Tel Aviv University is forging a SWAT team of professional scholars to record and preserve a rare, living Ethiopian Jewish oral tradition, which is facing rapid extinction.
The university has just launched the only graduate program in the world to focus on the oral retelling of Ethiopian Jewish scriptures. Called “Orit Guardians,” it entails an interdisciplinary study of the Ethiopian Jewish scripture and its ancient liturgical language, Ge’ez, combined with the scientific study of biblical translation and interpretation, with the goal of recording the biblical scriptures that have been orally transmitted to the Beta Israel community in their own common tongues, Amharic or Tigrinya, for the past several hundred years at least.
“Bible departments all over the world are working on ancient translations and there has not been any development of a study of the Ethiopian Jewish tradition. No one has recorded the translation and interpretations,” Prof. Dalit Rom-Shiloni told The Times of Israel this week.
The reason, she asserted, is mostly because until now, no one has had both the scholarly know-how and the language and cultural proficiency to speak with the kes, or priestly class, who, until the community’s mass immigration to Israel, led communal worship.
“What we are trying to do is focus on the biblical side of the text and the translations and interpretive tradition, and we’re suggesting we can do it by using a set of professional tools,” she said.
The foundational Ethiopian Jewish scripture is called the Orit. It is an Octateuch which includes the five Books of Moses — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy — as well as the Book of Joshua, the Book of Judges, and the Book of Ruth, and written in Ge’ez, but transmitted orally in congregations by the kes in their lingua franca. Other books of the Hebrew Bible are also quoted in liturgy.
Until now there has been no scientific study of the biblical texts and the oral translations transmitted to the communities, which would naturally include some form of biblical interpretation. As Ethiopian Jewry assimilates into the greater Israeli Jewish society, these traditions are being quickly lost in favor of rabbinic Judaism, even as the kes leadership is diminished.
The language study will be led by Prof. Anbessa Teferra, the first Ethiopian Israeli to be appointed a senior lecturer at an Israeli university. Today Teferra is head of the Semitic Linguistics Program at the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Linguistics. The textual study will also be undertaken by Dr. Ran HaCohen of the Department of Literature.
While Teferra has taught at TAU since 2015, according to Rom-Shiloni, none of his students could ever claim Ethiopian Jewish roots. And that is the second facet of the program, said Rom-Shiloni: The amplification of Ethiopian Israelis in academia.
The partial, private funding garnered for the program is earmarked to aid the five Ethiopian immigrant students, who receive tuition and living stipends. “This is not to discriminate any person who is not from Ethiopia, but to encourage students to come in and study,” she said. (A sixth, non-Ethiopian student also recently joined the program, but will not receive the special funding, she said.)
Return to roots
The Ethiopian-born students are ages 32-47 and raising their own families today. After proving themselves “more Israeli than the Israelis,” said Rom-Shiloni, they are ready to return to their roots — and preserve them for their own children.
The students come from throughout the country and currently work in a variety of fields. Prior to the second nationwide lockdown, they gathered for a program orientation session and shared their stories. A blog on The Times of Israel written by Dr. Diana Lipton, who heads an academic committee at TAU that supports the program, details the September gathering.
Business consultant Wanana Abrams, 32, was born in the village of Bilbuhah and immigrated to Israel in 1991. Abrams volunteers at Negat, which strives to place young Ethiopian-Israelis at the top of the Israeli business ecosystem, and she founded LAB, Lomdim Amharit B’yachad, a private Facebook group for learning Amharic.
“I am thrilled at the prospect of playing a key role in bringing the Orit to academia. I see this as an important opportunity to learn and transmit the deep wisdom of Beta Israel’s religious leaders. Without academic programs such as this, the knowledge of Beta Israel’s elders might pass on without reaching the next generation and [the] broader Jewish world,” Abrams said.
