One of the most incredible and inspiring examples of a "communal Teshuva" in all of Jewish History has occurred in Ethiopia in the past several years. During this time, thousands of Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity have returned to full observance of Jewish law. Currently, there are more than three thousand of these people, known as "Falash Mura" residing in Addis Ababa who moved from their ancestral villages in expectation of being airlifted to Israel. Although the Israeli government has permitted a number of the Falash Mura to reside in Israel, most remain in Addis Ababa living in very difficult circumstances. The reluctance to permit the Falash Mura to reside in Israel, stems from the fact that the Law of Return calls for conferring Israeli citizenship to any Jew who wishes to reside in Israel, provided they have not converted to another religion. The argument for accepting the Falash Mura as Israeli citizens, is the fact that they have renounced their conversion to Christianity (which occurred in the late nineteenth century) and they currently observe Torah law to the fullest extent possible in Addis Ababa. In this essay, we will present a Halachic perspective on this vital issue, based on an essay authored by Rabbi Menachem Waldman which appears in the current issue of Israeli Torah journal known as Techumin. It should be noted that Rabbi Waldman serves as a Halachic advisor to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate on the issue of Ethiopian Jews and is the author of two books and numerous articles on this complex and highly sensitive area of Halacha.
Is One Who Abandons Judaism Still Jewish?
On one hand, the Talmud states (Yevamot 74b) that once a convert has completed the conversion process (as soon as he/she emerges from the Mikvah), he is considered a Jew even if he reverts to his former non-Jewish lifestyle. An important consequence of this ruling is that if a convert who subsequently rejected Judaism married a Jew, the marriage is valid and a Get would be required to dissolve the marriage (a "marriage" between a Jew and a non-Jew is not considered a marriage by halacha).
This ruling is in harmony with the celebrated Talmudic passage that appears in Sanhedrin 44a. The Talmud cites a verse from the book of Joshua in which God proclaims (Joshua 7:11) חטא ישראל- an Israelite has sinned. The Talmud infers from this formulation that אף אל פי שחטא ישראל הוא, that despite his commission of a sinful deed, he is nevertheless regarded as a Jew.
On the other hand, the Talmud (Yevamot 71a) states that Chazal proclaimed the ten tribes which had been exiled from Israel and had profoundly assimilated into the cultures to which they had been sent as non-Jews in the fullest sense גויים( גמורים) - also see Chulin 6a for a similar proclamation regarding the Samaritans (כותים). Two approaches regarding how to resolve the apparent contradiction between Yevamot 74b and Yevamot 71a appear in the Rishonim. The Meiri (Avodah Zara 62b) represents the view of the minority of Rishonim. He says: If a Jew practices another religion he is no longer considered a Jew, save for matters concerning personal status such as marriage and divorce. His child, however, is considered non-Jew even regarding these matters of personal status.
The Baal Ha'itur (cited by Beit Yoseph Even Haezer 44) cites and rejects an opinion that espouses a similar approach to the Me'iri. Indeed most Rishonim reject the approach of the Me'iri and state that a Jew who converts to another religion remain a Jew (see Rambam Hilchot Issurei Biah 31:71;Rosh Yevamot 4:63; and Tur Even Haezer 44). Even the children of a Jew who converted to another religion is regarded as a Jew, provided what his mother is Jewish. These Rishonim believe that the Rabbinic proclamation that the ten tribes are no longer Jewish, to be a unique situation due to their profound assimilation and should not be applied to Jews who have converted to other religions but did not assimilate socially into the non-Jewish society (see Teshuvot Rema 26).
Indeed the Shulchan Aruch codifies (Even Haezer 44:9) the majority opinion as normative and the commentaries to the Shulchan Aruch do not dissent to this ruling. In fact the Pitchei Teshuva (44:9) cites Teshuvot Noda Biyehuda (2:261) who states unequivocally that the minority view is entirely rejected by halachic authorities. Moreover, the Be'er Heitev (44:7) adds that even "after many generations" of following a different religion, the descendants of those who converted to a different religion remain Jewish. This, of course, applies only if the mothers throughout the generations were Jewish.
Rabbi Waldman reports in the aforementioned essay in Techumim that despite their conversion to Christianity in the late nineteenth century, the Falash Mura remained a socially (though not religiously) distinct group from the non-Jewish Ethiopian society. They are referred to by non-Jews as Israel and the Falash Mura are known by all to be descendants of Jews. The non-Jewish society views them as strange and of low stature and hence refused to intermarry with them. Rabbi Waldman writes that the intermarriage rate of the Falash Mura was relatively low (approximately 0.3%) and that the few intermarriages occurred mostly amongst those who recently moved to the cities from their ancestral villages. Accordingly, the fact that the Falash Mura lived as Christians for approximately one hundred years, does not generally speaking the detract from their status as Jews.
Are Ethiopian Jews Truly Jewish?
