The Race to Preserve and Document the Sacred Traditions of Ethiopian Jewry

Oct. 27 2020

Cut off for many centuries from the main centers of Jewish religious life, the Beta Israel Jews of Ethiopia preserved distinctive canonical texts. Moreover, while rabbinic Jews committed their oral teaching to writing in the middle of the first millennium CE, Ethiopian Jews continued to hand these down by word of mouth. A group of Israeli academics at Tel Aviv University are now committed to preserving these traditions before they are lost. Amanda Borschel-Dan reports:

The university has just launched the only graduate program in the world to focus on 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.

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 books of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, and written in Ge’ez, but transmitted orally in congregations by the kes, [traditional Beta Israel clergyman], in their lingua franca.

Until now there has been no scientific study of the 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.

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Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Ethiopian Jews, Hebrew Bible, Judaism, Oral Torah, Translation

 

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy