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June 28, 2018 3:26 pm

A Scandalous Halachic Decision Disgraces Ethiopian Jews — and Judaism Itself

avatar by Nathan Lopes Cardozo

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

When I joined the Jewish people as a young man of 16 — being the child of a mixed marriage — I could not have imagined that the Jewish tradition today, 56 years later, would be rewritten and distorted to such an extent that it has become almost unrecognizable.

After having linked my fate with that of the Jewish people and studied Judaism in great depth, I became convinced that it was the most elevated way of living on the face of the earth. Its moral message is supreme and its healthy attitude to life is unprecedented. This conviction was deepened by 12 years of studying in ultra-Orthodox yeshivot, and many years studying Jewish and general philosophies, including those of other religions.

While I recognized that our sources were not without moral problems, I was deeply impressed with how the great Sages were able to solve them —  sometimes by the most astonishing and daring means. They did so because it was clear to them that Judaism’s task was to uphold the highest standards of ethics, including the equality of all human beings. Nothing stopped them from advancing that goal.

And if any laws were developed that would undermine this fact, they understood that historical circumstances had forced earlier Sages to introduce these questionable laws, mainly due to antisemitism and the immoral behavior of some nations. Once these circumstances had changed, the later Sages undid these laws and returned to the original goal: supreme ethical standards. (See my book Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage.)

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Alas, it seems that some highly influential rabbis today no longer see this as their task. Instead of developing Jewish law to its supreme heights, they have decided to do the reverse. They seem to be busy demeaning Judaism and its holy laws, seeking the lowest denominator, thereby causing tremendous damage to the image of Judaism.

They are rewriting Judaism in the most catastrophic way.

As with many other highly debatable decisions and philosophies, one of the most disastrous consequences of all this is the manner in which these rabbis approach the non-Jewish world. They have fallen victim to racism and propagate a dislike for non-Jews. They seem to be unaware that such an attitude stands in total contradiction to Judaism.

It is apparently unknown to them that the duty of Jews is to be a light to the nations, an example of integrity and deep, honest religiosity. They live in denial, oblivious to the fact that they are giving Judaism a bad name, even in the eyes of many fellow Jews. They are completely ignorant of the fact that any unfortunate statement or decision they make spreads like wildfire around the globe, causing a tremendous chilul Hashem (a desecration of God’s name).

When I read some of today’s greatest authorities’ halachic decisions — such as the one that considers a gentile’s life to be of lesser or no importance, and which could, under certain circumstances, even be deliberately terminated (Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Teshuvot veHanhagot, Jerusalem 5757, volume 3, #317); or when I read the appalling book Torat HaMelech, written by Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, which argues that one could kill non-Jews, even without proper trial, if they became a serious potential threat to Jewish lives — I am horribly shocked at how any rabbi can even express these ideas, which violate Jewish law and spirit, and show great ignorance of Judaism’s basic tenets.

Even more disturbing is the fact that such attitudes are stated in scholarly but mistakenly argued responsa, giving the impression that such positions are halachically sound and acceptable. It is not surprising that a large percentage of yeshiva students believe that this is all genuine Torah. They don’t know any better.

Over the last few years, an atmosphere has been created and has taken root in certain halachic circles, where the great values of Judaism have been seriously compromised. This growing phenomenon is extremely worrisome and dangerous.

On Tuesday, we were confronted with yet another such enormous tragedy. According to Israeli radio and several Israeli newspapers, the Eida HaHareidit — an ultra–Orthodox organization that maintains one of the largest and most widely used kashrut supervision authorities in Israel — decided to ban Jewish employees of Ethiopian descent at Barkan Wineries from coming into direct contact with the wine produced there.

The reason is that — despite a clear ruling by famous Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef z”l that these Ethiopians are surely Jewish (Yabia Omer 8, Even HaEzer 11) — the rabbinical council of the Eida HaHareidit decided that there is doubt about their Jewishness. (In the 1980s and 1990s, Israel clandestinely airlifted thousands of Jews from Ethiopia, bringing the ancient community to the Jewish state. Some were recognized as full-fledged Jews, while others had to undergo conversion so as to remove any doubt about their Jewishness.)

The above-mentioned ban is based on a Talmudic law that prohibits a Jew from drinking uncooked wine when a non-Jew has been directly involved in producing it or has moved the wine bottle. The original reason for this law was that many non-Jews were idolaters and immoral people. Since wine was the main drink at the time (water was too dangerous to drink), the Sages introduced this law to keep Jews away from idolaters and vile people, who often used wine for their worship of idols or during orgies.

I call such a prohibition a “defensive law,” the outcome of tragic circumstances while the Jews lived in exile in earlier centuries. It was once of value, but today is more or less meaningless. Idol worship has disappeared; most non-Jews believe in God and are civilized. Just as many other “discriminating” laws against idol worshipers and vile gentiles have been abolished, so should this one be.

In fact, we know that the authoritative rabbi Moshe Isserles (c. 1525-1572), known as the Rama, wrote a responsum defending the Jews in Moravia who used to drink non-Jewish wine (Responsa HaRama, #124). While others did not agree with the Rama, many indeed felt that the law no longer applied. Even rabbi Shmuel Yehuda Katzenellenbogen of Venice (1521-1597), the leading Italian halachic authority, drank this wine. Another Italian halachist, Shabtai Be’er (17th-century Venice), ruled that it was permitted to use non-Jewish wine for Kiddush and Havdala — probably when no kosher wine was available — but not for general consumption.

To be clear: I, myself, will only drink wine made by Jews, because I feel gratified when it is “consecrated” by my fellow Jews for use during Kiddush or Havdala, and also because I want to help Israel’s economy. But I will surely drink that wine if the bottle has been moved by fine non-Jews. However, I will not drink that wine if the bottle is moved by antisemites, terrorists, rapists, financial swindlers, men who refuse to grant a divorce to their wives, self-hating Jews, and the like.

The ruling by the Eida HaHareidit is scandalous and deeply embarrassing, as well as discrimination against the Ethiopian Jewish community. It disgraces Judaism and is as anti-Jewish as can be. That this community is still discriminated against in Israeli society in general is a stain on Israeli life, due to the lack of studying and absorbing Jewish ethical values.

Although I often disagree with the rulings and declarations of Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef, I am most pleased to read that he felt that this ban is the result of pure racism: “There is absolutely no explanation for this kind of requirement [to ban Ethiopian Jews] except for pure racism. Ethiopian immigrants are unquestionably Jewish. The real question is whether we can rely on a Kashrut authority which likes to think of itself as being strict, but engages in ‘whitewashing’ and [behavior that amounts to] shedding the blood of other Jews, just because of their skin color.”

The time has come to abolish the prohibition against drinking wine from a bottle that was moved by non-Jews. I am sure that if the Talmudic sages were alive today, they would agree. Ultimately, we — including our well-behaved non-Jewish friends — are all created in the image of God, and that alone is reason enough to let this prohibition be a law of the past.

Shame on the Eida Hahareidit and all those rabbis who discriminate against non-Jews. They have no place in Judaism. This and many other rabbinical decisions are not part of the Judaism I converted to. I abhor them and want no part of them.

It is time we return to genuine Judaism, which I embraced when I was 16. I love it as never before.

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.

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