A prerequisite to a Halachic determination of the status of the Falash Mura as Jews, is a determination of the Halachic status of all Ethiopian Jews. This thorny and complicated question has been strongly debated for the past century. Rabbi Menachem Waldman beautifully summarizes the various opinions regarding this issue in Techumin 4:413-623. The consensus opinion is that the status of the Ethiopian Jews is in doubt and therefore require a conversion when they arrive in Israel to remove any doubts concerning their status as Jews. The authorities who subscribe to this view include Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Nissin, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Chief Rabbi Ovadya Yosef, and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (see Techumin 21:89). Similarly, writes Rabbi Waldman, that those members of the Falash Mura who have already arrived in Israel have, for the most part, willingly followed the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's guidelines on how to complete their return to Jewish life by undergoing a conversion ceremony.
Must One Who Left Judaism "Reconvert" to Judaism?
At this point we should clarify that since a Jew who "converted" to a different religion remains a Jew, he is not required to "reconvert" when he returns to live Jewishly. Indeed, there is no mention in the Talmud of a requirement of immersion in a Mikva to reconvert. However, a number of Rishonim (Ritva Yevamot 74b s.v. לתנא, the Nimukei Yosef cites the Ritva, Mordechai Ketubot 03b) mention that the practice has emerged that one who returns to Torah after Judaism for a different religion immerses in a Mikvah. This practice is recorded and codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 862:21). Although this immersion is not, strictly speaking, required, nevertheless it is an act of great significance expressing the depth of commitment to leave past sins and to return to the God of Israel and to the Jewish people. This immersion is to a great extent similar to the practice of immersing on the eve of Yom Kippur - it is not a required immersion, but rather an expression of our desire to purify ourselves from sin and draw closer to God.
The importance of this immersion may be demonstrated by the following ruling of Rav Ahron Lichtenstein. Dr. David Berger relates that he was asked by an older woman who had "converted to Catholicism" and in her youth, but had returned to Judaism in her later years, whether she was required to immerse in a Mikvah. She told Dr. Berger that she believed that it was being somewhat difficult for her to do so because of her age. Dr. Berger, in turn, posed the question to Rav Lichtenstein. Rav Lichtenstein ruled that the woman should make the effort to immerse despite the difficulty. Rav Lichtenstein explained the "it was the least that she could do" in light of her earlier abandonment of the faith.
Are Falash Mura Permitted to Marry other Jews?
A concern regarding the Falash Mura and all Ethiopian Jews is whether these Jews are possibly Mamzeirim, as a result of women who remarry subsequent to a divorce which was not performed in accordance with Jewish law. In fact, the Rema (Even Haezer 4:73) rules that it is forbidden to marry a Karaite even when he or she repents and accepts the authority of the Oral Law. The reason is that the members of the Karaite community are considered ספק ממזר, possibly Mamzer, due to the invalid divorces performed by the Karaite throughout the centuries.
Two approaches have been adopted to rule that there exists no concern for Mamzeirut amongst all Ethiopian Jews including the Falash Mura. The more straightforward approach is that there should be no concern regarding the divorces of Ethiopian Jews, since their marriages were conducted in a manner which was invalid according to Jewish law. Rabbi Menachem Waldman in a well researched and well reasoned essay that was published in Techumin (11:412-042) demonstrates in detail that Ethiopian Jews' marriages were indeed invalid according to Jewish law.
The second approach, espoused by both Rav Yitzchak Herzog (Techumin 4:423-523) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (Torah Shebeal Peh volume 31), is that Ethiopian Jews are not Mamzeirim by virtue of a ספק ספיקא, a double doubt. The reasoning of this ספק ספיקא runs as follows: Perhaps over the centuries there was so much intermarriage, coupled with the acceptance of improperly-converted "converts" (Rav Herzog adds that perhaps they were originally non-Jews who improperly converted to Judaism and thus retain the status of non-Jews) that the majority of these people are descendants of non-Jews and therefore not subject to the stain of Mamzeirut. And even if they are Jews, each is only a ספק ממזר (mamzer merely because of doubt) and may not be a Mamzeir at all. On this basis, Rav Herzog and Rav Yosef rule that, after the completion of the conversion process in Israel, Ethiopian Jews may marry within the ranks of the Jewish people. Thank God, the Jewish people have been blessed with quite a number of marriages between properly converted Ethiopian Jews and other Jews. Rav Hershel Schechter, writing in the Spring 5891 issue of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society , convincingly demonstrates the cogency of this argument.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the great Halachic authorities from Rav Azriel Hildesheimer to Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook to Rav Moshe Feinstein have called upon the world Jewish community to save Ethiopian jews. Since Rabbi Waldman, the leading Rabbinic expert regarding these Jews, reports that from his many visits to Addis Ababa and his daily contacts with the Falash Mura community that the Falash Mura have been returned to torah life with sincerity and great sacrifice, it seem most appropriate for the world Jewish community (especially the Israeli government) to help the Falash Mura. The amazing story of the communal Teshuva of the Falash Mura should serve as an inspiration for all Jews to intensify their connection to the God of Israel and His holy Torah, both on an individual and communal level.