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01.05.2018 10:38    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  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.

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