“Judging the Judges” in a Jewish and Democratic State

Israeli society, Jewish and non-Jewish, needs to make the right and appropriate choice: that of every group and individual integrating its glorious past with the new reality imposed upon it as a necessary part of the process of establishing the state. Difference is not a flaw. It is a fact. Lack of mutual love and respect are the disease.

In Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the state’s founders express their view that there is a direct relationship between the Jewish people’s consciousness and historical ties to Eretz Israel, and their right to the land – a right recognized in the Balfour Declaration and affirmed by United Nations resolution that preceded the founding of the state. Recognition of the Jewish people’s connection to its land dates to ancient times. The Declaration of Independence tells a story that began over three thousand years ago, in Biblical times, and continued through long years of exile during which the Jewish people remained loyal to their culture and their land, until they returned to their ancient home in recent generations:

After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.

Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland […]

This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November, 1917, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in particular, gave international sanction to the historic connection between the Jewish people and Eretz-Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home.

We have before us a clear connection between the Jewish people’s inner sense of self and the declared political stance of the nations of the world. This inner consciousness influences and refines the behavior of the nations.

Ethiopian Jewry is a Jewish subgroup unaffiliated with the Jewish textual canon that developed in the time of the Sages, after the destruction of the Second Temple. It is known as an ancient community of Jews originating with those who left Eretz Israel or were exiled with the exile of the Ten Tribes. The community survived despite hardship and its complete isolation from other Jewish communities around the world.

Ethiopian Jews gave their lives for their Judaism; for thousands of years they dreamed and prayed for the ingathering of the exiles. Like Jews everywhere, they, too, hoped to return and keep hold of their ancient homeland, as the Declaration notes. Four decades ago, tens of thousands of them arrived in the State of Israel. I myself was born in a little village in Ethiopia, and I remember, from my childhood, the yearning for Jerusalem. And so, when given the signal, moved by the sense of a historical and traditional connection, thousands of us embarked on an arduous and heroic journey. Men, women and children left Ethiopia on foot – not just to flee Ethiopia, to flee exile, but also to return with joy to Jerusalem.

The aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry was an ordeal, both in Ethiopia and in Israel. The journey to Jerusalem and the absorption process in Israel left the olim with scars, whether on their feet or on their hearts. Especially painful was the encounter between the immigrants’ sense of themselves and the halachic determination made by an external party – the State of Israel – regarding their Jewishness. I will relate three anecdotes in this regard.

First anecdote: While I was a post-doctoral researcher at Brandeis University near Boston, I entered the regional office of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Though I was wearing a kippa, I was asked about my religious identity. When I answered that I was Jewish, the clerk said “But you don’t look Jewish.” I wondered how a Jew is supposed to look. As someone who grew up with a grandfather who was a tzaddik and knew the Bible by heart, I’d never doubted my Jewish identity, even for an instant.

Second anecdote: My friend, Professor Ephraim Isaac (an Ethiopian-born American Jew) likes to tell about how, at a lecture he gave in New York in the 1970s, he’d “revealed” his Ethiopian origins to his audience, most of them American Jews of Polish descent. They were astonished: How did Jews get to Ethiopia? Where is it written? In response, my friend opened the Bible and proved to them that Ethiopia appears there at least five times, while Poland and Europe don’t appear even once.

Third anecdote: After I gave a lecture on the topic of “who is a Jew,” a Jewish acquaintance came up to me and whispered in my ear: “I want to tell you a secret. I’ve decided that you should be my rabbi. Not because I believe you’re a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but because you did giyur lechumra [a conversion process undergone by those whose Jewishness is in question].” From this I learned that there is no difference between a Jew who is descended from the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs, and a Jew who underwent giyur lechumra.

These three stories, each from a different angle, raise the question of what Judaism is and of who is a Jew – but in particular the question of what is a Jewish state.

A generation that judges its judges

After millennia of exile, the Jewish people returned to its land and took responsibility for its fate, establishing a sovereign Jewish and democratic state. The Declaration of Independence affirms that the State of Israel “will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the Exiles.” Accordingly, most Israeli governments have viewed immigrant absorption as a national challenge and as a Jewish-ethical value. And Israel has indeed proven to be a unique model in the immigration and absorption sphere.

