In one of my lectures about the halachic (pertaining to Jewish law) status of Jews in Israel, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent expressed his concern about the future of the entire Ethiopian community in Israel. He raised his hand and asked, “Who will protect us if something happens to Rabbi Ovadia?” When I asked him what he meant, he explained that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was the one responsible for him being able to move to Israel, since “Rabbi Ovadia was the only one who made the halachic ruling that we are Ethiopian Jews. As long as he lives, he will protect us. I am fearful that after he dies, they’ll send us back to Ethiopia, since there won’t be anyone else to protect us,” the boy said with palpable fear in his voice.
Throughout the years, Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian rabbis affiliated with the Shas party have proclaimed in the days preceding Knesset and municipal elections that Ethiopian immigrants in Israel are in debt to Rabbi Yosef for recognizing their halachic status as Jews, and that they must therefore vote for Shas. I’ve heard people say, “Rabbi Ovadia Yosef brought you here… because of him we are here… you owe it to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.”
Indeed, many members of the Ethiopian community, as well as many Israelis in general, believe that Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel not because of their historical right as Jews, but as a result of Rabbi Yosef’s ruling that they were in fact Jews.
Everyone agrees that Rabbi Yosef’s 1973 ruling, which recognized Ethiopian Jews’ religious status, was the most important factor in making their aliya possible. His ruling brought about a complete turnaround in attitudes of the government and the Jewish Agency. There is no end to our appreciation of him for making this historic ruling, which was just one among many others.
At that time, the State of Israel and the rabbinic world were quite ambivalent about how to deal with the situation.
Some rabbis disagreed with the ruling; they based their decisions on research indicating that we had non- Jewish origins. The Israeli government’s attitude toward Ethiopian Jews was hesitant at best.
As one Jewish Agency representative remarked at the time, “To the detriment of the Falasha community, the powers that be are hesitant to accept their legitimacy. The hearts of the poor and innocent Falasha vacillated between hope and despair.
Their lives and their children’s lives, and their feelings of loyalty, became victims of a cruel game.”
This was the background to Rabbi Yosef’s appearance on the scene, and his landmark ruling that “the Falashas are Jews whom we must rescue before they become assimilated.
We must quickly bring them to Israel. As the book of Jeremiah says, ‘The sons will return home.’” Where did Rabbi Yosef find the strength to say this? In one of the Beit Hillel conferences, Rabbi Daniel Hershkowitz, the president of Bar-Ilan University, asked: what is the most important part of a two-story house? His answer was the stairs that connect the two floors. In my opinion, this was the secret of Rabbi Yosef’s greatness. He had two traits that made him one of the greatest geniuses of our generation: while on the one hand he was incredibly courageous, and on the other he was a great Talmudic scholar, he had the fantastic ability to bring the two together, and also to connect with the people. There are plenty of Talmudic scholars who lack courage and plenty of courageous people who are not scholarly. Rabbi Yosef was a combination of the two.
A number of years ago a yeshiva student asked me, “Did you have bibles back in Ethiopia? Did you pray? Do you have the same Torah as we do?” This question reminded me of an incident that took place in the 1950s, when a renowned Ashkenazi haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi asked Rabbi Yosef, who was of Iraqi (ancient Babylon) origin, “Do you have the same Talmud as we do?” To which Rabbi Ovadia replied, “And which Talmud does the esteemed rabbi have? The Babylonian Talmud! That means you have our Talmud!” There’s no doubt that Rabbi Yosef’s ruling was unprecedented and historic, however, he only did what was expected of a courageous Talmudic scholar. Just as a physicist is required to uncover truths in nature, so too is the halachic scholar expected to reveal truths in the Torah. And just as a physician weaves certain materials together in an effort to cure people’s ailments, so too does a halachic scholar.
Because of his genius and greatness, Rabbi Yosef succeeded in revealing what had been forgotten for thousands of years: the historic truth of Beta Israel’s Jewishness. In this respect, Rabbi Ovadia is an outstanding example of what a halachic genius with a little bit of courage can do to find solutions within halacha.
And to the student I referred to at the beginning of this article, I would reply: You are our brother. Have no fear. You are an integral part of the Jewish people.
The author is the rabbi of Kedoshei Yisrael Community in Kiryat Gat, member of Tzohar and a Jewish philosophy doctoral student at Bar Ilan University, Translated by Hannah Hochner.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the Ethiopian Jews
By SHARON SHALOM, JPost.com