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July 29, 2018 4:14 pm

Wine and Racism

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


Bottles from the Derech Eretz winery at the Sommelier 2018 exhibition in Tel Aviv. Photo: Eliana Rudee.

Last month, there was a huge fuss in Israel over wine. It was known as the Barkan Affair. Barkan Wines, one of many relatively recent Israeli expansions into the quality wine trade, was seeking certification from the most Orthodox of religious supervisory agencies, the Edah Haredis, which incidentally is known for its very anti-Zionist positions. But hey, money is money. Their standards are pretty strict, even in a business known for its excesses. Because they only drink wine untouched by non-Jewish hands, they insisted that all persons involved in the actual process of winemaking should be bona fide Jews. Therefore, according to them, Ethiopian Jews must be excluded from the winemaking process (but not other parts of the industry), because their religious status as Jews is open to question.

There was an outcry condemning this as another example of Haredi, ultra-Orthodox racism. If they were racist, then of course I would condemn them unreservedly and aggressively, as much as I condemn those members of the Haredi community who see fit to demonstrate publicly in support of enemies of the Jewish state who are trying to destroy it. But the Beth Din of the Edah Haredis was not racist, whatever else it may be. Anyone familiar with the community will know that there are quite a few black members who have gone through a very strict conversion process and are well integrated into the community.

The facts: When the Ethiopian Beta Israel community started arriving in Israel from Ethiopia in the 1970s, there was a tremendous debate about their status. They had been cut off from Jewish life for 2,000 years. Their holy books were not in Hebrew, but a local dialect. They had no knowledge of rabbinic developments, laws, and customs after the first century. Their existence was well known to Jewish communities in medieval times. Eldad HaDani, the well known Jewish traveler and writer of the ninth century claimed he was one of them. Some Jewish travelers speculated they were lost tribes of Israel. Others thought that they had been converted by early Christians who were still loyal to the Old Testament, because their Judaism was clearly of a biblical nature.

Another claim was that they were Jews captured and sold into slavery. The question was asked whether these Ethiopians were really Jews. The Radbaz (1479-1589), a longtime chief rabbi of Egypt, ruled in his Responsa (vol. 2 no. 219, vol. 7) that they were Jews from the tribe of Dan and tinokot she-nishbu — Jewish children captured when they were too young to know about mainstream Judaism; a technical Talmudic term that exonerates them for failing to keep Jewish law.

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It was following his precedent that the greatest Sephardi Torah giant of the previous generation, Haham Ovadia Yosef, declared that they were indeed Jewish. Israeli government and rabbinical officials formally decided on March 14, 1977 that the Law of Return applied to the Beta Israel, and they were regarded as fully Jewish.

But as we know, Jews cannot agree on anything, and the Ashkenazi Haredi community still insisted on conversion. But this is a complex issue, and can’t be dismissed simply as a matter of prejudice.

Sadly, Israel, being a country like any other, does have racist elements in it. Every new immigrant community since the beginnings of modern settlement has experienced prejudice and discrimination, regardless of where they have come from or the color of their skin. Ask any Russian Jew about prejudice. And the Haredi world has indeed been guilty of making oriental communities (and others) feel like second-class citizens. Eventually they learned that this is not a very practical or indeed reasonable attitude. In general, Ethiopian Jews have been welcomed into Israeli society. After initial pains of integration, they have done remarkably well in every sphere of Israeli life. Most, like me, regard them as invaluable jewels in our crown.

Unfortunately, those who defend the Edah are ignoring a different point. Exactly the same laws regarding touching wine that apply to non-Jews also apply to Jews who publicly disregard Jewish law — the Mumar. Why didn’t the Edah also insist that Barkan guarantee secular or non-religious Jews be removed from contact with the wine? 

The answer is that on some issues the Edah, like all halachic authorities, decides when not to make a fuss, to turn a blind eye, for very good social reasons. Technically, all Orthodox synagogues ought to deny honors to Jews who defy Jewish law in public. But as we well know, they do not. So why not just bend the rules by omission here as they do elsewhere? This is not an issue of ingredients. It is an added refinement, and a debatable one at that. 

This insistence does seem, prima facie, to point to prejudice. But the reality is not so malevolent. It is rather carelessness, insensitivity born out of isolation and a narrow context. In my view, they simply did not realize the impact that it might have. This inability is a failing of many people who have been brought up in narrow, confined societies, regardless of where or who. Sometimes with great scholars its a certain innocence, naiveté. But this does not mean that it should be allowed to pass without comment.

And it is not just the Haredi rabbinate. Look at the recent case in which the Israeli Rabbinate chose to have a non-Orthodox rabbi arrested for performing a marriage not sanctioned by Orthodox Jewish law.

This is what worries me about all dogmatic orthodoxies — religious, political, and ideological — and all bureaucracies and authorities. They have a tendency to become so fixated on the letter of the law, that they often end up forgetting its spirit.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the USA, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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