Sharon Shalom

Ethiopian Jewish Chaotic Thinking Leads to ‘Hatikva/the Hope’

I have an old friend who was once a pilot in the air force and later a Mossad agent who served as one of the commanders of the “Red Sea Diving Resort” operation in Sudan (made famous in a Netflix movie) that saved the lives of countless Ethiopian Jews.

He recently wrote me the following:

“The situation in general is sad, frustrating, upsetting… There are not enough words in the dictionary to describe my feelings since that day in October… There were extraordinary acts of heroism that day carried out by the community defense units and by private individuals who wanted to go to the South to help. However, as one of my friends from the recon unit says, “Screwups make heroes.” The question is, how do we deal with the gnawing doubt that still surrounds us, our heart that is torn, and the tears that still well up in our eyes. The terrible price we are having to pay is difficult to come to terms with. Our situation is very shaky and we alternate between the feelings of pain and the feelings of failure. (Now that our national holidays are coming up in,) How do we manage to celebrate all that has changed between last Memorial/Independence Day and this year’s? With a continuing war, with dead and wounded, kidnapped and evacuated, will we carry out our routine as usual?

After thinking about my friend’s questions, I believe that the approach that the traditional outlook of Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) can help us better deal with our predicament. Beta Israel managed to maintain hope throughout the millenia and particularly during our journey from Ethiopia to Sudan, in which approximately 4,000 members of the community perished on the way. The Beta Israel outlook is based on a biblical conception that might help us face our current challenges.  However, before I share this traditional Beta Israel approach to loss, I would like to share some related good news with my readers.

A year ago, Ono Academic College opened a Beit Midrash (a study hall using traditional Jewish learning methods) to explore the classic texts of Ethiopian Judaism. This is the first time such study was conducted in the Israeli academy. The uniqueness of the Beit Midrash lies, first of all, in the identity of its participants. This serious group of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants have each, in their own inspiring ways, managed to break through the glass ceiling of Israeli society, achieving excellence in their chosen fields. There are psychiatrists, journalists, podcast hosts, army officers, teachers, community organizers and more. In addition, the study is based on texts, most of which are written in the Geez language, which for many generations was studied, nearly exclusively, only by the traditional Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leaders, the Keisim, and passed through them to the people. Today, for a variety of reasons, this pathway of transmission has been blocked and access to these classic texts is being lost.

The Beit Midrash uses the spiritual tools of Ethiopian Jewry to examine our fundamental texts, and in so doing, allows access to the wisdom of ancient biblical Judaism, hidden in these documents. This is how we move from a process of explaining our tradition to a process of understanding it. This methodology, for the first time, allows us to make contact with the foundations of the religious, practical and intellectual culture of Beta Israel. This is how we discover the unique place that Beta Israel fills in the mosaic of Jewish traditions. During the Beit Midrash study sessions, important issues arise that uncover the theological foundations of the religious culture of Ethiopian Jews. I would like to share with you, my readers, a number of the important topics, we have been discussing.

Beta Israel thought, like biblical thought, is characterized by “chaotic thinking.” This means that  instead of  focusing solely on the facts of reality, it looks for possibilities to see a better tomorrow. This is how the Bible describes the thinking of Abraham, our patriarch. The Ethiopian Jewish tradition tends to accept reality as it is, as a given. Once we do so, we allow ourselves to let go of reality’s constraints and focus on the hope that helps us rise from our failures. Chaotic thinking helps us search for what can be rather than what brought us to this situation. This approach helps us avoid getting stuck in life’s existential and moral dilemmas. It also helps us build a long, happy and stable life in a chaotic and incomprehensible reality, characterized by hope for the future.

Chaotic thinking can explain, for example, why the percentage of suicides in the Western world is significantly higher than the percentage of suicides in villages in Ethiopia. This is because the chaotic perception originates from a consciousness of acceptance, of the kind that exists in Ethiopian Jewish theology. This outlook does not ask why a tragedy happened to me in order to understand its reason or purpose. It simply accepts the tragedy as a given, as something that somehow, God wanted. And it is this approach that makes it possible to let go of the past, maintain hope and direct resources towards the future. This approach keeps a person away from despair and provides him/her with hope and a reason to rise from the ashes and start walking towards tomorrow. This can explain how my grandmother, who lost 5 children (like many Ethiopian grandparents), never complained or expressed any kind of despair. On the contrary, she always transmitted faith and hope and joy of life. The chaotic perception teaches us that when we are wounded, we shouldn’t ask why we were wounded. Instead, we should disinfect the wound with sunlight.  To bring a recent example, when our people are kidnapped, we cannot abandon them but at the same time we cannot become paralyzed or blame each other, either.

