Holding Fast to Their Faith

"Dreams are very important," says Chaim Avraham, a deceptively slight 33-year-old immigrant from Ethiopia. Wounded while serving with the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon, Chaim's left eye, which was hit by shrapnel, seems unfocused, as if looking inward; his right eye is penetrating and sharp. The porch of his tiny apartment, in an Ethiopian neighborhood in Yavneh, is strewn with prayer books and chairs. It has become a makeshift center for prayer and study, and for the renewal of Ethiopian Jewish devotional practices that were abandoned during the years of immigration and turmoil.

"If you perform the commandments in purity," Chaim says, "then God reveals secrets to you in dreams, gives you wisdom and understanding so that you know how to act." To him and his friends, receiving guidance from God is crucial, because there are no guide books for what they are trying to do, and no one - at least no one living - who can show them the way.

Chaim, along with the 10 or so young and middle-aged Ethiopian Israeli men and women who have gathered to tell me their story, are the disciples of Abba Beyene Demoze, a God-intoxicated ascetic and healer who was the last in a 600-year lineage of Ethiopian Jewish monks called moloksai in Amharic. Beyene, who arrived in Israel in January 1990, spent the last decade of his life in the town of Ashdod, praying and reciting psalms most of his waking hours, sleeping only two or three hours a day, and fasting until midnight every day of the week, when he would eat a simple meal of legumes soaked in water and vegetables.

During the last years of his life, young Ethiopians began to gather around Beyene. By the time of his unexpected death in 1999, at the age of 60, eight or nine young people were living with him in an Ashdod bomb shelter that had begun to serve as an ad hoc yeshiva, attempting to emulate both the calm serenity of his faith and his fierce devotion to God. Another dozen or so came frequently for prayers and lessons, and 20 disciples were scattered across the country- in Netanya, Hadera, Ashdod and elsewhere.

Since their community's mass emigration to Israel, the unique religious heritage of Ethiopian Jews, also called Beta Israel, which had developed in isolated rural villages, seemed threatened to the point of extinction by its shattering collision with modernity, urban poverty and rabbinic Judaism. For the first time, the spiritual imagination of a substantial core of young Ethiopian Jews was ignited.

Now, six years later, Abba Beyene's disciples are searching for a way to bring his message of purity and faith to a God-starved world. One of them, Kes Ambacho (a kes is a traditional spiritual leader), who dropped out of school at the age of 13 and eventually moved to the shelter to study with Beyene, has been ordained as a leader by the older generation of kessoch (plural of kes). Inspired by their teacher, whom they consider a tzaddik (Torah scholar) of rare stature, these disciples are hoping to renew an ancient monastic tradition, which included both men and women among its practitioners and was the backbone of Jewish religious life in Ethiopia.

"We will continue all the way, to the very end," says Shoshana, a woman in her forties with smooth skin and bright eyes, whose gray-streaked hair is covered by a white shawl. "What my father taught me," she continues, referring to Beyene, "I will never give up."

"In Ethiopia there was a forest, where the moloksai could isolate themselves." Chaim adds. "Here there are many temptations. But with the help of God we will continue - at least one or two of us."

A place of their own

Like most of Beyene's disciples, Moshe Meheret, a husky 31-year-old who works in a print factory during the day and devotes his nights to study and prayer, initially sought out Beyene because of his reputation as a healer. "I had a serious illness," he says, "one that you can die from. I had lost my appetite for food completely. I heard about Beyene from my father and then I dreamed about him - a man dressed all in white, standing in a very high place. When I first saw him, in the shelter, he seemed to me an angel, not a man. Within a week I came back with a suitcase to join him. `Welcome,' he said. Within two days, I was eating with gusto, miraculously on my way to recovery."

What Beyene's disciples want now is a place of their own in the countryside where they can pray, study and teach.

"So many people are searching to find a way out of the physical and mental problems torturing them," Chaim explains. "We want to help lead people out of their distress. We want to raise the Torah up anew. We want to teach our children, so that they should not forget our ancient prayers and the melodies."

As for "all the stories of the holy monks," he adds, referring to the tales of miracles and self-sacrifice that have been passed down as part of Beta Israel's spiritual heritage, "they've already done what they have done. But what about us? We can be like them, if we are given the chance. We want to prove it."

Most Israelis, and even some Ethiopian Jews themselves, have never heard of Beta Israel's monastic tradition, though for centuries monks served as the community's undisputed spiritual leaders. Although some of the Essenes, a radically pietistic Second Temple sect - which some researchers, such as anthropologist Shoshana Ben Dor, believe might have influenced Ethiopian Jewry - practiced celibacy, the mainstream rabbinic tradition definitively rejected it as well as monasticism.

In Ethiopia in the 15th century, however, a famously charismatic holy man introduced monasticism to the Beta Israel. Abba Sabra, who some historical sources say was a Christian monk who rejected Christianity and converted to Judaism, while others say he was a Jew who spent long years in an imperial prison, joined the Jewish community that had existed for hundreds of years on the banks of Lake Tana in central Ethiopia. Although Westerners usually associate monasticism with the Catholic or Orthodox Church, in 15th-century Ethiopia monks were often rebels who, according to Prof. Steven Kaplan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, clashed with the increasing hegemony of official, imperial Christianity, rejecting as idolatrous, for example, the cult of Mary and the custom of bowing down to the cross.

