Rav Ovadya Yosef on Whether Ethiopian Jews Need to Reconvert

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ethiopian Jewry presented a significant problem for rabbis, because their lineage was unclear and their practices weren’t quite those of regular Jews. Were they Jewish and had lost much of the tradition, or were they people who attempted to convert but never actually did?

That mattered especially once they started coming to the State of Israel, where their Jewish status mattered for how the country would integrate them into society. An issue with both pure halachic and some public policy components, R. Ovadya Yosef’s reply in Shu”t Yabi’a Omer 8; Even HaEzer 11 shows his customary erudition in defense of a difficult position (the responsum is undated, but since we so rarely get to learn from him, I took this because it mentions a decision of the Chief Rabbinate from 27 Kislev, 5748/1988. That is the exact day—not just the same date– my father a”h passed away, so this summary of mine is also a way to commemorate his yahrzeit this year. I always hope that my actions are a merit and credit to his memory, but this essay particularly so, as part of my memory of the man who—with my mother, she should live a long, happy, and healthy life—brought me into this world and showed me the way to merit the next).

R. Herzog Started It

In a letter from 5714/1954, R. Herzog questioned the Jewishness of the Ethiopians (he called them Falashas, a term no longer used because it turned out to be a derogatory term the Ethiopians disliked). One of his reasons was that scientists had determined they were not genetically Jewish, which means they would have to have converted. Yet their modes of conduct indicate that if they converted, it was without an awareness of the Torah as we know it. Conversion to anything other than full acceptance of halachah does not count according to Jewish law, so their conversions would have been invalid.

(Applied broadly, this would affect many more than just the Ethiopians’ conversions, but let’s leave that thorny topic for another time.)

A year later, R. Herzog repeated his view, that they had to reconvert le-chumra, to be stringent just in case. (Note that none of the rabbis in this conversation voiced any objection or hesitation about the Ethiopians’ becoming Jewish; the debate was about whether they already were Jewish.)

R. Yosef expresses his astonishment at R. Herzog’s readiness to accept scientists’ conclusions, when those fly in the face of Radvaz’ (d. 1573) assertion that the Ethiopians are descendants of the tribe of Dan. When the two are in conflict, R. Yosef asks rhetorically, “who should have been pushed aside by whom?”  (I don’t think it’s irrelevant that R. Herzog had a PhD in chemistry, which likely contributed to his sense of when or whether to trust scientists’ claims.)

In R. Herzog’s time, the issue wasn’t as pressing as it would become, since only small numbers of Ethiopians were making their way to Israel, and those who arrived had not objected to his reconversion idea, so R. Ovadya Yosef had not spoken up. In point of halachic fact, though, he is adamant that they are fully Jewish and do not need to be converted even as a matter of extra care or stringency.

Tzitz Eliezer Disagreed, Too

R. Yosef’s contemporary, good friend, and colleague on the highest rabbinical courts in Israel, Tzitz Eliezer, knew that responsum of Radvaz, that Ethiopians were from the tribe of Dan, but noted that Radvaz had also said that they lived in an area where Moslems, Christians, and Jews were in a state of frequent war, daily taking captives from each other. To Tzitz Eliezer, that meant the Ethiopians coming to Israel might include descendants of captives from other nations, who never properly converted.

Part of his point is that no one thinks the Ethiopians were properly converted, or did so for anyone they accepted/coerced to join them. Radvaz’ tradition that they were from the tribe of Dan meant they did not need to convert, but that would not be true for those they took captive. Tzitz Eliezer thinks that if their wars were frequent enough, the group as a whole has enough non-Jews that we should have to worry about their Jewishness.

R. Yosef disagrees, since Radvaz never mentions a need for conversion, as he should have if those are the ramifications of their wars. Further, Tzitz Eliezer also relied on scientific researchers, drawing the same fire as R. Herzog had.

Here, he adds the halachic principle that we require two witnesses to raise doubts about lineage, as Maharashdam wrote. In that case, rumor and one witness had it that a certain Jew was a mamzer, born of an illicit union and therefore eternally disallowed from marrying ordinary Jews, but Maharashdam said that was insufficient evidence, since we require two witnesses.

(By citing that case, R. Yosef assumes that the decision about the Ethiopians’ Jewishness is purely a matter of establishing their lineage, like mamzerut. I could have imagined seeing that differently.)

R. Moshe Feinstein on the Passage of Time

R. Yosef has heard that R. Moshe Feinstein discussed this as well, and raised what seems to me the most salient point about Radvaz’ responsum. R. Feinstein first doubted that Radvaz knew the facts as well as R. Yosef insists he must have, since he would not have written as he did unless he was absolutely sure it was true. More, R. Feinstein wondered why we should assume that what was true in Radvaz’ time would still be true in ours—even if they were the descendants of Dan as of the sixteenth century, a lot could happen in four hundred years.

For the third time, R. Yosef finds it strange that a contemporary Torah scholar does not simply accept Radvaz’ idea; for R. Yosef, Radvaz’ greatness should have earned him more acceptance on their part. He sees it as a case of Radvaz having established an halachic presumption, a chazakah, which only changes once we have information it has changed.

(He is certainly correct that chazakot continue until we have a reason to think/suspect they changed, but I think R. Feinstein’s point was that four hundred years, when the people in that society all tended to intermarry and/or take captives in war, with a population doesn’t seem observant, are all reasons to believe the chazakah was interrupted. That’s true even if Radvaz was reporting results of a serious investigation of their lineage, although that’s not clear either.)

He adds that we have always accepted the Jewishness of other immigrant populations, such as the Jews of Cochin, of Russia (that in fact became more disputed in later years, when larger numbers of Russians came; my friend R. Dr. Seth Farber, and his organization ITIM, spend much time helping Russians convince the Chief Rabbinate of their Jewishness), and from Germany.

Can We Integrate Them Fully?

On 27 Kislev 5748/1988, the Chief Rabbinate accepted Radvaz (and Maharikash)’s claim that these Jews certainly descended from Dan, and prohibited questioning that. However, the possibility of intermarriage over the centuries led the Rabbinate to agree with R. Herzog in practice, that they should convert le-chumra, as a stringency.

R. Yosef is again shocked: if the Rabbinate accepts Radvaz, what room is there to raise doubts (I have seen this in other of his responsa; when he is exercised about a topic, he can be remarkably single minded. Here, Rabbis Waldenberg, and Feinstein did not disagree with Radvaz, yet still thought there were questions that made a conversion the best practice. And R. Yosef can’t or won’t see what they’re seeing)?  Radvaz, too, saw the Ethiopians’ halachic practice, saw that they did not know of the Torah she-be-al peh, the Oral Law, yet he did not raise any of these issues.

Nor is accepting Radvaz a complete solution. If they’re Jewish, their marriages might count, but their divorces will not (since they do not write gittin correctly; many rabbis believe living together creates an halachically significant marriage, where divorce needs a proper get). In practice, though, Radvaz raised enough doubts that he ruled that we could ignore their possibly problematic mamzerut status.

Not Divorce, But How About Relatives?

While many other rabbis accepted Radvaz’ conclusion, and Maharikash pointed out that R. Ya’akov BeRav relied on similar ideas to welcome Karaites who wished to return to proper religious practice, Tzitz Eliezer argued that since the Ethiopians don’t know which marriages are permitted to what kinds of relatives, we have to worry that many of them are mamzerim. (The responsum doesn’t give examples, but let’s suppose a man marries his brother’s widow, when the brother had had children with her. Any children that couple has will be mamzerim, which lasts throughout all ensuing generations.)

R. Yosef counters with a ruling of Rema in Darkei Moshe, regarding the conversos, the Jews forced to convert to Christianity in fourteenth and fifteenth century Spain (and which fostered the Inquisition, since the Christians did not trust those Jews’ conversions). Rema said they can marry Jews because they are either non-Jews (if a female ancestor had been non-Jewish), or were certainly careful about disallowed relationships, since even non-Jews are.

(I’m not sure the comparison convinces: Rema lived in the late sixteenth century, so the window from leaving the Jewish community to return was smaller. More, the conversos had at one point known the tradition, and the non-Jews around them followed the Bible in some sense, so they had a somewhat similar set of relationships they would consider incestuous. That wasn’t as true for the Ethiopians.)

Maybe They Never Marry

R. Yosef had done some research of his own. The leaders of the Ethiopian community had told him their women married young, without a kiddushin of any sort (the fact that they lived together would not constitute kiddushin because the husband has to appoint two witnesses to do so). There is an halachic principle that ein adam oseh be’ilato be’ilat zenut, a man will not engage in promiscuous relations, which should mean that a couple living together are always married.

R. Yosef argues that that’s only where the couple had discussed marriage and then had relations. Where there’s no indications the man was aware of or interested in kiddushin(such as here, where they care only about the wedding ceremony, nisuin), she never becomes mekuddeshet, solely betrothed to him. If that marriage breaks up, she does not need a get.

He also rejects Tashbetz’s claim that the fact that people hold any kind of a wedding ceremony signals a desire that their relations be marital, so that any two Jews who are aware of their marriage count as witnesses, making her a mekuddeshet.

R. Yosef disagrees, because the Gemara makes clear that if a man intends to marry in a way that turns out not to work, there is no kiddushin. Here, too, they think their ceremonies create halachic marriage, so that we are not required to find other ways to construe what they did as a marriage (and therefore don’t have to worry about divorce and mamzerut).

He was R. Ovadya Yosef and I am certainly not, but this seems to be an example of a posek adamantly pushing a conclusion regardless of the evidence. I believe he did it out of empathy for the Ethiopians, and perhaps out of some suspicion that racism factored in here (a worry voiced also by R. Moshe Feinstein). It seems to have convinced him to hold fast to Radvaz, since that was the key to welcoming the Ethiopians into the Jewish people, a process that continues into our day, with steps forward and backward as we go along.

Listen to Rabbi Rothstein discuss this on OU Torah.

About Gidon Rothstein

One comment

  1. this seems to be an example of a posek adamantly pushing a conclusion regardless of the evidence.

    Sounds a bit strong too me. I think (and r’ybs stated this in one of his letters in c-c-c) that a Poseik often knows the psak “in his kishkes” and then constructs the cognitive basis (much like Joshua Greene argues concerning moral reasoning in general)

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