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Israel’s First Ethiopian Rabbi Speaks to Us

Rabbi Dr. Sharon Zewde Shalom, the author of the very thoughtful book Dialogues of Love and Fear is without doubt what the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote about him, “a shining light of not only Ethiopian Jewry but of the Jewish people as a whole.” He is an Orthodox rabbi, trained at the elite Yeshivat Har Etzion, sometimes called the “Harvard of the Yeshivot.” He has a doctorate in Talmud from Bar-Ilan University. He enjoyed a prestigious post-doc at Brandies University. He served in the Israeli army as an officer. He is the congregational rabbi to Holocaust survivors in Kiryat Gat, Israel, an Ashkenazi synagogue. He holds an important academic college position. Dialogues is his second book. His first was From Sinai to Ethiopia. He is the first Ethiopian rabbi in Israel. When a newspaper reporter asked a synagogue official where he is the rabbi why they chose an Ethiopian as their rabbi rather than an Ashkenazi, he responded “Are you looking for knowledge, or color?”

People can go on the internet and see him tell his story. He was born in Ethiopia in 1973 and given the name Zewde Tesfay. This was the same year that the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (1920-2013) issued a halakhic ruling that recognized the Ethiopian Jewish status. When he was eight years old, the Israeli intelligence service Mossad told the Ethiopian Jews in his village to leave Ethiopia and travel to Sudan. Many were housed in Sudan for seven years. There was much sickness. About 4,000 Ethiopian Jews died there. When his parents saw the danger they sent him ahead of them. When he arrived in Israel in 1982 he was eight years old. He was given the new name Sharon Shalom and was treated very well. But after being there for two months, he was told his parents died. It was as much as two years later that he learnt they arrived in Israel, were looking for him, and they were reunited. Today, he is married to an Ashkenazi social worker and the two have five children.

Dialogues of Love and Fear is a fictional reflection upon Rabbi Shalom’s life and transformation. It is a series of interesting conversations between the daughter of a rabbi and the son of a leader of the Ethiopian community. The two had met at an absorption center in Israel, liked each other, but separated when the daughter’s father was disturbed over the relationship because of the color of her friend’s skin. Ten years later, they meet again in Israel. Both never married. He tells her that he thought about her all the time during the ten years and that he loves her. She says she doesn’t know what love is. She recognizes that she likes him but is afraid to go further.

They agree to meet from time to time – soon it becomes daily – and talk about what is on their mind. Their talks are interesting, very informative, eye-opening, thought provoking and include: love vs. infatuation, the understanding that people even of the same race are different but equal, racism in Israel, the limits of personal interpretations of religious requirements, God’s relationship to the world, human responsibilities and behaviors, the need for pluralism which accepts diversity as part of the human essence, respecting differences in others, blending cultures, the different practices of the Ethiopians who left Israel some 2,500 years ago before the Pharisees and later rabbis established the halakha, that Ethiopians don’t recognize the Mishna, Talmud, or Midrash produced after they left Israel, why do some people including rabbis feel that Ethiopians should accept rabbinic Judaism, why do they think rabbinic Judaism is holier than the pre-rabbinic practices of Ethiopians – indeed they discuss everything that interests people of all races and religions.

The rabbi’s daughter works in an absorption center and is very helpful to Ethiopians. She has an anti-rational approach to Judaism and religion generally, which is common too many religious people. She is certain that God is involved in everything in this world, on a daily basis, and nothing happens that God does not want to happen. Humans, she stresses, need guidance from God, otherwise they are totally lost. She feels that Judaism is hierarchical, that is controlled by humans from above, and this is the way it should be, one must obey rabbis, even though women are at the bottom of the system. She rejects her friend’s idea that Judaism and life generally should be horizontal, everybody, even those of another religion should be recognized to be on the same level. She accepts the idea that the halakhic decisions depended upon the majority of rabbis who happened to be in the ancient academy at the time a vote is taken. She believes like Yehuda Halevy that the Jewish people are specially loved and protected by God, and rejects the teaching of Maimonides that all humans, indeed even non-humans, are loved by God who created them.

The Ethiopian is a lawyer and very rational. While the rabbi’s daughter places the responsibility for improvement on God and on society, he sees the main responsibility resting on individuals. He feels that human must use their intelligence. We must never forget our need to ask questions about everything. We must not believe we know something and not challenge our knowledge. We must understand that every way of life has its price and brings certain responsibilities and consequences, even a life in accordance with Torah. Life demands that we act, not wait for divine guidance or aid. The Zionist view of the persecuted Jew may not be the perfect view of Judaism. If someone believes in God but isn’t gracious and compassionate in day to day life, the person’s piety has no meaning. If on the other hand, one who eats non-kosher food but works to help the needy and tries to create social justice, “should be viewed as one who is doing God’s will.” He felt that one comes close to God by accepting personal responsibility. Expanding the boundaries of halakha enable the acceptance of different kinds of Jewish people. The Ethiopian approach is to do good; in its religious world, the words “perhaps” and “maybe” are utterly foreign.

Two traumatic events left an open wound in the fictional Ethiopian’s heart and that of the book’s author: the doubt cast on Ethiopian Jewishness and that the Israeli blood bank maintained a policy for years of discarding blood donations of Ethiopians. The two are also bothered by the Ashkenazic oppression of Sephardic Jews in the 1950s, although today about 40 percent of the Ashkenazim of that generation now have grandchildren with Sephardic heritage. Marriages from the Ethiopian community and all others account for about 12 percent of marriages today, while the marriages between blacks and whites in the US is only 6 percent of all marriages.

At one time during their discussion, the Ethiopian says to the rabbi’s daughter, if people would direct their energy toward learning more about the unique world of Ethiopian Jewry, they would discover some surprising things. Among much, they will come to understand and evaluate the issues and factors that were significant at the time before halakha was established. They would understand that in the Ethiopian world there is not the precise definitions and halakhot and strict rules of behavior that abound in rabbinic Judaism; instead there is plenty of room for spontaneity. And they will know that holiness is not something outside an individual; it comes about when the person does what God wants.

This book besides giving us an interesting story will help achieve this goal and help us obey God’s command to love our fellow as ourselves.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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