The melting-pot policy of the state’s first few decades aimed to facilitate the absorption of millions of olim within a short period of time. Many feel that that policy was crucial to the building of the nation – its military, its economy, and the infrastructure necessary for a developed and advanced state. However, the melting-pot policy was oppressive and generated feelings of disadvantage and discrimination among the different immigrant groups. These groups, which today make up Israeli society, paid a heavy price adapting themselves to the emerging Israeli narrative. Despite this, the only one of all the Jewish dispersions to have been collectively denied its Jewish identity appears to be Ethiopian Jewry, due to the doubt cast upon its Jewishness.

Israel has not managed to strike a balance between the Jewish/democratic values of the old-guard establishment and the inner sense of self of the different identities that currently make up Israeli society. A strange situation has thus emerged: there are almost no groups in Israel that do not feel “separate”; each feels that it has been subjected to oppression, discrimination, and neglect. Surprisingly, however, all of the groups at least outwardly project a sense of being “in charge” here. The combination of perceived oppression and a patronizing attitude has resulted in a hierarchical and judgmental encounter between the groups.

The Book of Ruth opens as follows: “Now it came to pass in the days when the judges judged.” The Sages have an interesting commentary on this verse: “Rabbi Yohanan says, What is the meaning of that which is written: ‘And it happened in the days of the judging of the judges’?” (Ruth 1:1). This indicates a generation that judged its judges. If a judge would say to the defendant standing before him: Remove the splinter from between your teeth [meaning rid yourself of some minor infraction], the defendant would say to him, Remove the beam from between your eyes [meaning you have committed far more severe sins]. If the judge would say to him: ‘Your silver has become dross’ (Isaiah 1:22) [meaning your coins are counterfeit], the defendant would say to him ‘Your wine is mixed with water (Isaiah 1:22) [meaning you yourself dilute your wine with water and sell it].” Where does that “beam” that the defendant says is between the judge’s eyes exist? Is it only in the defendant’s imagination or rhetoric? Or does the beam exist in reality and, if so, are the judges indeed dishonest? And regarding the topic at hand: Who are the Jews who are perpetuating the tradition and who are the Jews who are not perpetuating that tradition? Why is the current establishment’s “judging” of the authenticity of the Ethiopian community’s Jewishness more “valid” than the tradition and self-concept of Ethiopian Jews regarding their Jewishness? These are all weighty questions. We face these questions not only with regard to Ethiopian Jewry, but also with regard to all the relationships between Israel’s different identity groups and the Israeli establishment.

Who judges whom? Between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel

The challenge is not only the growing rift between Israeli citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, but also the growing rift between us, Israel’s Jewish citizens, and Diaspora Jewry. By “Diaspora Jewry” I do not mean solely the Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Jews living in the large and well-known communities abroad, but also a variety of lesser-known groups around the world whose members define themselves as Jews. While Israel appears to be distancing itself from those groups, they are actually trying to strengthen their relationship with the state.

A day will come when Israel will be unable to ignore the phenomenon. A global awakening of desire to belong to the Jewish people, manifested in ways ranging from personal or academic interest to individual and group aspirations to fully affiliate, is clearly evident at this time. Judaism is gaining considerable traction in Africa, to the point where some maintain that it will become one of that continent’s major faiths. How should Israel relate to these groups? Perhaps it was the current era to which the prophet Zechariah was referring in the following verse (8:23): “In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold, out of all the languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying: We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”

When I was growing up in Ukraine, in Donetsk, there were many different nations and nationalities there. There were people whose documents designated them as “Russian,” “Ukrainian,” “Georgian,” “Cossack.” It wasn’t so important, the differences weren’t great, but one thing was important – if it said “Jewish,” it was like you had some kind of disease […] Everything’s turned around. When I was a child, “Jewish” was exceptional in a bad way, no one envied us, but today on the Ukrainian border “Jewish” is exceptional in a good way. It means people who have somewhere to go, and who have an entire nation, their family, that’s waiting for them on the outside. (Makover-Belikov, 2022).

These moving words of Natan Sharansky’s aside, the state is aware that many Ukrainians are not Jewish according to rabbinical Halacha. This group will join the half-million Israelis from the Former Soviet Union who are Jewish per the Law of Return but not according to rabbinical Halacha. If we add to this the modern crisis of secularization, and the conditions that have emerged in Israeli Jewish society and across the Western world, we find that the sum total is an even greater challenge for the Jewish and democratic state. What, then, is the solution? Any given measure could seriously weaken the state’s Jewishness, but at the same time it could harm the inner sense of self of many Jews in Israel and abroad, and of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.

