all of this evidence is a two-edged sword; what cuts the black Jews you so dislike cuts you, deeply, as well.
The point of this post is to ask a hypothetical question: What if Ethiopian Jews are not Jewish? What if they never converted and are not descended from Jews? What if they are simply well-meaning non-Jews who adopted as many Jewish practices as they could and identified as Jews, doing so for hundreds of years, often under great persecution? How should we then properly relate to them?
Let me quote from my friend’s emails because they are representative of many other emails and comments I’ve received over the last twenty-five years:
"[Ethiopian Jews are] just African black guys with feathers and bells singing their ol’ folk tunes but they sure got rhythm … I see dozens of Ethiopians a day and 95% look like deep African tribal blacks and the other 5 % look more refined but none of them look Jewish to me… SHVARZAH NIC YIDDEN … they ain’t Jews except to the non-religious politicians who want cannon fodder they are employed as security guards and janitors and vote for the liberal parties the lefties love it canned votes and someone to sweep the floors … you marry a sevarzah and i will marry a Jewish girl your kids will have rhythm and mine will get a Noble prize (at least statistically)…"
Is this any way to treat people who have suffered as Jews for hundreds of years?
One would think that even those holding the minimalist position, those who reject all evidence in support of Ethiopian Jews’ Jewish descent, would have respect for people who suffered so much because everybody who persecuted them did so to persecute Jews.
Indeed, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein mentions this in his letter, and writes: "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." And, as Rabbi Feinstein, Rabbi Ahron Soleveitchik and others have made clear many times, one may not discriminate against a person, Jewish or not, because of skin color.
But it should not take a pesak halakha to teach Jews that. I would think that if a people had suffered so much and risked so much for Judaism and Israel, we would, at the very least, be civil toward them. We certainly would want to help them out of danger and distress, and do whatever is necessary to help them succeed.
Yet, in the Ashkenazi Orthodox world (especially in the American part of it) the opposite is often the case. Here is a quote from an email sent to me by a leading member of the RCA: "[A leading Orthodox professor with close ties to Chabad] once said that the poskim who affirmed the certain Jewishness of the Ethiopian Jews were those who did not read a European language." This is a racist slap at the dozens of Sefardic poskim who hold, just like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, that Ethiopian Jews are 100% Jewish. Needless to say, this Orthodox professor is not known as a friend to Ethiopian Jews in any way, not even following Rabbi Feinstein’s minimalist position quoted above – a position, by the way, endorsed by Rabbi J.B. Soleveitchik and dozens of others, as well.
I think this all points to a larger malaise in Orthodoxy, a malaise that has turned morality into "what can we get away with" rather than "what is the ideal we should strive for."
The mesorah tells us that the Messiah won’t check lineage. Traditionally, questions of lineage have been dealt by rabbis in the most lenient ways possible. Yet, put black skin on people and somehow leniency gets tossed to the wind, and strictness becomes the norm.
This is racism, pure and simple – bigotry based on skin color. Rabbis who allow this, either by commission or by silence, are many. You can find them at your local Chabad House, at your Modern Orthodox shul, on staff at Yeshiva University, and on the streets and study halls of Mea Shearim and Geulah. They work for Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach, study in the Mir, stroll 13th Avenue in Brooklyn. They are plentiful.
It seems to me they are killing Judaism.
[Perhaps the only reason I remained a BT after failing (or so I thought) to get a clear response from the Rebbe on Ethiopian Jews was the reaction of Rabbi Moshe Feller, the Rebbe’s shaliach to the Upper Midwest, to a letter written by Ethiopian Jewish leaders and smuggled out of Ethiopia. The letter detailed the suffering of the people, including several rapes of young girls. As he read the letter, Rabbi Feller began to softly cry. His is the only positive reaction I can cite in all these years, outside of Rabbi Feinstein’s message to me and the endorsement of other rabbis to the public parts of it. In dozens of interactions over many years, I would say well over 98% were wholly negative.]