As late as the mid-19th century, there were Jewish monastic communities with as many as 200 members, although monks and nuns also lived at times in small groups on the outskirts of Jewish villages. Still other moloksai lived as hermits, sleeping in caves in isolated regions - according to legend, sometimes accompanied by lions sent by God, w which served as their personal guardians. Jewish monks trained the kessoch, resolved legal and familial disputes, and prayed for the welfare of the community. They also presided over ritual sacrifices that the Beta Israel offered during holidays, as prescribed by the Torah: One nearly inaccessible pilgrimage site for Ethiopian Jews is a charred crater, where heavenly flames are said to have come down from above in order to consume a Jewish offering.

Protestant target

During the second half of the 19th century, the Jewish monastic tradition in Ethiopia suffered a three-fold blow. In 1858, Protestant missionaries from England began to target the Beta Israel. Recognizing the critical role of the moloksai, they repeatedly attacked their legitimacy, stressing in their propaganda that Jews in other lands had no tradition of monasticism, and no longer followed the laws of ritual purity or offered sacrifices - two practices supported by the Beta Israel monks. The appearance of the missionaries aroused fears of forced conversion and may have been at least partly responsible for inspiring Abba Mahari, universally revered by Ethiopian Jews as a holy man and prophet, to attempt to lead 5,000 of his people across the Red Sea to the Holy Land in 1862. Mahari's trek ended in disaster, with many Beta Israel dying of disease or hunger in the northern region of Tigre.

The worst was yet to come. In 1888, a four-year famine later known as the kufu q'en ("terrible days") began. The famine apparently started when Italian colonists in Eritrea brought diseased cattle into Ethiopia from India. Within half a year, 90 percent of the cattle in the Ethiopian highlands were dead, and without oxen, the peasants could not plow their fields. As in the story of the 10 Plagues, more disasters ensued. A severe drought, lasting several years, followed the cattle plague. Dervish militias crossed over from Sudan and raided the residents of the highlands repeatedly, taking whatever food and goods the famine had left. Emboldened by hunger, lions and leopards entered the villages to hunt for human prey.

Historian Kaplan estimates that as much as two-thirds of the Beta Israel population, possibly even more, perished during the famine. The moloksai, who depended on tithes from the villagers for their survival, were hit even harder. In the aftermath, some of the remaining monks, according to oral history accounts, were told by God to leave monastic life to fulfill the now urgent command of the hour: replenishing the depleted Beta Israel population.

The third strike against monasticism came from "friendly fire." In 1904, Jacques Faitlovich, the French Jewish scholar and linguist who devoted much of his life to Ethiopian Jewry, arrived in the Ethiopian highlands. Faitlovich's aim was to gain recognition for the Beta Israel as Jews and support from world Jewry. To do that, he emphasized the aspects of religious life that the community had in common with other Jews. Consciously or unconsciously, he conveyed an anti-monastic and anti-sacrificial message.

Exceptional piety

By the time Abba Beyene Demoze was born in the early 1940s, only a handful of moloksai remained. According to his disciples, Beyene showed signs of exceptional piety at an early age: He refused, for example, to nurse from his mother's breasts while she was menstruating. At the age of 7 he was sent to train with elderly moloksai who lived in the Simian Mountains.

When I met Beyene in 1993 in the abandoned synagogue in Ashdod in which he resided before moving to the bomb shelter, he told me that he had been ordained to provide for the last remaining monk in the region who needed meat to strengthen him, but was too weak to slaughter for himself; monks are allowed to eat meat only when slaughtered by another monk. Beyene also told his disciples that he once was supposed to marry, but that God ordered him in a dream to break off his engagement or face death.

Beyene spent years living alone in the Simian Mountains as a hermit, descending eventually to Weleke, his home village, only after being ordered by God to return. By that time, he had earned recognition as a holy man, healer and even a prophet. He learned Hebrew and received instructions in a dream, saying that prayers should now be recited in that language: Indeed, during the remainder of his life, he prayed in Hebrew during the day and in traditional Geez during the long hours of the night.

In the early 1980s, he traveled through the Gondar region telling villagers that the time had come to leave for the Holy Land, until he was captured, imprisoned, tortured and eventually released by the communist government.

Micha Feldman, the Jewish Agency representative in Ethiopia and a central figure in the immigration saga, recalls meeting Beyene in Weleke in 1986: "He was living in a storage shack, maybe 1.5 meters by 1 meter in size, and crowded with ritual objects, at the edge of the village. He refused to shake my hand because of his concern for ritual purity."

"My teachers knew that they would never reach the land of Israel, that the ingathering would coincide with the end of the moloksai," Beyene told me in 1993. He himself was instructed in a dream to stay in Ethiopia, rather than go to Israel - "a land in which purity and impurity are all mixed together" - but begged God to be allowed to see the Holy Land. According to his students, permission for immigration was granted from above only on condition that he fast continuously, which he did until the end of his life.