To this day, I remember the experience of leaving our village for the journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem. Behind us was the Ethiopian army, in front of us was the Sudanese desert. Our dilemma was the exact same one facing the Israelites before the splitting of the Red Sea: the Egyptian army was behind them, and the water was in front of them. The Midrash Chazal poses the following questions and answers:

“To what can Israel be compared at this moment? To a dove that escaped from a hawk and intended to hide inside a cleft in a nearby the rock. There the dove found a poisonous snake. If the dove goes inside, he will be eaten by the snake, and if she remains outside, she will be eaten by the hawk.”

What is the answer to this dark reality? How did the Children of Israel emerge from their predicament? They began to sing a song of hope, even before the Red Sea split. In the moment of greatest darkness, we used chaotic thinking and succeeded in seeing past the hopelessness of the current situation and envisioned a miraculous salvation on the other side.

In the dark days when we left Ethiopia, just like during the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, we Beta Israel began to sing and pray. The knowledge that we were marching towards Jerusalem filled us with hope.

In today’s dark days, we need to practice chaotic thinking, alongside the linear thinking, more characteristic of Western civilization and Rabbinic Jewry. We also need to internalize the conception found at the heart of Ethiopian Jewish theology, that sees all people as equal before God and the nature of the human heart as good.  These concepts develop a positive and hopeful attitude without suspicion of the other.

A challenge exists, in that, if the trust of such a hopeful and positive person is betrayed, he/she is required to differentiate between the individuals who are cruel and the individuals who are merciful, without writing everyone off. We must distinguish between people who love people and people who hate people, between the children of light and the children of darkness.

Following the barbaric massacres of October 7th, an important part of us has changed. Prior to Hamas’ attacks, we behaved like automatons. Now we have opened our eyes. For example, close to 80% of Israeli Arabs, in one way or another, support, or at least do not express opposition to the war against Hamas. This is a revolution.

Chaotic consciousness asks us to play a dual role. On the one hand, we must cultivate an attitude of focusing on “doing good.” We must increase the light, see society’s marginalized groups and embrace them. We need to pave a path for all those who want to be part of the Israeli collective to receive our recognition and support. They should be seen as our brothers and sisters. We need to approach them with compassion, concern and care. We should feel such solidarity towards them so that their pain turns is felt as our pain and their suffering is our suffering. On the other hand, we must focus on the approach of “staying away from evil” and recognize the murderous, manipulative groups that sometimes succeed in turning our democratic society into a den of thieves. Such people steal, kill, rape, lie and at the same time shout at us about human rights.

We must not allow them to play us. We must have zero tolerance towards groups with zero tolerance. It is forbidden to show pity to the cruel. The sages of the Gemara have already warned us that those who show mercy to the cruel end up being cruel to the merciful.

As part of this process, I would like to propose, in preparation for the 76th Independence Day of the State of Israel, to transform our national anthem, “Hatikva/The Hope,” into the hope for all the people of our country. I would like to suggest replacing the current line “Nefesh Yehudi Homeya / the Jewish soul still yearns” with a different line, “Nefesh Yisraeli Homeya / the Israeli soul still yearns.” This change would not only make Israel’s non-Jewish citizens feel more included. It is also in line with the fact that Ethiopian Jews, whose lifestyle was drawn directly from the bible, did not call themselves “Jews” but rather, “Israel,” or  “Beta Israel/ the House of Israel.” Whenever I sing our national anthem, “Hatikva/ The hope” I tear up. The words and the melody touch the veins of my soul, every time. The words make contact with the living and with the dead, each time at a different point.

Precisely because of this, I feel for my non-Jewish Zionist Israeli friends (Christians, Circassians, Bedouins, Druze, Muslims, etc.) who stand on Independence Day as citizens, as soldiers, and as officers, who sing the national anthem. In the middle of their expression of “the hope,” they must tackle with the phrase “the Jewish soul still yearns.”

There will always be Israelis who find problems with the words of “Hatikva,” and the above is not the only issue. For example, the anthem talks about hope existing as long as “the eye looks toward the eastern edge, towards Zion.” This phrase centers the West. What about those Jews who dwell in the East and look toward Zion on the Western edge?

Another possibly problematic passage notes that we yearn “to be a free people in our country.” Does this mean “free from performing mitzvot / divine commandments?” Some people understood it this way (and not without reason).

In my opinion, the only change necessary is to the words “Nefesh Yehudi Homeya / the Jewish soul still yearns.” To me, the other phrases are not really problematic. They all hopefully express something human that can be universally interpreted.

During this war, almost all of the citizens of Israel internalized that we have one destiny. And for this reason, we all must deal with hope and life together. In this spirit, Ono’s Beit Midrash allows us to engage with the ideas of ancient Judaism that have been preserved by the Beta Israel community. We can learn from the philosophical and theological foundations of Ethiopian Jewry about how to navigate the complex life dilemmas we find ourselves in today.

We would like to thank the foundation which partners with us in making the Beit Midrash possible. The foundation asks to remain anonymous.

I wish us all a Happy Israeli Independence Day. I pray that soon we will be able to see God’s salvation and feel His comfort. May we witness the return of all of the captives and a speedy recovery for the wounded.

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).
Related Topics
Related Posts