Toward a possible solution

There are a few basic principles on which we can agree. First: Political involvement in these issues is harmful, even devastatingly so. Second: All those who are concerned for Israel’s Jewish character need to provide creative answers to the questions “Who is a Jew?” and “What is Judaism?” Third: so long as conversion qualifies people for citizenship according to the Law of Return, it is important that the State of Israel oversee conversion and exert control regarding the definition of who is a Jew – but only if the Chief Rabbinate understands that it cannot close its eyes to what is happening on the issue of Jewish identity, and that it has to seek creative means of resolving that issue. One way or another, it seems to me that the religious culture of Ethiopian Jews stands on foundations that could provide a solution to the dilemma of who is a Jew in our time, and even remedy the politicization of conversion in Israel.

The Jewish community in Ethiopia was always a model of righteousness, kindness, and solidarity, and much can be learned from it. Ethiopian Jews received their identity from the community, which was isolated for many years from the evolution of Halacha in Eretz Israel and Babylon. Because of this, there are many differences between Ethiopian Psikat Halacha or halachic adjudication, and Talmudic psika. In certain areas of the tradition, the Ethiopian community perpetuates customs that predate the Talmud, and when the community immigrated to Eretz Israel it brought that ancient body of custom with it.

In Ethiopian Judaism, belonging to the nation is a matter of personal intention, not of ethno-biological connection. Torah and mitzvah obligations are not central. The Beta Israel community did not much concern itself with definitions of who is a Jew. In the eyes of that community, being a Jew meant adhering to a Jewish way of life. This approach does not view the convert as having been reborn, and it completely disregards his past. In Ethiopia, being obligated in Torah and mitzvot was not central, but rather the person’s intention and desire to link his or her fate with that of the Jewish people. Regarding the “who is a Jew” question, Ethiopian-Jewish tradition inspiringly emphasizes both the subjective criterion (by declaring that a Jew is someone who is Jewish in his own eyes), and the objective criterion of Biblical-era Halacha, according to which a Jew is the child of a Jewish father. Each of these two criteria, on its own, could prove catastrophic for Jewish society.

And what about those who are not Jewish? The community, and not the state in which they live, gave them their identity. The Ethiopian Jewish population was scattered and dispersed in small villages. These village-based communities differed from each other in character. Their spiritual leaders, the kessim, all had their own individual approaches to leadership. At the heart of Ethiopian Jewish tradition is a natural relationship between moral qualities and halachic-legal credibility. Ethiopian Jewish tradition generally focuses on the person’s intention to worship his Creator, and is less concerned with precise halachic details. Even so, the community lived in a world where morality and religious ritual were intertwined and fruitfully influenced each other, rather than dismissing each other. Ethiopian Jewry’s kashrut customs, like their customs pertaining to ritual purity and impurity, intensified the already strong solidarity between individuals. For example, although Ethiopian Jews strictly observed the custom of not entering into contact with non-Jews, they did make sure to invite their Christian neighbors to all of their events and festive occasions, without prejudice, even if they sat separately. Each group displayed responsibility toward the other; each side prepared itself for the possibility of stepping outside its boundaries to see the world through the other’s eyes, just as it had become accustomed to looking at the world through its own eyes. Ethiopian Judaism succeeded admirably at unifying its many and diverse Jewish communities into a single large community. It seems to me that these foundations of tolerance and solidarity, as manifested in the Ethiopian Jewish tradition, could prove helpful to the Israeli polity as it contends with the current challenges I have mentioned here.

Israeli society, Jewish and non-Jewish, needs to make the right and appropriate choice: that of every group and individual integrating its glorious past with the new reality imposed upon it as a necessary part of the process of establishing the state. Difference is not a flaw. It is a fact. Lack of mutual love and respect are the disease. As is written in Tanna Devei Eliyahu (Chapter 28): “God said to Israel: My beloved children, I lack nothing. What is there for Me to ask of you? I ask only that you love each other, that you honor each other, and that you fear each other.” Or as my grandfather, Turo Yafe Tafari, would say: “When there is love, it is possible to live together even on the head of a pin.”

Work cited

Makover-Belikov, Sari (April 30, 2022). “His Heart Is in the East: The War in Europe Touches Natan Sharansky in the Most Personal Way.” Maariv Supplement (also on Walla).

Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom, the rabbi of the Kdoshei Yisrael community in Kiryat Gat, is Senior Lecturer and Director of the International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry at Ono Academic College.