Marking the ten-year anniversary of collaboration between the Robbins Collection and the Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, the 2020 Robbins Collection Annual Lecture on Jewish Thought was given by Professor Rabbi Sharon Shalom. Don Seeman, an Anthropologist from Emory University, and Rabbi Shalom discussed the history, customs, and laws of Ethiopian Jews, the codification of their ancient cultural heritage and its divergence from Orthodox Judaism. Co-sponsored by the Center for African Studies, Center for Jewish Studies, and Center for the Study of Religion, the lecture drew a large audience of students, faculty, and community members.
Professor Rabbi Sharon Shalom spoke about the religious and legal implications of a diverse Jewish diaspora with an academic and religious perspective as well as a very personal lens: he himself left Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel at the age of 8. There are 125,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel today, immigrants and descendants of Jewish communities in Ethiopia who arrived as refugees in the 1980s and 1990s. After their arrival in Israel, Ethiopian Jews’ Jewishness was questioned by some. Rabbi Shalom suggested, however, that its long isolation from other Jewish traditions means that Ethiopian Judaism may be more authentic, or no less authentic, than Rabbinic Judaism. Many Ethiopian Jews trace their origins to the rule of Menelik I (10th century BCE), the first emperor of Ethiopia and believed to be the son of King Solomon.
Because of their isolation, Ethiopians evolved and developed their own traditions and laws (halakha), including dietary laws, mikvah rituals, practices in prayer, and holidays that are distinct from Rabbinic Judaism. These differences in traditions became apparent when Ethiopians began arriving in Israel in large numbers. While Rabbinic scholars were developing and codifying Orthodox halakha, Ethiopian Jews relied only on biblical sources when creating their rules and traditions resulting in different ritual practices For example, in adhering to Exodus 23:19—“you should not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” as quoted by Rabbi Shalom—Ethiopian Jewry permits consuming meat with milk and even cooking a goat in cow’s milk,since a cow could not have been the mother of a goat. Ethiopian Jews also possess a canon of scripture different from that of Rabbinical Judaism. Their holiest book, the Orit, consists of the Octateuch, the first eight books of the Hebrew Bible, but also many others books not considered canonical in Rabbinic Judaism. Ethiopian Jews are unique in recognizing the Testaments of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be a part of their canon.
Rabbi Shalom asserted that Ethiopian Jews are a kind of living genizah, or archive of Jewish practice and thought. He strongly disagreed with the idea that there is one way to practice Judaism, saying “To suggest Ashkenazi Judaism is the only correct tradition is religious colonialism. The Ethiopian model is pluralistic, other traditions are just as valid. After 3000 years, we’re finally all in one place, and we need to respect and honor each other.”
Rabbi Sharon Shalom is a scholar of Ethiopian Jewish law, culture, and practice, and a rabbi in the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. His book entitled From Sinai to Ethiopia: The Halakhic And Conceptual World of Ethiopian Jewry, explores Ethiopian Jewish traditions in the context of modern Israel and rabbinic Judaism. He teaches at Bar-Ilan University and he is now the Director of a new Center on Ethiopian Jewry at Ono Academic College. He serves as the Rabbi of the “Kdoshei Israel” community in Kiryat Gat.