Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Are the Lemba Really Lost Jews?

Part of the Messianic redemption that is awaited by the Jewish people involves the ingathering of the exiles. There have been many breaks from the Jewish people. In the Spanish Inquisition, hundreds of thousands of Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity. There were forced conversions to Islam as well. The best known of these is the Jews of Mashad in Iran, who in 1839 were forced to convert to Islam. Large numbers returned to Judaism after stopping in Jerusalem on the Haj or when a the father of the last Shah permitted them to return to Judaism. Other Jews joined breakoff sects and melted into the majority culture.

The first big break in the Jewish people was the exile of the ten lost tribes when the Kingdom of Israel was overrun. Since then, Jews have hoped, prayed for and speculated about where and who the lost tribes may be. The search is all the more confusing because of those who have read the Hebrew Scriptures in translation and identify with the biblical narrative. Some leads are hopeful. The Bnai Manasseh of India have been reuniting with Jews in the rest of the world. Some have converted to Judaism and come home to Israel. Another group that intrigues those who are seeking the lost tribes are the Lemba of South Africa and Zimbabwe. Although many are Christian or Muslim, they maintain beliefs, practices and traditions of being descended from Jews.

Lemba do not eat pork. They avoid consuming animal blood. They practice circumcision. The Jerusalem Post reports as follows.

"The tribe's customs are similar to Jewish ones, including male circumcision, ritual animal slaughter, abstaining from eating pork and wearing skull caps. And their oral tradition claims they are descended from seven male Jews who left Israel 2,500 years ago and married African women, according to the BBC. Their prized religious artifact is a replica of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant known as the ngoma lungundu, meaning "the drum that thunders," the BBC reported. Their sacred prayer language is a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic. The Lemba also have 12 tribes, including a priestly clan that has a genetic element found in Jewish priests or Cohanim, according to the report. "

Now it turns out that DNA evidence backing up the odd coincidences of Jewish type practices. The Lemba claim to be divided into twelve tribes. One tribe is a priestly tribe. A gene that is located on the Y chromosome which is found among all Kohanim (Jews descended from the priestly class) is also found among those Lemba who identify as being from the priestly class.

There are about 80,000 Lemba in South Africa and Zimbabwe. What is their real story. How many will reunite with the Jewish people? There are organisations that try to reach out to those at the fringes of Jewish identity Shavei Israel is guided strictly by orthodox Jewish law. Kulanu on the other hand is more "on the fence" working in some cases with non orthodox denominations in converting far flung communities. This creates a problem later when conversions done by non orthodox clergy are not recognised in Israel by the rabbinate or by communities in the diaspora. In some cases, such as the Abuyudaya of Uganda sincere converts were received by non orthodox rabbis, creating a troubling rift in the world Jewish community. Part of catching up on centuries of "old news" for new converts involves awareness of the significant and in some cases vast differences between Conservatives Reform, Karaites, Sadducees and other groups that broke off from mainstream Judaism.

There will be many miracles surrounding the construction of the Third Holy Temple in Jerusalem. One of them is the ingathering of the exiles, not only those like possibly the Lemba but those who became estranged from Judaism more recently.

Whatever their place in the family of nations, I wish the Lemba well. I hope and pray that they will live in peace, whether in Southern Africa or in the Holy Land. Their story is a fascinating one. I look forward to seeing it unfold.

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