A few weeks ago, a somewhat historic event went relatively unnoticed. An Ethiopian Airlines jet flying from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv carried 111 immigrants to Israel. They were “among the very last of the 5,000 Ethiopians that the Jewish State has agreed to welcome since 2020.” This was reported this past week (New York Times Sunday Opinion, May 28, 2023) by columnist Bret Stephens. Mr. Stephens writes movingly and supplies touching pictures by Israeli photographer Ofir Berman of families reunited with their loved ones. He describes the mesirus nefesh of the Ethiopians to reach Eretz Yisroel and live truly Jewish lives. As he tells the amazing story, “the Israelis were given a single weekend to get it done. In the space of thirty-six hours, 14,325 Beta Israel were flown to Israel, including in one case 1,086 passengers on a Boeing 747, plus a baby born midair. It holds the record for the most people ever flown aboard a single plane.”
However, Mr. Stephens also writes critically of the fact that “there are still anywhere from 9,000 to 12,000 people in Ethiopia who practice Judaism and believe themselves to be Jews – even if the State of Israel believes their familial ties to Judaism are too weak.” His implication is obviously that “people who believe themselves to be Jews” should be accepted as such. Halacha, however, does not agree. Despite the strong inclination of the Torah to save lives whenever possible, entry into the nation proper requires a sometimes lengthy and involved process.
It is clear that this report was written in light of the American problems at the southern border and the raging issues of sanctuary cities and open borders for all. Stephens writes disparagingly of the “attitude that many Israelis have toward those who remain in Ethiopia.” He implies that there is bias toward them because of their color. He reserves particular obloquy for Betzalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister, who opposed a 2018 Knesset decision to admit another 1,000 Ethiopians. Stephens makes it clear that this attitude smacks of prejudice and intolerance. Nonetheless, we must state here unequivocally that the Torah has no discrimination whatsoever based upon color. The process does include, however, checking yichus – direct linage and marital records (see Bamidbar 1:18 with Rashi and Medrash).
The problem with casting aspersions based upon how one decides who may enter into Israel and be recorded as a Jew is that this process is not based upon one’s personal preferences or “likes.” Adjudicating and deciding the difficult question of Who Is a Jew? is an ancient one and made purely with the objective criteria of halacha. I daresay that we all know black Jews who are fully integrated into our shuls, schools and communities. This is true all the more so in Eretz Yisroel, where they serve in the army and occupy high positions in every area of modern life.
To briefly review the halachic history, there is a famous diary written by Eldad Hadani, literally Eldad of shevet Don, a traveler and merchant who lived in the ninth century. Eldad’s record of the shevotim of Don, Naftoli, God and Asher living in Africa was endorsed by one of the Gaonim, Rav Tzemach ben Chaim, and later by the Ibn Ezra (Shemos 2:20) and the Maharam of Rottenberg (Teshuvah 193). Later, when the Falashas, as they were then known (but today avoid the derogatory term) attempted to reenter Klal Yisroel after many centuries, the Radbaz (1479-1589) essentially allowed them to do so.
More recently, as Mr. Stephens notes, Rav Ovadiah Yosef, too, allowed the Ethiopians to enter the fold. We must mention that this was not an easy ruling, since many poskim were concerned that the Ethiopians have no record of performing proper gittin and there was worry about mamzeirus amongst them. The members of the Chief Rabbinate, such as Rav Herzog, Rav Nissim and Rav Yosef, did require what is called geirus l’chumra, conversion to be absolutely certain, despite the universal acceptance of the p’sak of the Radbaz (4:219 and 7:9). These rulings do not emanate at all from bias or any personal animus toward anyone based upon color or background. They arise out of the objective and impersonal process of halachic decision-making.
I once had the pleasure of hosting Rav Adani, the chief rabbi of the Ethiopians in Eretz Yisroel. Interestingly, given his name, he acknowledged coming from shevet Don and fully accepted the concerns of the rabbonim who required the supplemental conversion.
I could not help but note the irony of the fact that in the same Times issue, there was a symposium of Times columnists who were asked to respond to the question of “What Kind of a President Would DeSantis Be?” Bret Stephens was given the final word, which was “To beat a creep takes an even greater creep.” I don’t mean to mix subjects and create a kind of shatnez, but the common denominator seems to be that a liberal attitude and driving force can create a blind spot in many areas. Should we not recognize, as Jews, all that President Trump has done for Israel and world Jewry? Should we not, at the same time, recognize how integrated the State of Israel is regarding color and background? Yet, being a Jewish state, don’t we have the obligation and right to determine who is actually Jewish? One must further ask: Did any of these columnists ever question President Biden’s situation with his son Hunter and other relatives making obscene amounts money from our sworn enemies? Is there not evidence that he, too, is a creep for many other reasons?
This juxtaposition in one Times issue was too glaring to ignore, but let’s return to our method of evaluating those who wish to enter Eretz Yisroel as Jews.
In the current American situation, those who are demanding that the borders be opened only to those immigrating legally claim that a country with no borders is no country at all. The rationale for this position is that every nation must have certain standards, ideals, a language, and laws. Let us then draw a kal vachomer – all the more so – when we are protecting G-d-given guidelines and definitions that we have a moral and religious obligation to guard that identity. In the case of the Ethiopians, this process is made much easier by the ruling of the Radbaz, but 500 years of possible intermarriage and adulteration of the base has required us to be extremely careful. It is as unseemly to demand that Israel automatically take in anyone who believes themselves to be Jewish as for America to open its doors to those who may wish to destroy it from within physically or spiritually.
Perhaps the problem here is actually that the pundits, Jewish or non-Jewish, who presume to tell us how to run a “Jewish state,” have no idea what that means. Even if the secular world does not understand, we, especially right after Mattan Torah, must remind ourselves. Rav Saadya Gaon famously taught us that the Jewish nation is not really a nation at all without the Torah. Therefore, comparison to any other system or society has no bearing upon us at all. For that reason, many gedolim were opposed to founding a state until Moshiach comes. But as Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin and others taught, now that it is here, we must try our best to make sure that it abides as much as possible to Torah law. Surely, the most elemental of these guidelines must be who may enter and who may be called a Jew. Yes, the stakes couldn’t be higher, but since we cannot rely upon politicians or the media to give us direction, we must be vigilant in listening only to the voices and teachings of our revered poskim, particularly on matters that “stand at the top of the world.”