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Fri, 04.04.1000

The Lemba religious community, a brief story

*The Lemba religious community is celebrated on this date in this date in 1000.  They are a Bantu ethnic group native to Zimbabwe and South Africa, with smaller, little-known branches in Mozambique and Malawi. According to Tudor Parfitt, Professor of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, in 2002 they numbered an estimated 50,000.  They speak the Bantu languages spoken by their geographic neighbors and resemble them physically, but they have some religious practices and beliefs similar to Judaism and Islam, which were transmitted by oral tradition.  

The name "Lemba" may originate in chilemba, a Swahili word for turbans worn by some Bantu peoples, or lembi, a Bantu word meaning "non-African" or "respected foreigner".  Magdel le Roux says that the name VaRemba may be translated as "the people who refuse" probably in the context of "not eating with others" (according to one of her interviewees).  In Zimbabwe and South Africa, the people prefer the name Mwenye.  Since the late twentieth century, there has been increased media and scholarly attention to the Lemba's claim of common descent to the Jewish people.  Genetic Y-DNA analyses in the 2000s have established a partially Middle Eastern origin for a portion of the male Lemba population.  More recent research argues that DNA studies do not support claims for a specifically Jewish genetic heritage.  Most Lemba are members of Christian churches, with some Muslims in Zimbabwe. 

Edith Bruder a Black French ethnologist wrote that "from a theological point of view, the Lemba’s customs and rituals reveal religious pluralism and interdependence of these various practices" and see membership of these religions "in cultural rather than religious terms. These apparently religious identities do not prevent them from declaring themselves Jews through religious practice and ethnic identification." Parfitt wrote that “Those Lemba, who perceive themselves as ethnically Jewish, find no contradiction in regularly attending a Christian Church. By and large the Lemba who are most stridently ‘Jewish' are often those with the closest Christian attachments."  Many pre-modern Lemba beliefs and practices can be linked to Judaism, and some of them are also common to Islam. Ebrahim Moosa wrote that "Historians of religion have found among the Lemba certain religious and cultural practices which unmistakably resemble Islamic rituals, and there are reflections of Arabic in their language."  

In the period in which Jews were settled in southern Arabia, they were proselytizing, and they attracted converts from around the Mediterranean and North Africa.  South African Jews of European descent have long been aware of the Lemba but have never accepted them as Jews or thought of them as more than an "intriguing curiosity."  Generally the Lemba have not been accepted as Jews because of their lack of matrilineal descent. Several rabbis and Jewish associations support their recognition as part of the "Lost Tribes of Israel".  In the 2000s, the Lemba Cultural Association approached the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, asking for the Lemba to be recognized as Jews by the Jewish community. The Lemba Association complained that "we like many non-European Jews are simply the victims of racism at the hands of the European Jewish establishment worldwide". They threatened to start a campaign to "protest and ultimately destroy 'Jewish apartheid'".  During apartheid South Africa the Lemba were not recognized as an ethnic group distinct from other Black South Africans.  

The Lemba Cultural Association face misconceptions about their goals such as the idea that the Lemba identify more with European Judaism, only aim to affiliate with the European Jewry and no other Black Jews and are distanced from South African politics.  However, while the Lemba do identify with their religious Judaism, many practice Christianity as well.  According to Gideon Shimoni in his book, Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa (2003): "In terms of halakha the Lemba are not at all comparable with the Falasha [of Ethiopia]. As a group they have no conceivable status in Judaism."  Rabbi Bernhard of South Africa has stated that the only way for a member of the Lemba tribe to be recognized as a Jew is to undergo the formal Halakhic conversion process. After that, the person "would be welcomed with open arms."  

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