The 'Galapagos Islands' of religion

Ethiopia: Where Christians and Jews evolved unique relationships

It's early Sunday morning, and there's still a chill in the air as Addis Ababa slowly awakens. But behind the seemingly quiet walls of one of the city's sleepy streets stirs a scene of unexpected activity.

There, in a compound comprised of makeshift buildings and a few dusty stretches of yard, several hundred people are gathered. The adults - half-obscured in a sea of white shawls - are bent forward to the wail of morning prayer. The children are joined in a circle, singing a simple song in Hebrew.

These are the members of Beta-Israel (house of Israel), also known as the Ethiopian Jews, or Falashas (foreigners). They've gathered here, at this compound, financed largely by Jews abroad, to worship together, to study Hebrew, and most importantly, to work toward immigration to Israel.

Many of these people say Ethiopia is no home to them, that they have been rejected by their neighbors because of their religious practices, and they long to make their way to a country where they will find acceptance.

Yet, it is a strange irony of history that any Jew should feel an outsider in Ethiopia. Of all the countries in the world, there is perhaps no other where Judaism and Christianity have come as close as they have in this sub-Saharan nation.

"In terms of life and customs and culture, Ethiopian Christians are the only ones in the world with this close affinity to Jewish culture and law," says Ephraim Isaac, professor of religion and African studies and director of the Institute of Semitic Studies at Princeton University, N.J.

Mingling of two cultures

The mingling of the two cultures is almost as ancient as the roots of civilization itself. Ethiopian legend proudly insists on a foundational link to ancient Israel, pointing to the Biblical account of the journey of the Queen of Sheba to meet King Solomon in Jerusalem. The Ethiopians claim the queen as one of their own, and say the two monarchs conceived a son, King Menelik I, who became the head of a dynasty which ruled Ethiopia for almost 3,000 years.

Modern historians discount this version of events, and most now believe the Queen of Sheba came from Arabia. But regardless of the truth of the legend, there is no disregarding the Semitic elements that have permeated Ethiopia.

They appear most dramatically in the faces of the Ethiopian people, many of whom display a striking mix of Semitic and black African features. (The Ethiopians - famed throughout history for their beauty and grace - have such a distinctive appearance that some travelers to the continent say that Africans divide into four groups: black, white, Arab, and Ethiopian.)

Semitic influence appears also in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia and the modern version of Ge'ez, an ancient tongue with Hebrew roots. But it is in religion that the blending of the two traditions has been most powerful. Half of all Ethiopians practice the country's unique style of Orthodox Christianity, a religion curiously melded with Judaism.

Common practices were in evidence centuries ago. Up through the Middle Ages, the Ethiopian Christian church celebrated the Sabbath on Saturdays. In a complex of royal buildings constructed in Gondar in the 17th century by the Christian King Fasiladas, is a bath designed for ritual purification, built to the exact specifications found in the book of Leviticus.

Ethiopian Christians still practice circumcision and have dietary restrictions similar to many Jews. And at the center of their worship is the Ark of the Covenant. Every Ethiopian church keeps hidden in a holy inner chamber a replica of the ark.

Many Ethiopians also believe that the original ark has been lying quietly for centuries in a church in their northern city of Axum (see story left).

At the same time, Ethiopia's Jews practice a unique brand of Judaism strongly marked by Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. Many wear crosses on their foreheads and hands. They ordain priests and nuns. Much of their liturgy derives directly from the Ethiopian Christian church.

This intertwining of the two belief systems should surprise no one, says Professor Isaac, who points out that before Ethiopia became the first African state to officially embrace Christianity in the fourth century, perhaps as many as half of all Ethiopians practiced Judaism.

Yet the origin of today's Ethiopian Jews remains a mystery and source of dispute. Some scholars have suggested they are a lost tribe of Dan, while others say they wandered from Yemen centuries ago.

Questions about their "authenticity" as Jews has slowed their entry into Israel and in some cases made assimilation difficult. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s, but an estimated 17,000 still remain in Ethiopia, many hoping to prove their Jewish ancestry and gain entrance into Israel.

Complex but common roots

Whatever their roots, the relations between Ethiopian Jews and their Christian neighbors have long been complex. "The two groups are very intimately connected and yet separated at the same time," says Donald Crummey, professor of history at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

Many of the answers to questions about early ties between the two groups are today "lost in the mists of time," says Professor Crummey. In terms of liturgy, music, and ritual, the Ethiopian Jews borrowed wholesale from the Ethiopian Christian church, he points out. At the same time, he adds, the Ethiopian Orthodox church - long isolated from the rest of the Christian world - delved more deeply into the Old Testament and incorporated it more fully into religious practices.

Some historians also suggest that relations between the two groups have become more complicated in the last couple of centuries as missionaries and members of religious groups from the outside world have arrived and caused Ethiopian Jews and Christians to focus more intensely on their differences. Today, it would seem that while the two groups share respect for a common core of beliefs, each sees itself as the practitioner of a purer faith.

Further embittering relations is the fact that in recent history many Jews lived as subordinates in Ethiopia and did not own land. Most worked for Christians as tenant farmers or performed lower-status services. Some were given the despised name of "buda" or "hyena people," and were accused of possessing evil powers.

But such practices belie the rich exchanges that also went on. Drawing on interviews with Ethiopian Jews now in Israel, Hagar Salamon describes in her book "The Hyena People: Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopia" the more complex relationships involved. She tells of public doctrinal debates between Jewish and Christian priests sometimes held in Ethiopian villages and enjoyed by many as a form of "religious theater." These discussions revealed an intimate and respectful knowledge of one another's faiths.

The impress made on the national culture lives on even if the number of Ethiopian Jews has diminished. "Ethiopians believe in salvation through both faith and action and that is very Jewish," Isaac says. "Much of the Sermon on the Mount is really based on Old Testament teaching. In Leviticus, too, it tells you to love your neighbor and to maintain right relations with him." Many Christian churches fail to stress that connection, Isaac says.

But to Ethiopian Christians, the concept of loving your neighbor is central to both the Old and New Testaments. It's the key, he says, to the country's style of life, which stresses hospitality, mutual support, and responsibility. It is perhaps one more example of the overlapping of the Jewish and Christian traditions where, writes Professor Salamon, a "model of religious separation" is oddly combined with "a model of connectedness."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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