Sharon Shalom
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Look to Ethiopian Judaism to truly understand unity

The principle that everyone is equal before God can serve as a foundation for a shared Israeli identity
Kesim, Ethiopian rabbinical leaders, at a Sigd celebration at Jerusalem's Haas Promenade when thousands gather to pray and recite Psalms. (Flash90)
Kesim, Ethiopian rabbinical leaders, at a Sigd celebration at Jerusalem's Haas Promenade when thousands gather to pray and recite Psalms. (Flash90)

In the wake of the recent Yom Kippur “partition storm” and the subsequent blame directed at the religious community, it’s time to reflect on the broader implications of such divisions. The religious were painted as violent, desecrators of the sacred, and extremists. This narrow and dichotomous perception, as Melanie Klein once said, stems from a fragmented view of reality. When we generalize and stereotype, we miss out on the richness of individual experiences and see only what we expect to see. In doing so, we become part of the problem, not the solution.

This is reminiscent of the UN Human Rights Council’s reactions when the IDF responds to Hamas’s aggressions. Israel is often solely blamed, even when the situation is more complex. Why then, do we cast stones at others without introspection?

To truly understand unity and inclusivity, we might look to Ethiopian Judaism. This community serves as a living archive, preserving ancient practices predating the Talmudic era. They practiced a form of Judaism that was devoid of many rituals and procedures that have become mainstream today. For instance, in their synagogues, men and women sat separately, but not because of a physical barrier. It was a natural division, much like in the ancient Temple. Does this make them any less Jewish? Who truly is more Jewish: one who prays with a partition or one without?

Israeli women from the Ethiopian Jewish community pray during the Sigd holiday from a hilltop overlooking the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Israel, Nov. 27, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty Images)

The destruction of the Second Temple was not due to the absence of partitions in synagogues. Rather, it was because people insisted on being “right,” creating divisions among themselves. They prioritized procedure over essence, leading to a society where even fathers and sons couldn’t sit together. As Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin noted, it was a generation that was righteous and devout, but not straightforward in their worldly dealings. They suspected anyone who practiced differently, leading to baseless hatred and even bloodshed.

Today, Israel is home to various Jewish denominations, each with its own practices and beliefs. We also coexist with Muslims, Christians, and those without religious affiliations. How then, can we find unity?

The answer might lie in adopting the Ethiopian Jewish approach of equality. Before God, everyone is equal. This principle can serve as a foundation for a shared Israeli identity. As Moses Mendelssohn suggested for Jews in the diaspora, perhaps it’s time to be Jewish (or Christian or Muslim) at home and Israeli in public. Let’s reserve the public space for shared values, fostering unity in our diverse society.

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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