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The Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel found themselves faced with a religious establishment that wanted them to recant their age-old faith and accept rabbinic Judaism in its place. In Ethiopia, the kessoch (the plural form of kess, or religious leader) had for centuries wielded undisputed power while they guided their communities. They were religious leaders but also, in collaboration with other elders, mediated conflicts such as domestic disputes. They served the people genuinely and honestly, and the people trusted and respected them.
You see, the kessoch received no money for their services; they were farmers, like everyone else. The only difference between them and their neighbors was that they had the additional duty to serve. Because most community members were illiterate, the kessoch had to explain Torah laws to them by translating the Geez language (in which our Torah was written - we had no Hebrew copies) into simple Amharic. This was usually done on High Holy Days such as Yom Kippur.
HERE IN Israel, because the Chief Rabbinate doubts the authenticity of Ethiopian Judaism, our religious leaders no longer have a say in the community's religious life. Marriages among Ethiopians, like divorces and circumcisions, are now conducted only with the approval of the rabbinate. The members of the community know the whole situation, but even though they would love the mediation of their own leaders, they know that the decisions these men make no longer count.
On the other hand, because the kessoch held sway for so long in Ethiopia, their counsel is still sought in day-to-day life. They continue to give their blessings in coffee ceremonies and at other social events, for example. In activities that have nothing to do with either the government or the rabbinate, the people still turn to them. The community finds itself divided and confused by having to display such dual loyalty.
AND THERE is another, more serious problem: a new generation of Ethiopian rabbis has appeared, trained and nurtured by the Israeli establishment. These young rabbis, perhaps to prove their loyalty to the rabbinate, are at times more vicious than their Israeli counterparts.
For instance, they won't even eat meat slaughtered by a traditional kess. For them, Ethiopian Judaism is not right, and its leaders are unclean. This is an affront to the authority and respect due to the kessoch - something unheard of in our culture. Age is very much a factor with us; the young must respect their elders and listen to what they say. So when these young rabbis openly criticize their fathers' approach to religion and refuse to recognize their authority, taking the side of the Israeli establishment, their behavior strikes at the heart of our community.
The kessoch feel frustrated, humiliated and demoralized, but there is nothing they can do; they have already become powerless. Division within Ethiopian society and pressure from without has undermined them. Moreover, they are all old, like the last members of an endangered species. Some of the truly influential ones, men such as Kess Menase, have already passed away.
It is a tragedy that these leaders are being slighted by the Israeli religious establishment, and even by the children that have emerged from their midst, their own flesh and blood.
In Ethiopia the kessoch preserved the Ethiopian brand of Judaism in extremely difficult situations. They fought against missionary inroads and the assimilation policies of successive Ethiopian rulers. They should be recognized as heroes, yet in Israel they are treated like dirt.
For me these few men are links in time - living treasures, custodians of our past. It makes me sad to see these guardians of our history relegated to an inferior position.
In fact, the main reason why so many of our Ethiopian youth are in such a disgraceful state - drug addiction, crime, etc. - is because the generation has severed itself from its past. The young aren't familiar with the rich culture of the Beta-Israel in Ethiopia. They simply don't know what happened there, and a generation which doesn't know its past is a lost generation.
The religious leaders and community elders - repositories of our culture and history - should have been the pride of our youth, and would have been, had they been permitted to exercise their authority. If these leaders had been afforded the respect they deserve, the absorption of Ethiopia's Jews would have been much smoother.
But like the Mizrahi Jews before them, it seems that Ethiopian Jewry has fallen victim to the Israeli I-know-what-is-good-for-you attitude.
The writer is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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