Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 1)

When I was looking at the numbers of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, I felt very proud of those rabbis and Jewish leaders that knew how to respond in times of great crisis. Jewish ethics teaches that anyone who saves one life is considered as though he saves an entire world.

The collaborative effort of Jewish leaders across denominational lines accomplished one of the great feats of Exodus in our day. Rarely has the Jewish community of Israel and the Diaspora shown such unity–I only wish we could replicate the experience in other areas of Jewish life today.

One particular American rabbinic leader, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1885-1986, Lithuania), acted as a catalyst  in mobilizing other rabbinic leaders to come to aid. This Lithuanian  rabbi proved to be the real Moses of his day. Here is a little bit of background information for readers who may not have heard about this great man. Widely regarded as America Orthodoxy’s greatest Halachic scholar, Rav Feinstein’s  humanity exceeded his vast encyclopedic grasp of Jewish law. When he died, over 300,000 people in Israel attended his funeral–the largest number seen since the Mishnaic era. He will long  be remembered as one of Haredi Judaism’s greatest leaders.

Rav Feinstein also distinguished himself as an expert in Jewish medical ethics; in addition, he was famous for knowing how to resolve labor and business disputes; he was the first Haredi rabbi to accept brain death as a viable definition of death at a time when no other rabbi did. Although he was not a religious pluralist, Rav Moshe (as he was affectionately called by many of his students) knew how to respond to the endangered Ethiopian Jewish community and added his voice to those participating in their rescue. Thinking ahead, Rav Moshe also worked with other leading Israeli rabbis in  laying out a practical Halachic plan that would accelerate their reintegration within the Jewish people. [1]

Perhaps Rav Moshe’s best legacy is his multi-volume exposition dealing with the thousands of questions people asked concerning Jewish law  that rabbinic and historical scholars refer to as “Responsa.”

What exactly is Responsa? Here is a brief explanation.

Without the aid of an Internet,  rabbis managed to develop a literary  phenomenon, viz. the rabbinical correspondence that is better known today as “Responsa.” About 1700 years ago, the great rabbinic scholars known as the “Geonim” (savants) of Persia corresponded with the rabbis of North Africa and Spain, and exchanged ideas and thoughts on a variety of topics affecting their communities. This genre of literature constitutes one of the most fertile sources of information for Jewish life in the middle ages. Maimonides, Rav Hai Gaon, Ramban and countless other luminaries sustained an ongoing relationship with other Jewish communities that were across the ancient world.

Responsa literature is marvelously idiosyncratic in that each rabbi expresses his own view and never tries to impose his interpretation of Halacha over other communities outside their jurisdiction (unlike the way the Haredi rabbis do today). In the Responsa literature, the writers integrate Talmud, Halacha, biblical scholarship and critical thought into a rich tapestry that examines the relevant  issues people grappled with during their day. Oftentimes, the rabbis turn Talmudic reasoning on top of its proverbial head and arrive at opposite conclusions than they early rabbinic predecessors. Responsa prevented Jewish law from becoming monolithic and stagnant.

This literature is very similar to the kind of encyclicals we find in the Catholic Church. Having studied many of these documents, I can appreciate their historical worth. Like the encyclicals, the Responsa literature in Judaism deals with biblical interpretations, practical matters, and  theological matters of faith. Historians view this material as a virtual treasure chest of information.



[1] Several of the Haredi rabbis expressed doubt about the Jewish status of the Ethiopian Jewish refugees. Rabbis  Elazar Shach, Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and Moshe Feinstein also had  similar doubts  concerning the  Bene Israel Jews of India and the Bene Menashe of Burma during the 1990s (“Operation Moshe,” Haaretz 11.3.2006). In the 1970s, Rabbi Shlomo Goren was one of the leading rabbis championing for the reintegration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1077094.htm).

From the 1970s to the  1980’s, the Ethiopian Jews underwent a pro forma conversion involving immersion into a mikveh (ritual bath) and for men, a symbolic circumcision involving extracting a drop of blood from the penis.  Such steps were safety measures to allay everyone’s concern about their questionable status. More recently, however, concerning the status of those members of Beta-Israel who were forcibly converted to Christianity, Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar ruled that descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity are “unquestionably Jews in every respect.” With the consent of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Amar ruled that it is forbidden to question the Jewishness of this community,who are  pejoratively called “Falashmura.” According to the present law, the Chief Rabbinate requires a ritual immersion prior to marriage, from Jews of Ethiopian or any other ancestry alike.

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