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Rethinking the Image of the King of Kings at Yom Kippur

Finding a new model in an Ethiopian mud hut and a stone on the neck
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

This past summer I joined friends for a Jewish roots trek to Ethiopia – one week in Gondar and Addis Ababa in the north about Ethiopian Jewry and one week in the far south with scantily dressed pagan tribes. In the north we were accompanied by Micha Feldmann, who ran Operation Solomon taking out 20,000 Ethiopian Jews – Bet Yisrael (Falashas) in 1990-1991, and we met basically the last 900 Falasmura Jews (converted to Christianity by British missionaries in the nineteenth century but never absorbed ethnically by Orthodox Christians).

They are gathered in Gondar, learning Judaism in preparation for re-conversion to Judaism (unlike Beta Yisrael). Their aliyah is scheduled monthly over the next year. We attended a rocking youth Kabbalat Shabbat with song and dance at the local JCC. Ethiopian Jews like Ethiopian Orthodox wear white mantles – men and women – much like a tallit – for holidays. I will never take white for granted when I see what work is necessary to clean their white garments by hand in a land of mud streets, mud floors and huts made of mud walls sealed with cow dung and muddy brown – not blue – rivers filled with eroded soil.

What I learned from the Beta Yisrael about Rosh Hashana is that it is not their New Year, even though the Orthodox Ethiopians celebrate Sept. 1 in their calendar as the New Year. Officially, Ethiopia still uses Julius Caesar’s calendar, which makes their Sept 1, 2005 = Sept 11, 2012, of our civil calendar, based on Pope Gregory’s further calendar reform in the sixteenth century. (So too, the Ethiopian clock indicates 1:00 for 7 AM in the West and 6.00 for noon in the West.). 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, the memorial of Akedat (the Binding of) Yitzhak, of Abraham’s Yahrzeit.

Yom Kippur: A Scapegoat and a Jewish Stone-Throwing Ceremony

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. As the Apocrypha’s Book of Jubilees (200 BCE) emphasizes, it is the 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 and to shred the tunic to make it appear that a wild animal had torn him apart. (The Book of Jubilees found in the library of Qumran with the Dead Sea Scrolls was preserved completely only in Gez in Ethiopian Orthodox Church and then passed to Beta Yisrael somehow).

12. And the sons of Jacob slaughtered a kid [goat], and dipped the coat of Joseph in the blood, and sent (it) to Jacob their father on the tenth of the seventh month [the date of Yom Kippur]. 13. And he mourned all that night, for they had brought it to him in the evening, and he became feverish with mourning for his death, and he said: “An evil beast has devoured Joseph;” and all the members of his house [mourned with him that day, and they] were grieving and mourning with him all that day. 14. And his sons and his daughter rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted for his son. 15. And on that day Bilhah heard that Joseph had perished, and she died mourning him, And Dinah also, his daughter, died after Joseph had perished. And there came these three mournings upon Israel in one month. 16. And they buried Bilhah over against the tomb of Rachel, and Dinah also, his daughter, they buried there. 17. And he mourned for Joseph one year, and did not cease, for he said “Let me go down to the grave mourning for my son.” 18. For this reason it is ordained for the children of Israel that they should afflict themselves on the tenth of the seventh month – on the day that the news which made him weep for Joseph came to Jacob his father – that they should make atonement for themselves thereon with a young goat [the scapegoat] on the tenth of the seventh month. (Book of Jubilees 34)

Thus Yom Kippur is about intergenerational reconciliation symbolized by the scapegoat offered on Yom Kippur, but it is also about begging forgiveness from fellow family and community members. 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. Since Ethiopia still practices the obligation for taking blood vengeance for the death of a relative killed by another family, procedures for reconciliation by ceremonial acts of deference is very important. 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.

Thus for Beta Yisrael, Yom Kippur is not only marked by prostration with bended knee and face-fallen on the ground before God the King of kings as in Rabbinic Judaism. But Ethiopian Jews bend their knee and bow their necks before those they have humbled and offended. 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. So too Beta Yisrael teaches us that we who have been put-down are called upon to remove the stone of guilt and shame from those who offended us and allow them to straighten their necks and stand face to face in a moment of reconciliation.

A Contemporary Model for King of Kings: The Throne of Mediation

Through the prayer book the poets who wrote the liturgy seek to find human analogies for the Divine. But such frequent metaphors as God the king sitting on his [masculine, of course] 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. In the Southern part of Ethiopia live many tribes – mostly still pagan. One tribe – Hammer – requires the bridegroom to undergo a ritual fertility ceremony followed by jumping naked upon the backs of bulls and walking across six bulls’ backs. The sisters of the bridegroom show their love by asking to be whipped with a fresh branch until their back bleeds.

The cultural divide between the well-clad Westerners and the topless or completely naked natives was enormous. Yet we felt very differently further north where we found a much bigger tribe called Konsoe with 300,000 villagers divided into nine clans. Their king, kala who reigns over all nine chiefs, is only 44. He had been a civil engineer trained in Addis Ababa (which means New = hadash Flower), but he returned to take over his father’s calling as king of kings (when the father died at age 60). He also spoke with reverence of his grandfather as the founder of this dynasty of king of kings (who died at age 120). Thus the young new king left Addis for his rural palace of mud huts with grass roofs, and there he greeted us warmly in excellent English and gave all the ladies his hand as they climbed over the stone walls that divide up his compound. He was very pleased when our guide Micah Feldmann offered to connect him with the Israeli embassy so that his semi-agricultural villagers might be able to apply the Israeli invention of drip irrigation to his often drought-withered lands.

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 (such as his hosting of our group of Israelis), and the royalty no longer give orders, but they still give advice. Most important, besides his ceremonial roles 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, which is called in modern Hebrew – gishur (bridging). 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 (TB Shabbat 127a) studied at the beginning of the morning service praises “those who bring peace between human beings.” The Day of Atonement (at-one-ment) 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, which is very low. But 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.

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