CSP: Marc Michael Epstein and the Lost Tribes Quest


More than 100 people bounded through the doors of University Synagogue to hear Marc Michael Epstein entertain us with his vast Jewish knowledge. This particular discussion took us on a trip through Jewish history and the dispersal of the lost tribes. Where did they go? Are those claiming to be our descendants really the lost tribes of Israel?

After King Solomon died, the region was split into two with Judaea to the south and Israel to the north. When the Assyrians conquered the land of Israel in 701 BCE, they were not kind to the inhabitants. The Hebrews who escaped were integrated into the tribes of Judaea. Others were enslaved and/or forced to flee to other lands. The Assyrian Empire that besieged not only Israel but Egypt, Babylon, Cyprus, Syria and Mesopotamia lasted about 75 years. Assyria is no longer a nation with a homeland, unlike Israel where Hebrew-Jews have lived continuously. Nevertheless, the Assyrians left destruction and horror during their reign.

The Hebrews who fled had to go somewhere. These lost tribes continue to be cause of interest and introspection. Many genetic studies today try to prove the Hebrew-Jewish lineage of these ten lost tribes of Israel. Many historians even try to tie small tribes of people across the globe with “Jewishlike” traditions as one of the lost tribes. So if they circumcise their sons, greet others with some “shalom” like gesture and don’t eat pork, then they must be Jewish. However, are they really? Marc Michael Epstein reviewed the course of their travels and the historians that lay claim to their existence. However, Epstein himself denies that many of those who claim Hebrew lineage are in fact the lost tribes of ancient Israel.

Manasseh ben Israel lived from 1604 to 1657. His parents left Lisbon after the auto-de-fe, and he spent most of his life in Amsterdam. He was tutored by a rabbi and became his successor. Ben Israel was married and had three children. He devoted his life to studying Jewish texts and Messianic probability. He believed that in order for the Holy Land to be restored and the Messiah to come, Jews needed to be able to settle across the globe. “Esperanca de Israel,” the “Hope of Israel,” was published in 1650. It attracted other theologians, artists and community leaders. Rembrandt was even included in his circle of friends. Even Oliver Cromwell listened and began to settle Jews in England in hopes that the resurrection would occur sooner. Jesus may not have returned, but thousands of Jews found a new life in the United Kingdom.

Why is Manasseh ben Israel so interesting to those studying the Lost Tribes of Israel? Ben Israel was very interested in the Lost Tribes. In 1644 Antonio de Montesinos (Aaron Levi) tried to convince ben Israel that the Native Americans were the Ten Lost Tribes. Their correspondence continued, but ben Israel was much more concerned with European Jewry than American.

Mateo Ricci, a Jesuit priest, was one of the 16th century missionaries sent to China. The Ten Commandments, a moral code that the Chinese value system appreciated, was translated, printed and distributed. Ricci’s knowledge of science got him an entry to serve the emperor in the Forbidden City. This gave him an excellent opportunity to make many valuable acquaintances. In 1705, while living in Beijing, a member of the Kaifeng Jewish community met with him and explained how his community believed in one G-d. Ricci then sent a junior emissary to Kaifeng to meet with the chief rabbi. It is possible that a group of Jews made their home in China as it was on the “silk route.” It may be that some artifacts are Judeo-Persian and therefore from the 8th century, further proving that this is not a lost tribe of Babylonian times. These Jews intermarried with Chinese locals. Most probably, Hebrew men married Chinese women, thus making their offspring not halachically Jewish. The group did not keep many traditions, and when their rabbi died, so did any link to a Hebrew heritage. Any descendants who chose to make Aliyah to Israel must convert to Judaism per the Rabbanut. (Note that the Shanghai Chinese Jews who settled in the 20th century are a totally separate entity.)

Marc Michael Epstein agrees with those who believe the Kaifeng Jews are not one of lost tribes. He mentioned the Jews of Japan for a brief moment to say that Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, another former CSP Scholar-in-Residence, is the expert on that area.  From China “we” toured to Africa….

In Nigeria the Igbo Jews claim lineage to Efraim and Menashe. They circumcise male children on the 8th day, wear tallit and kipot, keep laws of kashrut, separate women during menstruation and celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Several thousand practice the religion and attend one of the 26 synagogues. However, halachically they are not at all Jewish because of the rate of intermarriage. Several rabbis, scholars and filmmakers have taken an interest and this has gotten the Igbo Jews financial support from some American communities. They claim lineage to Ya’akov’s (Jacob’s) son Gad. Some even say the word “Igbo” which was originally “ibo” comes from “Hebrew.” Until recently, the Benei Yisrael of Nigeria had no desire to make Aliyah as the Ethiopian Jews desired, but that too is changing. There is no doubt that the Rabbanut will demand that they convert. Epstein agrees that even if they claim to be descendants of ancient Hebrew tribes, they have mingled with Nigerian society for too long to be accepted as Jews.

Genetic studies do link the Kohanim of Beta Israel of Ethiopia to other Kohanim, which is an interesting fact. A marker has been discovered linking the male descendants of Aaron, the first Kohen Gadol. However, this genetic marker can also exist in Lebanese and Palestinian men!  As in the case of the Menasse Jews, there was often mingling with the rest of the population. These people who emigrated from Israel so long ago only know of the Oral Traditions. Therefore, they do not follow the established halachot and minhagim. So, upon making Aliyah to Israel, the Rabbanut forces them to convert and remarry.

In the Middle East, for example, there are also some peoples who claim they are descended from lost Jewish tribes. Unfortunately, a group in Petra is politically driven, deciding to be of Jewish heritage when convenient and Palestinian Arabs at other times.

The Native Americans that Aaron Levi wanted Menasse ben Israel to study also have some traditions similar to ancient Jewish ones. They use the sun and moon to guide them and dance around praying for rain, but that does not make them ancient Hebrews. The fur trade introduced some Jews to native tribes, but that too does not make them one of the lost Hebrew tribes.

As always Mark Michael Epstein always gives his audience a lot to absorb and think about. CSP scholars easily enrich the minds of the OC community, and we should be grateful to Arie Katz for bringing this unique program into our lives.

Next up:
Eric Cline: 2nd Annual Summer Archaeology Series
August 21-22

For more information, contact:
Arie Katz

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