Another participant, Mulualem Tameyet, 47, is currently learning to be a kes and sees this as a complementary program. Born in the village of Abantonis, he came to Israel in 1987 and today works in hi-tech, with a job in Quality Assurance.
“My late father was a Kes in Ethiopia. His community activities often jeopardized his life and led to his imprisonment. In Israel, he continued his activities until the day he died. Currently, I am learning to be a Kes, and in that context I look forward to a formal education in the language of Ge’ez and the scriptures of the Ethiopian Jews,” said Tameyet.
Each of the students’ immigration stories and integration into Israeli society is worthy of a Hollywood treatment. The chosen MA students are also highly educated — all have at least a BA and many have MAs — and already leaders in their local communities. Their newest entree into academia is the next barrier to pass.
“The MA will increase the presence of Ethiopian Jewish Studies, Ethiopian scholarship, and Ethiopian-Israelis in Israel’s academy and beyond,” writes Lipton in her blog.
For Tejitu (Taje) Asfawu Daniel, who was born in Zagra-Wenz in 1981 and came to Israel on a third attempt in 1991, the desire to learn the ancient text is also the chance of a lifetime. Although she already earned an MA in Educational Counseling in 2010, “The Orit Guardians MA will help me to fulfill my personal dream and my late father’s last wish: To study and explore the Orit, which he loved so much and was for him ‘bread to eat and water to drink,’ and to study the ways of the spiritual leaders who fiercely preserved the Ethiopian Jewish community. This is my opportunity and I intend to seize it with both hands.”
Neglected field of study
The Orit has roots in the Septuagint, a mid-3rd century BCE Greek translation of the Pentateuch, which is the basis of the Christian Bible. Performed by Jews in Alexandria, the translation was used by the great Jewish philosopher Philo in his biblical exegesis work.
The Septuagint is the foundation for several versions of the Old Testament, including the Syriac and Coptic versions, said Rom-Shiloni.
“The Ge’ez translation of the Orit and other Biblical books, which was done from the Septuagint, dates to 5th or 6th centuries and shows evidence of Jewish involvement,” asserted veteran researcher of Ethiopian Jewish history, religious traditions and liturgy Shoshana Ben Dov.
While Rom-Shiloni is a member of the Bible department, the Orit is not her specialty and she said she will be “learning alongside the students.” The copies of the Orit found in Israel were likely not written by Jews, Rom-Shiloni said, but rather by Ethiopian Orthodox priests. The Jewish community would then adapt the texts to Judaism, erasing overtly Christian sections, said Rom-Shiloni.
“And nevertheless they did develop a kind of a Jewish identity,” she said. “In developing their own tradition they found ways to work with the Bible in ways that were not Christian.”
There are competing narratives about the foundation of the Beta Israel community. Traditional lore puts down roots even prior to the First Temple, after the Exodus from Egypt, or just after the Temple’s fall, or that they are part of the lost tribe of Dan, or descendants of King Solomon’s son Menelik through the Queen of Sheba. Another view suggests that the Ethiopian Jews evolved from Christians in circa the 14th-16th century, said Rom-Shiloni.
For her part, Rom-Shiloni is not interested in probing this riddle.
“The question of dating the tradition of the Beta Israel is something that is under debate, whether it has Jewish origins or ancient origins, or [it is] only secondary developments, or [a] transformation of Christian tradition,” she said. “It is a very delicate question and I’m not sure we’ll be able to go beyond what is commonly known. I hope not to get into this argument — the results could be very troubling for each side.”
However, she said, regardless of whether the Jewish group is thousands of years old or has existed for “only” centuries, the group has been interacting with scripture as Jews for hundreds of years, and has developed its own contribution to the Jewish canon, she said. The neglected traditions are clearly worthy of scholarly study.
“Here we have a community that is very unique — they are Jewish and their manuscript goes with the Septuagint. Even [just] as a biblical scholar it is fascinating to investigate,” she said. All the more so due to their “constant negotiations with their Jewish identity.”
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