CHAPTER TWO VARIOUS RECEPTIONS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT IN AFRICA: SOME OBSERVATIONS
History books and other accounts report that during the pre-Islamic period (before 600 AD) Judaism spread into Saudi Arabia, Africa and the rest of the world, resulting in more than one tribe in Africa embracing a self-declared form of Judaism (cf Photo’s 70, 71, 72, 74). Different reasons were offered for these claims of Jewish roots (Israel 1984; cf Goitein 1969; Connoway 1978; Parfitt 1987:36ff, 88ft). At present there are numerous synagogues in India, and Judaising groups in Japan and in Yemen. There are also many ‘Black Jews’ in the USA, who came from West Africa (Israel 1984; cf Goitein 1969; Connoway 1978; Parfitt 1987:36ff, 88ff5).
The problem is that each Judaising group embraces/d an identity shaped by ideology; a Jewish identity which differs from Judaism proper. ‘Jewishness’ often denotes/d something very far removed from what we might term ‘authentic’ Jewish tradition (Parfitt 1997b:26; cfEilberg-Schwartz 1990). The truth of this is most clearly seen when one observes the adoption of Judaism en masse in some form or another by peoples, groups or religions. It should therefore be noted that the idea of ‘Jewishness’ is neither specifically nor exclusively Jewish (Parfitt 1997b:2). The phenomenon of Jewishness has been borrowed by various groups and peoples throughout history and made to serve a variety of functions for different reasons. The beliefs and practices of the Falashas in Ethiopia, for example, have very little to do with real Judaism (Goitein 1969:228; see below). They probably adopted a form of Judaism to distinguish themselves from other groups. Although such a religious shift seems to be a fairly lengthy process, some scholars support the view that their form of Judaism was preceded by other forms of religious experience and identification (Parfitt 1997b). This immediately provokes the question as to how ‘Judaism’ should be defined. ‘There is, of course, no stable object called Judaism’ (Eilberg-Schwartz 1990:2), but one possible definition of Judaism is that it is Commonly, Judaism refers to both a religious as well as an ethnic community who reflect a particular way of life, and who practises a unique set of beliefs and values (cf Ellison 1988b:631; Bentwich 1969:59fl). This leads to the datum that it is virtually impossible not to be a member of the Jewish ethnic or religious community if one was born of Jewish parents (Jung 1980: 59).
In order to facilitate the understanding of the so-called Judaising groups in Africa, the following problem areas will be investigated: the Judaism of Judaising groups, and ‘authentic’ Judaism, as well as the historical and existential relationship of Balemba or Lemba8 ‘Judaism’ with ‘authentic’ Judaism. Did the Lemba specifically make a religious shift at one stage or another? Or did they choose to identify with the idea of being Jewish or rather Israelite, because it confirmed and reinforced their traditions of origin and Semitic customs? Or are they simply one of the lost tribes of Israel or part of a number of tribes? Although Judaism and Jewishness are not equal denominators, in the contexts of these groups, these concepts are now sometimes used interchangeably. The question remains: To what should Judaism or Jewishness be reduced before it stops being Judaism (cf Parfitt 1987:3)?
All over the world definitions of religion and identity are changing and we realise that we live in a world of fragmented identities. In general, religion can be described as belief, as well as a link with specific images and emotions (Jung 1980). Religion is also closely related to cosmology and magical practices. These beliefs (among other possible factors) constitute ‘identity’. There are, however, many expressions of belief which may appeal to people, but they usually seek a community that (mostly) expresses or confirms what they already believe (Jung 1980).
The theory regarding the Ten Lost Tribes oflsrael, links up with the history when the Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom (of Israel) were carried off into exile by the Assyrians (722/1 BC), never to return (cf2 Ki 15:29; 17:4-6; 18:11). Those tribes of course were not known as Jews, but as Israelites. Over the centuries there were many theories about what happened to these tribes, and today there are many groups who claim to be descendants of the Ten Tribes, even in Africa. What impedes the situation is that many other indigenous groups in Africa have many manners and customs with a Semitic resonance. Where did they get this from? Are they descendants of the lost tribes? Or is there any evidence of a more general religion that existed earlier throughout the world? And where does the Lemba fit in?
