Ephraim Isaac

Understanding spiritual and cultural matters in perspective, we can acquire wisdom which helps us to live with our fellow human beings in peace—knowing our limitations, respecting others, appreciating non-material things.
—Ephraim Isaac

Ephraim_IsaacEthiopia is a country of religious diversity that sometimes has been famed for its tolerance. In recent years, however, Ethiopia has known much political turmoil with ethnic and religious conflict interwoven in political disputes. Orthodox Christians make up about 50% of the population and Muslims about 33%. Yet an Ethiopian Jewish scholar has become the leading voice and activist for peace.

Ephraim Isaac is from the tiny Yemenite Jewish community in Ethiopia that had been isolated from Western Judaism until the 19th Century. (Yemenite Jews are not necessarily from the country of Yemen, but are adherents of a particular branch of Judaism that traces itself to Late Second Temple expressions of the Jewish faith.) While retaining his Ethiopian citizenship and residence, Isaac was hired as the first professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University. He lectured and wrote in the areas of African languages, ancient religions, black civilizations and slavery.

He has been a very popular teacher and a widely sought-after lecturer at prominent academic institutions around the world. But he also has been concerned for those at the bottom levels of education. He co-founded the National Literacy Campaign Organization, which taught 1.5 million Ethiopians to read. After years in academia and in efforts to address national issues, such as literacy, Isaac became a respected “elder” among Ethiopians.

During the civil wars that devastated so much of Ethiopia in the late 1980s and early 1990s Ephraim Isaac sought to employ Ethiopian cultural traditions of using elders to mediate between the government and armed opposition groups. As a mediator, Isaac spoke about the Ethiopian tradition of shimagele-jarsa in which the mediating elder exercises sympathetic listening, respect for each side, patience, broadmindedness, impartiality and advocacy for serious dialogue. He organized people recognized as elders to help political leaders try to find the way to sustainable peace agreements. These elders were eventually constituted as the Peace and Development Committee (PDC) with Isaac as the Chair. The PDC brought together religious leaders from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities and from various social and professional sectors of society to work on reconciliation issues following the collapse of the Marxist Derg regime in 1992. The PDC has continued to mediate amid the social and political conflicts in Ethiopia.

Ephraim Isaac participated in the Parliament of World Religions held in 1993, 1999 and 2004. He affirmed the crucial need to foster interreligious dialogue and cooperation to address the challenging issues before humanity. He especially focused his work on the reduction of violence that was either motivated by religion or which targeted people because of their religion. He was one of the original signatories of the “Declaration towards a Global Ethic” (see Chapter 14 on Hans Kung), which sought peace among religions built upon dialogue and investigation of the common foundations of religion. The representatives committed themselves to build cultures of nonviolence, solidarity, tolerance and equal rights for men and women.

Ephraim Isaac did not just participate in making grand statements, but labored within the conflicts of Ethiopia to bring those grand ideals to fruition. He spoke about religious tolerance, organized elders to work for peace, and even became an interreligious peacemaker. As Ethiopia went through tumultuous times following the civil war, he organized an Interfaith Prayer Day, held on the Ethiopian New Year. The service was opened by the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. A Muslim imam led in prayer and gave a sermon, as did the Catholic cardinal and the head of the Protestant churches in Ethiopia. Finally Isaac, representing the Jewish community, spoke on the need for peace, reconciliation and courage to overcome the past.

Isaac continued his religious peacemaking in many spheres. He organized a conference in Yemen to help Muslims and Jews improve their relationships. When a dispute erupted between archbishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, this Jewish elder helped the Christian leaders settle their dispute. Isaac was invited into this mediating role because he had established relationships with high-ranking church officials through his years in academia specializing in studies of the Geez language used by the Church. Isaac even traveled to Northern Ireland to assist in the peace process there between Catholics and Protestants.

His Jewish faith, especially drawing upon the writings of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, gave powerful inspiration and guidance to Isaac in his peacemaking efforts. He could also quote the Christian New Testament from 1 John about loving one’s brother. “Peace and love are related,” he said, “Love and respect are related.” In an amazing demonstration of interfaith respect to a Christian musical masterpiece, Isaac translated Handel’s Messiah into Amharic, the main language of Ethiopia. Then in a speech about the way to peace and reconciliation, Isaac said, “Understanding spiritual and cultural matters in perspective, we can acquire wisdom which helps us to live with our fellow human beings in peace—knowing our limitations, respecting others, appreciating non-material things.”