Chief Rabbinate accepts position recognizing Beta Israel as Jewish

The step comes after several high-profile cases in which the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews was challenged by rabbinic authorities.

ETHIOPIAN CHILDREN attend Jewish studies class while awaiting immigration to Israel, in Gondar. (photo credit: ELIANA APONTE/REUTERS)
ETHIOPIAN CHILDREN attend Jewish studies class while awaiting immigration to Israel, in Gondar.
The Chief Rabbinate has accepted the position of the revered, late ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that the Beta Israel Jewish community from Ethiopia is Jewish.
The Council of the Chief Rabbinate, the body’s executive arm, approved a policy to fully accept the Beta Israel as Jewish last November, but the decision has only been disclosed now.
The Chief Rabbinate has not issued a formal statement on the issue, although a spokesman for the body confirmed to The Jerusalem Post that the decision has been officially approved.
Beta Israel (House of Israel) is the Ge’ez term for the Jewish community of Ethiopia, which is believed to date back to between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago. It was isolated from the rest of the Jewish world for most of that period.
Yosef, who is considered to have been one of the preeminent arbiters of Jewish law of his generation, ruled in 1973 that the Beta Israel were Jewish and should be allowed to immigrate to Israel. But the Chief Rabbinate has refrained from fully recognizing them as such until now.
In the 1980s, when the Beta Israel began immigrating from Ethiopia to Israel, the Chief Rabbinate adopted a position that it believed the community was Jewish but required them to undergo pro forma conversion so that all rabbinic authorities would accept their Jewishness. This was, however, deeply insulting to the community, which has always insisted that they were fully Jewish, pointing to the decision of Yosef from the 1970s.
Yosef reiterated his view that they were fully Jewish. A solution was found whereby Netanya Chief Rabbi David Shloush, a student of Yosef who also maintains that the Beta Israel are fully Jewish, agreed to register anyone from the community for marriage, which would then be accepted by the central Chief Rabbinate. Marriage registration within the Chief Rabbinate is the most practical application of Jewish-status recognition.
Since Shloush and other rabbis would register members of the Beta Israel community for marriage without pro forma conversion, the issue of full Chief Rabbinate recognition could be ignored, and the members of the community no longer needed to undergo this form of conversion.
In recent years, however, there have been several instances in which the Jewishness of the Beta Israel has been questioned.
In one incident, workers from the Ethiopian community at the Barkan Winery were barred from touching or working with the wine since the Edah Haredit, an independent, ultra-Orthodox kashrut licensing authority, maintained that they were not Jewish and that it was therefore forbidden for them to handle kosher wine.
Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Ovadia Yosef’s son, spoke out against the Edah Haredit. But since the Chief Rabbinate had not formally adopted a position that the Beta Israel are Jewish, it made handling the case more difficult.
More recently, Kiryat Motzkin Chief Rabbi David Druckman told women in his city not to immerse at a mikveh (ritual bath) where an attendant from the Ethiopian community worked. Druckman said since he does not believe the Beta Israel are Jewish, the immersion of a woman in the ritual bath under the supervision of the Ethiopian Jewish attendant was not valid. Legal proceedings by the Itim religious-services advisory group are currently in process against Druckman and the local Kiryat Motzkin Religious Council, for which he is responsible.
Itim (Passages) director Rabbi Seth Farber said his organization was “gratified that the Council of the Chief Rabbinate has seen fit to ratify the decision of Rabbi Yosef from 47 years ago,” noting that his organization has represented a number of members of the Ethiopian Jewish community in recent years whose Jewishness was challenged.
“Itim believes that this decision is another step in righting a historical wrong and contributes to the spirit of this remarkable moment in Jewish history where Jews from different backgrounds are returning to Zion,” Farber said. “We pray that this will lead to other concrete steps to fully integrate the Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli Jewish society.”