Rabbi Sharon Shalom, Director of Ono Academic College’s International Center for the Study of Ethiopian Jewry addresses the controversial issue of determining “Who is a Jew?” in the context of the weekly Torah portion.  He notes that towards the end of the weekly Torah portion of Emor, it is written:

  • Now the son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father went out among the Israelites, and a fight broke out in the camp between him and an Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman blasphemed God’s Name with a curse. . . (Leviticus, 25:10-11).

The Torah did not specify all the story’s details. We do not know when this happened and why the Israelite son came out of his tent and was walking in the camp. Moreover, we do not know what the quarrel was about. In contrast, the Torah bothers to point out that the man who cursed God was the son of an Egyptian. It would seem that this detail is marginal. Why was the family pedigree of the man who cursed God mentioned?  Is not the main issue the act itself?

Herein lies a very deep message about the degree of responsibility of the individual towards himself and towards those around him, and the degree of responsibility of society towards the individual. In certain situations, we will actually oppose – and vigorously – an approach that separates the origin of the actor from his actions. In many cases there is certainly room to examine the circumstances that led a person to commit a serious act. The factors and constraints that the actor faced may also need to be observed and seen.  We cannot focus only on the one who throws stones or disobeys, but also on the moment before the action.  We must investigate the insult or the background information that brought him to this situation.

This story raises an interesting contrast between the approaches of Ethiopian Jewish theology and Rabbinic Jewish law. According to the custom of Ethiopian Jews, and contrary to what is customary in other Israeli communities, a Jew is anyone who is born to a Jewish father.

The Midrash Halacha of the Tanitic Period (Sifra, Chapter 14) explains to us the background of the action taken by the son of the Egyptian man in the story. According to the Midrash, the conflict arose around the question of whether the man who cursed belonged to the tribe of Dan. Eventually, the issue was brought before the court of Moshe and the court rejected the man’s claim to membership in the Tribe of Dan, because only his mother was a tribe member while his father, as noted, was Egyptian.  According to the law, tribal membership is determined according to the pedigree of the father. Therefore, they decided, the man is not entitled to settle in the camp of the Tribe of Dan. It was this determination that caused the man to curse God, out of his anger and frustration at the judgment. The Midrash expands on the story noting that being the son of an Egyptian man, he underwent conversion, and only because of that, was counted to be among the children of Israel.  The assumption underlying the Midrash’s discussion is that while the man was the son of an Israelite woman, he still needed to convert because his father was Egyptian. Apparently, in those days, Jewish pedigree was determined by the father’s lineage.  The principle that a person’s Judaism was determined by the mother had not yet been accepted.

Regarding the question of whether a person’s Judaism is determined by the father or by the mother, the Ramban notes that the “French” (i.e. the Jewish sages of France) understood the matter in a different way. According to them, what is said in the Sifra teaches us that before the giving of the Torah, Jewish pedigree was determined by the father.  There is a controversy among biblical researchers on this point. Some researchers hold that the change to determine Jewishness according to the mother’s lineage happened in the second century of the common era. Other scholars disagree. They claim that chronological and legal evidence indicates that the accepted halachic ruling that in mixed marriages, the child’s religion is determined by the mother, predated the Tanaitic Period.  They believe that this ruling occurred even before the time of the Prophet Ezra (prior to the rebuilding of the Second Temple). In other words, it seems that the criterion for determining “Who is a Jew?” has always been controversial.

How did Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewry) deal with these questions? As noted, according to the Ethiopian Jewish custom, and contrary to what is accepted in other Israeli communities, a Jew is anyone who is born to a Jewish father. The question of “Who is a Jew?” has many possible answers and some of them may lead us to fateful mistakes, as seen in the story above. There are those who want to emphasize the subjective side of the matter and say that a Jew is someone who in his own eyes is a Jew. On the other hand, there is, of course, the objective criterion of Rabbinic Jewish law-matrilineal Jewish descent.  However, the halachic definitions must be applied after clarification and in-depth study, out of consideration and pragmatic vision as much as possible, and with a lot of compassion. In the world of Ethiopian Jewry, belonging to a nation is conditional on the mental intention of the person and not on the ethnic-biological connection of having been born to Jewish parents. The issue of obedience to the Torah and the mitzvot (divine commandments) was also not at the center of this determination. Instead, the most important part was the man’s intention and the desire to link his fate with the fate of the Jewish people. From that moment on, he is Jewish in every way, as if he were born anew.

If we go back to the story of the son of the Egyptian man, mentioning the origin of the man who cursed God conveys to us the seriousness of the action and at the same time this affair imposes a great deal of responsibility on the environment and on society. That son of the Egyptian man felt complete alienation and helplessness.  He was denied his identity. He felt he had no place in God’s kingdom, and therefore reacted as he did. In Israeli society, too, there are quite a few people who feel alienated from God’s land. The treatment they receive does not take into account their subjective view of themselves as observant of Torah and mitzvot. It is appropriate to adopt an approach that is more sensitive to the complexity of the problem, an approach of openness, tolerance and acceptance of the other. Such has been the practice in the Jewish tradition for generations and as it is reflected in the law of who is a Jew in the ancient customs of Beta Israel.

The affair of the son of the Egyptian man who cursed God can therefore teach us to reach a state where we make the right choice regarding the question of “Who is a Jew?”, in loyalty to Halacha, but also out of sensitivity and not out of alienation.

The original Hebrew article can be read at: