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Learning reconciliation from Ethiopian Jews and pagans

A Hartman Institute fellow crisscrosses Ethiopia on a Jewish roots trek

Noam Zion (center, with a hat) in Ethiopia (photo credit: courtesy Hartman Institute)
Noam Zion (center, with a hat) in Ethiopia (photo credit: courtesy Hartman Institute)

What I learned from the Beta Yisrael about Rosh Hashana is that it is not their New Year. Beta Yisrael celebrates their new year on Pesach, as it is in the Torah (Exodus 12), but their fall holiday is the birth of the moon and the memorial of Akedat (the Binding of) Yitzhak, of Abraham’s Yahrzeit.

Their Yom Kippur commemorates the sin of Joseph’s brothers, who sold Joseph into slavery and then lied to their father Jacob and presented his torn, blood-splattered coat of many colors to him. It is that lie to their father that is to be atoned with a scapegoat on Yom Kippur, because the brothers cruelly misled their father by slaughtering a goat on the tunic so as to make it look like Joseph’s blood.

Before what Rabbinic Jews call Kol Nidrei, every Beta Yisrael prostrates him or herself before each other member of the community in asking for their forgiveness. Micha Feldmann, responsible for the Israeli absorption as well as rescue of Beta Yisrael, demonstrated for us how an Ethiopian Jew seeking to make amends, places a small rock on the back of the neck, which forces one to keep one’s head bent so the stone will not fall off. Then approaching the aggrieved party, one apologizes and if the apology is accepted by the offended person then he or she removes the stone from the neck of the offender and casts it away.

In ancient Assyrian reliefs kings are shown sitting atop a throne with the enemy kings they have conquered lying beneath the throne with the triumphant Assyrian king’s foot on their necks. But the poetry of the High Holidays described God as desiring not the death of the sinner who has rebelled against God’s yoke of Torah, but opening God’s royal hand to accept those who repent, so that they might live. Here is an understanding of God’s kingship which does not seek to crush enemies and to construct one’s throne on their bent necks as did.

However, such frequent metaphors as God the king sitting on his throne seem alien to our democratic mindset. Therefore, I was pleased to discover in Ethiopia a new model for rulership based on a modified function of the king of kings who welcomed us in his palace complex of mud huts.

The cultural divide between the well-clad Westerners and the topless or completely naked natives was enormous. Yet we felt very differently with the Konsoe tribe of 300,000 villagers divided into nine clans. Their king who reigns over all nine chiefs is only 44. He had been a civil engineer trained in Addis Ababa, but he returned to take over his father’s calling as king of kings when the father died at 60.

While he seeks the welfare of his people as did his forbearers, he has adjusted his style of rulership to the modern era. He says kings are no longer supported by tribute but by tourism, and the royalty no longer give orders, but they still give advice. Most important, besides his ceremonial role as the high priest, the Konsoe king of kings is called upon to mediate disagreements that might otherwise turn violent. For that purpose he completed an advanced course in conflict resolution.

In the liturgy God is described as rising from the throne of justice and moving to the throne of mercy. But imagine a new image of the King of kings before whom we bow on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. God rises from his throne of judgment and sits on the throne of mediation.

Noam Zion
Noam Zion

Imagine God advising us on how to improve our yield in time of need as God showed a parched Hagar in the desert how to find a source of water in a well. Imagine God helping us to work out our disputes, just as the Talmudic text studied at the beginning of the morning service praises “those who bring peace between human beings.” The Day of Atonement becomes the Day of Conflict Mediation.

This New Year I invite you to join me again in our minds to visit God’s palace in the image of the Konsoe tribe’s king of kings and to enter God’s straw-thatched mud hut, which requires that we bow low for the entrance. When we exit – with the help of the King’s extended hand – we may be able to hold our heads high if we have followed the Konsoe king’s professional advice about mediation and if we have followed the Ethiopian Jewish custom of removing the stone of offense and guilt from the backs of those who have offended us and who now seek reconciliation.

Noam Zion is a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and co-author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices,” among other books.

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