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05.05.2020 20:10    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  vayikra  emor  

“Who is a Jew?”

For an extremely long time the Ethiopian Jewish community was not party to the growth of the Halakhah that took place in the land of Israel and Babylonia.   This fact led to the existence of many differences between Ethiopian halakhic rulings and the rulings in the Talmud, which became accepted as binding Jewish law among Jews throughout the rest of the world.  Among Ethiopian Jews the Halakhah developed separately, so that in some areas the Ethiopian community actually preserved ancient practices in their original form, as observed prior to the talmudic period, and brought these ways to Israel. [1]

One example of a striking halakhic difference is the criterion for establishing Jewish descent, i.e., “Who is a Jew?”  According to Ethiopian practice, contrary to what is accepted in the rest of the Jewish world, a Jew is anyone who is born to a Jewish father. [2] Below we shall examine the biblical episode of the man who blasphemed    G-d, addressing the subject of Jewish descent in order to define “who is a Jew.” [3]

In this week’s reading it says (Lev. 24:10-11):   “There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian.   And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite (lit. “the son of an Israelite woman”) and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy…”

The Torah account is obscure as to all the details of the incident.  We are not told when the event took place, nor why the son of the Israelite woman came out of his tent and wandered about the camp.  Moreover, we do not know what the quarrel was about.  In contrast, the Torah takes the trouble to note that the blasphemer was the son of an Egyptian man.  Yet this very detail seems to us of marginal importance; why mention the family pedigree of the blasphemer when, ostensibly, the main point is the act itself?

We are all familiar with the following scenario: a person belonging to a certain group commits a grave offence and the immediate response of the members of that group is to disown him. Such a response often contains a not inconsiderable measure of hypocrisy, lack of responsibility, evasiveness, and an attempt to avoid dealing with the issue itself. We cannot ascribe such behavior to the Torah, so it cannot be that the Torah tells us the name of his father in order to shun him. Why then was the dubious background of the blasphemer mentioned? [4]

In my opinion here lies a deep message regarding the degree of responsibility of the individual towards himself and towards those around him, and the degree of responsibility of society towards the individual.

It seems in line to approach the matter from the point of view that in certain situations we must actually oppose, and forcefully so, drawing a distinction between the background of the wrongdoer and the wrong deed itself.  In many instances it is certainly in order to examine the circumstances that led a person to commit a grave offense.  Perhaps one ought to investigate and take into consideration the factors and forces that were at play, and not see merely the errant pupil but also the moment that preceded the wrongdoing, the insult that brought the person to the state of committing the wrong.

The tannaitic Midrash Halakhah, Sifra, adds certain things to the Torah’s brief description which are very important to the subject at hand.  We quote:

There came out … one whose mother was Israelite – whence did he come out?  From Moses’ court, for he had sought to pitch his tent in the camp of Dan.   He said to them, I am [the son] of a daughter of the tribe of Dan.  They said to him:  Scripture says: [The Israelites shall camp] each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral [lit. fathers’] house (Num. 2:2).  So he went to Moses’ court, and he came out having been found against, and he stood their and blasphemed [5] among the Israelites – which teaches us that he had become a proselyte. [6]

According to this midrash, a controversy had arisen concerning the question of the blasphemer’s belonging to the tribe of Dan [7] and had been brought before Moses’ court for adjudication.  The court rejected the blasphemer’s claim of belonging to the tribe of Dan on the basis of the argument that the right to a portion in the land is determined according to the father.  Hence he is not entitled to receive a portion in the camp of Dan.  This ruling was what caused the person to come out and, in his anger about the court ruling, curse the Lord, for it says:   “The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy.” [8]

Sifra elaborates on the description of the act and relates to the questionable status of the “son of an Egyptian man” in Israel, proclaiming that “he had become a proselyte,” [9]i.e., that initially he had been a gentile, but that he was said to be “among the Israelites” because he had converted.  Underlying this proclamation is the assumption that in those days descent followed the father and that the principle of matrilineal descent had not yet come to be accepted.

Regarding the question whether Jewish identity is determined by the mother or the father, Nahmanides notes that the French rabbis (i.e. Ashkenazi) understood the matter differently.   According to them, Sifra asserted that “he had converted” because prior to receiving the Torah, descent had followed the father. [10] Corinaldi (see note 8) relates to this issue and adds that research shows the shift to matrilineal descent took place in the second century C.E., although the reasons for this shift remain a subject of debate to this day. [11]

The customs of the Ethiopian Jews in this regard are very interesting:

·       Whoever observes the Jewish commandments (as practiced by the community) is considered a Jew.   The concept of a “secular Jew” does not exist.  One is either a member of Beta Yisrael (the House of Israel) or a gentile, and this distinction is unequivocal.

·       Descent among the Ethiopians is entirely patrilineal.  Perhaps this stems from the influence of the patriarchal society (in which the status of the father is dominant); however it might originate from an ancient halakhah predating the giving of the Torah or Ezra’s regulations.

In view of this it is understandable that the Ethiopian Jewish community did not deal extensively with defining who is a Jew.  To be a Jew meant to live a Jewish way of life.  The question, “Who is a Jew?,” with all that it entails, only became important in our world as a result of changes that took place within the Jewish community, beginning with Emancipation, continuing in the era of Enlightenment, and with redoubled force in the period after the establishment of the State of Israel.

