Controversy Heats Up over Conversion for Ethiopian Jews

The controversy over whether the thousands of Ethiopian Jews who have just immigrated to Israel must undergo “Lehumra” — a form of conversion ritual — was heightened over the weekend when Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapiro sharply criticized two former Chief Rabbis for maintaining it was not required. Shapiro said in an interview published in the religious daily Hatzofe that he could not understand why former Chief Rabbis Shlomo Goren (Ashkenazic) and Ovadia Yosef (Sephardic) have reversed what he claimed was their own long-standing positions on the issue.

According to Shapiro, the conversion requirement for Ethiopian Jews was upheld by all past Chief Rabbis of Israel and is the universal view of Torah scholars abroad.

Goren and Yosef, in separate public statements, have disagreed with a recent ruling by the 10-man Chief Rabbinate Council which has caused anger and distress among the Ethiopian emigres. The Council, meeting under the chairmanship of Shapiro and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, held that the newly arrived Ethiopian Jews must undergo ritual immersion and swear a formal undertaking to observe halacha — religious law.

The Council agreed that the males need not undergo bloodletting, symbolic of circumcision, inasmuch as all Ethiopian Jews have been circumcized. Goren and Yosef, citing rabbinic sages of the past, declared that the Ethiopians are fully Jewish and require no conversion, symbolic or otherwise.

“As far as I know,” Shapiro said, “the entire Torah world is shocked by (Goren’s and Yosef’s reversal) and their determination that (the Ethiopians) are full Jews without the need for any process whatsoever…”

IMMIGRANTS FEEL INSULTED

The immigrants themselves say that having suffered so much in their native country for being Jews it is an insult and travesty to have their Judaism impugned in Israel. Lehumra is a halachic concept applied when the smallest doubt exists of a person’s Jewish identity. Shapiro said conversion was required because of the possibility that the practices of Ethiopian Jews in matters of marriage and divorce were not according to accepted halachic standards.

He claimed further that doubt about their authenticity as Jews was firmly grounded because gentiles had intermingled with Ethiopian Jews over the past several hundred years.

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