A Return to the Abrahamic and Ethiopian Jewish Concept of Equality

Rabbi Dr. Major Sharon Shalom is the founding director of Ono Academic College’s International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry

Recently, we’ve been reading about our forefather Abraham in the weekly Torah portion. The Bible does not tell us why God chose Abraham to be the founder of His people. This contrasts the situation of Noah, regarding whom, the Bible states, “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations. Noah walked in God.”

We read that Abraham is the son of Terah, an idol worshipper. He has no special lineage. Why would God choose him? The biblical tradition of Ethiopian Judaism can provide some insight into this question.

To understand how revolutionary is the way that the Bible views man, Prof. Zvi Ader claims that we must examine the views that prevailed in the ancient Middle East. It is also useful to look forward into the Talmudic period and to see how the ideas first depicted in the Bible were developed by the sages.

In the ancient Middle East, man was viewed as a tool to achieve economic or political goals in a world in which the need to maintain security and property outweighed the value of human life. It is a world where people and property were interchangeable.

The Bible presents a contrasting ethic. A person’s life is infinitely valuable. Genesis teaches “Whoever sheds blood, by man shall his own blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (9:5).  Although man is an integral part of creation, he is different in that he cannot be defined quantitatively. A person’s life, every person, regardless of who they are, cannot be measured in the currency of money or possessions. Because of this, murder is a crime against humanity and God. Such a person is not subject to human mercy.

Although it is paradoxical, the Bible teaches that the penalty for murder is a death sentence. I learned from my grandfather, the Abba Dejan (Gideon) Mengisha, may he rest in peace, that the most basic theological concept in the world view of the “Beta Israel” (Ethiopian Jewry) is that of equality. Before God, everyone is equal. There is no discourse of “you” and “us”. No matter who the person is – Jewish or not – everyone relates to God equally. There is no more important or less important person. Everyone is a part of the divine being. Man is measured by his behavior, not according to his origin, his appearance, his party, etc. Using this framework, we can understand racism, to be an ideology that says, “my father is better than your father.” The Torah pre-emptively uproots this idea by noting that we all have one father and mother. All differences are secondary, and therefore “he who sheds man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man.”

After God tested humanity in the Garden Eden, at the Tower of Babel and during the Flood, He chose Abraham to be the founder of His holy people.  We might imagine that after God regretted creating man, as it says He did before the Flood, He might begin anew by fashioning the new progenitor of the Jewish people from dirt of the Land of Israel, preferably from Jerusalem, from the Temple Mount. This did not happen, and could not, because it would distort the spirit of the Bible. Abraham, our forefather, is the son of Terah, and he is the first convert. Genetically he is just like any other person. What makes Abraham special is his behavior. Abraham was chosen because he renewed the concept that there is one God for all of us. We are measured by our behavior, each in his/her own way.

It seems to me that in the last year we have all lost something of this Biblical concept. Regarding the problems that plague our society right now, no one can claim “My hands did not shed this blood” (as the elders do in the ceremony of the Beheaded Heifer). The Israeli discourse reached a low point. We viewed the merciful as cruel, and towards the cruel we behaved mercifully. We were like the ashes of a red cow, purifying the impure and defiling the pure. And then we were struck with the greatest blow of our generation. Now we know who is impure and who is pure, who is cruel and who is merciful. Suddenly we are back to Abraham, to the Biblical concept of equality.

The current solidarity we are seeing among all the citizens of the State of Israel is amazing. Arabs, Christians and Jews, secular and religious, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, ultra-Orthodox and settlers-all of them have taken up arms and are ready to do their part. The ultra-Orthodox, who tried to avoid conscription into the IDF, are today looking for a way to enlist. The Bedouin citizens of the State of Israel are already part of the senior officer corps and leading the fighting. Many Israeli Arabs have offered accommodation arrangements, and many performed admirable acts of heroism. These people, who before the war were labeled as enemies of Judaism and Zionism, anarchists and traitors, are suddenly now revealed as angels.

One way or another, in a year, after Hamas has been purged from the Gaza Strip, I can see in my mind’s eye how the residents return to the settlements and kibbutzim that were destroyed. I see  the wasteland blooming again. The situation will not return to what it was before the war. Instead, the settlements and kibbutzim will double themselves.

But there is another important step that must be taken in order to return to the Abrahamic Biblical concept of equality. We must demand “to do righteousness and justice.” We must uphold the Biblical law “that by the shedding of blood by man shall his blood be shed”. These vile killers of Hamas – their sentence is death. If we do not do justice to the thousands of murdered, injured and kidnapped, we will continue to be cruel to the merciful and have mercy on the cruel.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom is the founding director of Ono Academic College's International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry. He is also the author of Dialogues of Love and Fear (Koren, 2021) and From Sinai to Ethiopia (Gefen, 2016).
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