There are many possible answers to the question, “who is a Jew,” [12] especially in terms of sociology and law, and some of the answers are likely to lead us into fateful errors. There are those who wish to stress the subjective side and say that a Jew is anyone who in his or her own eyes is Jewish. [13] On the other hand, of course, there is the objective criterion of Jewish halakhah, but the halakhic definitions should be applied with careful investigation and close study, maximal consideration and pragmatism, and much compassion.

Getting back to the issue of the Egyptian man, mentioning the parentage of the blasphemer transmits to us a sense of the gravity of his act, yet at the same time the entire episode puts a large measure of responsibility on the environment and the society.  An Egyptian among the Israelites must have felt a sense of isolation and utter helplessness; he had been denied his identity and felt that he had no place in the Lord’s inheritance, and therefore he responded as he did.

In Israeli society, as well, there are considerable numbers of people who feel shunned from the Lord’s inheritance.  The treatment they receive does not take into account their subjective view of themselves as observing the Torah and its commandments.   A more fitting approach ought to be taken to this complex problem, an approach characterized by openness, sensitivity, tolerance and acceptance of others.



* This article is dedicated to the memory of my grandfather Aba Degen Mengesha   and grandmother Turu Tefery, who exemplified the simple and innocent Jew who believes in the righteousness of his and her way.  They were dedicated and devoted to the Lord, precisely in the simplicity of their ways.   May their memory be a blessing.

[1] It should be noted here that on various occasions I heard Professor Daniel Sperber say that many of the customs of the Ethiopian Jewish community are pre-talmudic.  See too Yossi Ziv, Tum’ah ve-ToharahEtzel ha-Kehilah ha- Ethiopit, Master’s Thesis under the guidance of Prof. D.Sperber;  Shalvah Weil, Emunot ve-Minhagim Datiyim shel Yehudei Ethiopia, 1988; David Shelush, Nidhei Yisrael Yekhanes, 1988; Menahem Waldman, Yehudei Ethiopia, 1984.

[2] In principle, this is the Ethiopian halakhah, but importance attaches to whether the child was raised in a gentile or a Jewish household.  The environment in which the child grows up has an impact on hishalakhic status.  If in a Jewish home, he is considered Jewish (In cases where the mother is non-Jewish there is a “mini-conversion” ceremony, according to testimony of Kes Mentosnet Wude from Kiryat Gat and Mr. Daniel Mangashe of Beer Sheba.)

[3] This article focuses more on the societal aspect than the halakhic one, even though they are interdependent.

[4] The Torah goes to the trouble of mentioning the name of his mother:   “Now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan.”  Rashi comments:  “It is to tell how praiseworthy Israelwas that Scripture publicly mentions her name, indicating that she alone, of all the women of Israel, was a harlot.  She was called Shelomith because she was always babbling, ‘Peace be with you.”  This teaches that part of the responsibility for the blasphemer falls on his mother.

[5] Sifra contains another passage ascribing to the son of the Egyptian man the quality of a bastard:   “Even though there were no bastards at that time, he was like a bastard.”  This view was rejected by theHalakhah.

[6] Sifra (Torat Kohanim)Emor, ch. 14, Weiss edition, Vienna 1862, 104c, cited by Rashi on Lev. 24:10.

[7] In this regard it should be noted that one of the traditions regarding the origins of our community ascribes us to the tribe of Dan.  I myself heard from my grandfather, z”l, that we are descended from the tribe of Dan.

[8] Michael Corinaldi, “Le-She’elat Mihu Yehudi?” Da’atParashat Emor, 2002, no. 72.  It may reasonably be assumed that when the blasphemer left Moses’ court he encountered the Israelite man, and the latter did not spare his words but cast his cynical remarks at him.  Indeed, this is what Kli Yakar writes (on Lev. 24:10):  “It says a fight broke out in the camp, for both of them were contentious … and the fact that the Israelite got into a quarrel with him caused him to blaspheme the Holy Name.”

[9] Rabbi Menahem M. Kasher writes:   “This is to say that he had converted, i.e. that he was among the Israelites in acceptance of the Covenant, and did not follow his father” (Torah Shelemah 33, p. 290).  In contrast, Rabad in his commentary on Torat Kohanim feels compelled to adopt a far-fetched explanation:  This indicates that he had converted – “this refers to his father, who had converted and come with the Israelites into the wilderness.  Nevertheless, when he had had relations with his mother he had been a gentile, for it says, ‘the son of an Egyptian man.’”

[10] Nahmanides himself takes issue with them and holds that whether before or after the giving of the Torah the son of an Israelite woman by a gentile father is an Israelite because, in his opinion, the Israelite woman is “a fountain of purification for the other nations, making those born of her acceptable and raising them to live as she does.”

[11] Cf. the collection of views published in AJS Review (1985) 10, 2; Teshuvot Hakhmei YisraelMihu Yehudi (1959).

[12] Avner Hai Shaki, Mihu Yehudi be- Dinei Medinat Yisrael, 1977.

[13] Gershom Sholem, Devarim Be-Go, in the article entitled, “Who is a Jew?” 1971:  “A Jew is a person one of whose parents is Jewish and who identifies as a Jew by accepting the right and responsibility of Jewish life.”  Also see Haim Cohen, “Mi Hu Yehudi,” Yahadut Hofshit, 26-27 (2003):  “Every person has the right to decide himself if he is a Jew or not.  One of the arguments I gave for my ruling is that since the legislator refrained from establishing an objective test in the law, i.e. a binding definition of the term “Jew,” this is a sign … that the test should be subjective, individual, …   I hold that a Jew is anyone who declares in good faith that he is Jewish.”

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