Parallel to Essenes

Once in Israel, Beyene, already reasonably adept in Hebrew, took stock of the form of Judaism he encountered here. According to his students, he loved "Pirkei Avot" ("Ethics of the Fathers") and admired the devotion to learning and prayer that he witnessed in local yeshivas. But he did not accept rabbinic dictum when it conflicted with his own understanding of Jewish practice, which was primarily based on the Five Books of Moses, and not on the Talmud. He believed it was forbidden to use electrical appliances, like refrigerators and hotplates, that were left on before Shabbat. As for tefillin (phylacteries) - in an interesting parallel to the Essenes - he believed that they should contain the Ten Commandments, which he saw as the essence of Judaism. Most of all, he did not understand why the rabbis did not keep the laws of purity as prescribed by the Torah.

From his austere headquarters in Ashdod, Beyene counseled hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants who came to him in states of crisis. Whereas traditional Ethiopian healers used magical means, including the appeasement of malevolent spirits called za'ar to cure mental and physical illness, Beyene viewed such techniques as idolatrous. His message was simple: Have complete faith in God, pray to him with all your heart, in your own words, follow the Torah's commandments, and you will be healed.

In a controversial - some in the Ethiopian community say dangerous - way, Beyene opposed reliance on doctors, hospitals and medicines, apparently considering them another form of magic. Instead, he asked his petitioners to undertake a traditional three- to seven-day fast in which they consumed only raw garbanzo beans soaked in water. During their fast he would analyze their dreams to see if their process of healing and penitence had been completed. Petitioners would sometimes bring him gifts of money, which he would distribute to the numerous poor families who approached him for help, keeping nothing for himself.

Beyene never wavered from his own ascetic practices. He would pray standing up for as much as five hours at a stretch. On Shabbat, he did not sleep at all, praying through the night. A few years before his death, he developed infections in his legs that dripped with pus, adamantly refusing medical attention and continuing his custom of standing. "It was a test," his disciples say. "Eventually one day, the infections just disappeared." But several days before Passover 1999, Beyene fell ill again. Within three days, still refusing medical attention, he died.

A new meaning

The life to which Abba Beyene's students aspire provides a rare glimpse into the heart of the Ethiopian Jewish tradition. From the outside, Ethiopian Judaism's emphasis on the biblical laws of purity - including stringencies that even the most Orthodox rabbinic Jews abandoned after the destruction of the Temple - is difficult to understand. But refracted through the example of Abba Beyene and his fiery young disciples - who teach, similar to devotees of the Hasidic teacher Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, that "crying out to God, with tears, with your whole heart" is a key practice - purity and impurity take on new meaning. At the core of Beyene's teaching is the belief that God reveals himself, primarily through dreams, to all who prepare themselves and long for his guidance. To receive God's spirit, you must be pure as if entering the Temple.

"If you have had a seminal emission," explains Moshe, "you have to purify yourself, and then God can come close to you."

Not all of Beyene's students agree on whether it is possible to maintain his radical path while negotiating the complicated realities of present-day Israel. Kes Leg'elem of Yavneh, 53, knew and admired Beyene from the time he was a small child in Ethiopia, and was asked by the monk to "watch over my students" in the event of his death. He does not believe that the tradition of monasticism can or should be renewed, or that illnesses can be treated today through faith alone. "Unfortunately," he says, "most of us are filled with sin, with impurities ... Our prayers don't rise straight to heaven. It's impossible to say to people today, `Don't go to the hospital.'

Kes Ambacho, a handsome 25-year-old with three young children, who lives in a threadbare apartment in Ashdod, is surprised to hear that some of Beyene's other disciples wish to become moloksai. "You can't just become a moloksai. It must be from God. You have to dream it three times. I don't believe it can happen these days."

Even working full time as a spiritual leader now seems impossible to Ambacho. In 1993, the 60 or so Ethiopian kessoch in Israel were granted salaries by the Religion Ministry to serve their people, after many demonstrations. But although many of the elderly kessoch have died or become infirm since then, and there are a number of cities with large Ethiopian populations and no religious leaders, the government refuses to recognize the eight new kessoch, including Ambacho, who have been ordained in Israel.

Ambacho recently approached the local religious council, asking for help. "`Are you a rabbi?' they asked me. `No, I am a kes,' I said. `Then we don't want you,' they told me." Ambacho now makes a meager living as a gardener and street sweeper. "What can I do?" he asks. "I take my broom and sweep."

Chaim Avraham and his friends refuse to be discouraged. They say they will fight to gain recognition for young kessoch such as Ambacho. Not weighed down by familial responsibilities, they can devote themselves to becoming close to God - and developing a message so simple and powerful that it can be spread among the poor and downtrodden. They fast Mondays and Thursdays, and eat only food that they themselves prepare, according to the stringent laws of purity. Once a month, when there is a new moon, they travel to Jerusalem and spend the entire night praying at the Western Wall.

Meanwhile, Chaim's dreams are pointing him in the direction of spiritual greatness. "Abba Beyene came to me three times in the same night," he says. "`You will fail,' he told me. `No, I won't,' I answered him each time. It was a sign."