Chief Rabbis Insist That Ethiopian Jews Must Undergo Ritual Immersion
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Chief Rabbis Insist That Ethiopian Jews Must Undergo Ritual Immersion

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Israel’s two chief rabbis declared today that they would not yield an inch in their demands that Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia undergo ritual immersion, a religious conversion rite.

At a packed press conference at Chief Rabbinate headquarters here, Mordechai Eliahu and Avraham Shapiro, the Sephardic and Ashkenazic chief rabbis, respectively, insisted that halacha was immutable and inviolable. The Ethiopian newcomers must submit to immersion because it is a halachic requirement, they said.

The Ethiopian Jews, more than 10,000 of whom arrived in Israel by secret airlift last winter, regard the Chief Rabbinate’s demand to be demeaning and insulting and casts doubts on their authenticity as Jews. The refusal of local rabbis to issue marriage certificates to Ethiopians who have not undergone immersion triggered a series of angry protests.

They culminated yesterday in a mass march by hundreds of emigres–men, women and children–from absorption centers in northern and southern Israel toward Ben Gurion Airport, the place where they landed only a few months ago. The intention was to dramatize their disenchantment with their treatment at the hands of Israel’s rigidly Orthodox religious establishment.

They returned to the absorption centers on the promise that Premier Shimon Peres would intervene with the chief rabbis on their behalf.


The two chief rabbis, who dismissed the protests as the work of fringe agitators, said they would be willing to “explain” halacha to Peres. They said they regarded the Ethiopian emigres, one of the most devoutly religious groups in Israel, as Jews in principle. But the fact that they have been separated from mainstream Judaism since the destruction of the Second Temple, cast doubts on their Jewish purity which only the ritual bath could remove.

Eliahu maintained there has certainly been a “mixing” of alien strains in some Ethiopian Jewish families over the centuries–meaning some may have married non-Jews–and therefore halacha requires a confirmation of the Covenant before any Ethiopian can be allowed to marry. “For marriage we need an even higher degree of certainty,” Eliahu explained. There is no civil marriage in Israel and marriages per-formed by non-Orthodox rabbis are generally not recognized.

“There can be no negotiating or compromise over halacha,” Shapiro said. “If something is halacha then it is halacha and that’s all there is to it.”

Both chief rabbis claimed their predecessors had insisted that the Ethiopian Jews must undergo not only immersion but symbolic circumcision–a drawing of blood. The latter demand was waived by Eliahu and Shapiro who said they were satisfied that the circumcision of infants performed in Ethiopia complied with the basic tenets of halacha.

But the chief rabbis’ reliance on their predecessors was notably weakened by the fact that their two immediate predecessors, Ovadia Yosef and Shlomo Goren, the former Sephardic and Ashkenazic Chief Rabbis, respectively, have stated publicly that neither ritual immersion nor symbolic circumcision is required of the Ethiopian newcomers.

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