An impediment to this study is the apparent non-existence of any Jewish record of ties with ‘lost’ tribes elsewhere. Also, for approximately the last fifteen hundred years Judaism has not looked very favourably on such ‘conversion’ to Judaism movements and tended to ignore them (Parfitt 1997b; 1987). Currently the Israeli Government does not have a particular interest in any Jewish groups in Africa. Smythe (1962:101) confirms that the refugees who have come to Israel in more recent years, especially the darker-hued Jews from North Africa and Yemen, have found themselves segregated and looked upon as inferiors. Although the Israeli Government officially opposes any undemocratic practices against these diverse newcomers they are still considered less equal than the dominant population group and suffer some form of discrimination and segregation
OSTENSIBLE REASONS FOR ‘RELIGIOUS SHIFTS’ 10 WORLD-WIDE
A variety of ostensible reasons could underlie a religious shift as Parfitt (1995:3) observed it elsewhere in the world and in Africa:
the Judaisation ofHimyar may for example best be viewed as a gesture of Yemeni nationalism directed against the encroachments of Ethiopia and Byz.antium whereas conversely the adoption of Christianity by the Kiev state was a desire to be united with Byz.antium – the cultural Eldorado of the day. In present times the Judaising process at work among the Shinlung can be seen as emanating in part at least from their desire to extricate themselves from their unenviable state as ‘tribals’ – too lowly even to form part of the Indian caste system. The Judaising activity of the Japanese groups Makuya and Beit Shalom on the other hand may be seen as an attempt to escape the suffocating anonymity of Japanese society. In the case of the Falasha their elaboration of a separate religious tradition formed part of a desire to further buttress existing differences between themselves and neighbouring groups.
Social reasons seem to have been the main motivation for these shifts. Parfitt (1995:3) contends that religious shifts are similar in different regions of the world, and are most likely to occur after missionary or other ideological activity, or after the manifestation of some historical reminder of what a given group considers to have been its original religious state (cf Chidester 1996:238-240). One wonders to what extent the fact that the missionaries first translated and brought the message of the New Testament to Africa, and only later brought the Old Testament, should be taken into consideration. This might have given the impression, especially to some tribes in Africa, that the Old Testament is the more important (thicker) and therefore some of the tribes eventually rejected (or minimised) the message and customs of the much thinner (therefore less important) New Testament (cfMafico 1979:110; 1982).
The occurrence of a religious shift is often explained as having taken place because of transmitted traditions and as a result of the choices that have been made. Parfitt explains that such a movement from one religious system or identification to another, could be brought about by ‘sudden conversion or by an almost imperceptible and gradual process’ (1995:2; 1997; cf Price 1954; Smith 1982). A specific group will often revert to their oral traditions or folklore as resources during a phase of renewal. Choices often involve a well-acknowledged charismatic national or group leader, who carefully weighs the pros and cons of different religions.
Parfitt (1995:2) uses Central Asian (Russia) traditions as an example of free choice being exercised, when decisions had to be made between the competing claims of Nestorian Christianity, Islam and Manicheism. In the debate that followed their deliberations, Prince Vladimir first eliminated Islam for obvious reasons. Islam prohibited alcohol – and this he considered unacceptable for the Russian people. Because of the traditional enmity between the Khazar Khanate and Kiev – Judaism was rejected. And this left Christianity as the only option (Parfitt 1995:2).
Because of the strong racial and ethnic character of Judaism, Weingarten (199211 quoted by Parfitt 1995:2) points out that most Judaising groups make some attempt to legitimise themselves by claiming that they have always been Jews. The Yemenite Jews insisted that they migrated to South Arabia forty two years before the destruction of the First Temple (approximately 630 BC). Judaising Japanese sects claim kinship with the lost tribe of Zebulun, who made their way by sea to Japan, bringing with them the Mosaic law. The bene Israel of western India (who probably came to Judaism via Islam) claim kinship either with the lost tribes oflsrael or with those Jews who left Palestine as a result of the persecutions by Antiochus Epiphanus (165 BC; Parfitt 1995:2). The Judaising Shinlung of eastern India, who accepted a kind of Judaism via Protestant Christianity, claim descent from the lost tribe of Manasseh, while the central theory ofFalasha origin, involves descent from Solomon and Sheba, although other historical periods and situations are involved as well (Parfitt 1995:2). The ‘British-Israelism’ in Britain insisted that the prophet Jeremiah and the daughter of king Sedekiah (the last Judaean king) ended up in Ireland after the Babylonian Exile. According to them, she married the Irish monarch, Hermon, who himself was a descendant of Judah12 (Ned. Geref Kerk van Transvaal, Sektebearbeiding no 17).
The Lemba cannot recall the particular tribe oflsrael from which they have descended, but they regard themselves as an offshoot of Yemenite Jews who left Israel during the Babylonian invasion, crossed the Phusela (but they do not know where or what Phusela is) and came to Africa (see below).
Parfitt explains that groups are sometimes attracted to specific inherent characteristics of an ideology such as Judaism (1995:3). In certain cases it is the exclusivity of Judaism that exerts a certain fascination; and in other instances the historical experience and suffering of Jewish people serve as a powerful magnet and as an usable paradigm to explain and make more bearable their own suffering or when their own identity is under siege (Parfitt 1995:3). This may have been the case with the South African Boers and some Bl~ck people when they were suffering at the hands of the British (cf the Manifesto of the Emigrant Farmers, compiled by Piet Retief, 2 February 1837, published in The Graham’s Town Joumal;13 Van Jaarsveld 1971 :54,55). A specific small right-wing group of Christian Dutch Boers in South Africa were known as ‘Jerusalemgangers’, since they perceived themselves to be ‘the chosen people of God’ (without mention of a connection to a specific tribe; De Vaal [ s a ]a: 1).
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