Second Thoughts on “Racism” at Barkan or Badatz

Tucked in the footnotes of an article about remaining Kashrus questions about Barkan wines, Rabbi Yaakov Hoffman dropped a stunning revelation regarding the supposed problem of racism at the winery, and in the Eidah HaCharedis (Badatz) Kashrus organization.

For those who have not been following this story, in late June there was a firestorm of criticism: Barkan Wineries was labeled “racist” for banning Ethiopian employees from coming into contact with its wines. According to news reports, “Israel’s chief rabbi condemned the ban as ‘pure racism,’ the president castigated the winery, the Knesset speaker called it shameful, while an MK backed a growing public boycott.” We will have to hope the chief rabbi was misquoted or was misinformed, as will become apparent below.

The finger of blame was immediately pointed at the Badatz, the Beis Din Tzedek of the Eidah HaCharedis, widely considered to be the gold standard in Kashrus certification — and the certification which Barkan wished to add to its wines.

Wine is treated as a special case in Jewish law. Due to its association with social gatherings and lowered inhibitions, a Talmudic decree tells us to treat any raw, unpasteurized wine handled by a non-Jew — or, according to most opinions, even a Jew who does not keep the Sabbath — as forbidden, following the Torah’s model for treating wine that was offered to idols. Today, every reliable Kashrus organization follows these stringencies, requiring that grape juice and wine are handled only by observant Jews on its way to being bottled and sealed (or pasteurized, as cooked wine does not have these limitations).

The problem, then, is the special case of the immigrants from Ethiopia, the Beta Israel community. According to the opinion of the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l, they are Jewish without conversion, but the majority disagree — the opinion of Rav Yosef is that of a daas yachid, an individual opinion that runs against the consensus. Because of the Beta Israel community’s distance from established Jewish communities and normative Halachic practice, the majority of poskim (Halachic authorities) require that the Beta Israel undergo formal conversion to confirm their Jewish status.

The accusation of “racism” was tenuous from the start. As explained by Rabbi Hoffman in his first article on this subject, the problem with the Halachic status of the Beta Israel would be identical were their skin tone Caucasian white, Middle Eastern tan, or Martian purple for that matter. But because their actual skin color is African brown, it is easy to recognize a likely member of that community. And so the initial explanation, that the Ethiopians were singled out for confirmation of Jewish status, was quite believable — although it was also entirely defensible. Given that only a portion of that community has undergone a reliable conversion, an organization like the Badatz was not going to play fast and loose with Halachic standards in order to satisfy a demand for political correctness.

But then, we have Rabbi Hoffman’s bombshell, found in an email from the head of on-site Kosher supervision at Barkan Winery.

First of all, this Mashgiach seems to have no bias towards the Badatz. He asserted that the employees were all investigated and confirmed to be Jewish “beyond a doubt,” as well as fully Sabbath-observant. But he couldn’t give a precise answer regarding how the employees were previously investigated, and he seemed to be under the misimpression that some Ethiopians are unquestionably Jewish without conversion — which, in reality, is the unique opinion of Rav Yosef zt”l.

But here was his shocker: he wrote in his email to Rabbi Hoffman that when the Badatz came into the winery, they re-investigated all Barkan employees to confirm they were Halachically Jewish, Sabbath observant, and qualified to handle wine. That’s right: the Badatz did not single out anyone, but, on the contrary, demanded new proof of Jewish status and Halachic observance for every employee. And it was the Ethiopian workers who refused — “הם לא רצו לשתף פעולה ועשו רעש גדול” (they did not want to work with them, and made a big tumult).

Is this true? If the Mashgiach on site expressed himself correctly and is correct, then not only was the Badatz entirely blameless, but it is the Ethiopian workers who created the problem, demanding acceptance as observant Jews with no evidence and crying “racism” when they were subjected to the same requirements as everyone else.

To be certain, this means the accusation against Barkan and/or the Badatz was likely hugely premature, a knee-jerk reaction rather than the result of a sober investigation. At this juncture, at least one American Kashrus organization is seriously debating whether it can, in the future, permit Barkan wines until the situation changes. No one from the previous certifying organizations has explained why they believe these winery employees should be considered Jewish by those who do not follow the daas yachid (unique individual) opinion of Rav Yosef.

We have seen similar things happen in America, when people manufactured a racial conflict where none was present or certainly needed. But it is yet more unseemly in this case, because the belief that Jews are racists is a classic element of anti-Semitism — and as anti-Semitism reflects hostility towards Judaism, even Jews can slip into anti-Semitic tropes when it comes to those who observe Judaism with greater stringency. To what extent did this stereotype grant credibility to what now appears to be a false claim?

It seems a lot of people may owe the Badatz an apology, and we have yet another object lesson on the inappropriate use of racial differences to create a “bias incident” designed to exacerbate, rather than quell, racial tensions… and one about anti-Semitic stereotypes affecting the thinking of Jewish writers, editors and politicians.

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12 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    The workers who weren’t from Ethiopia hadn’t been persuaded, by life experience or by people with agendas, to see themselves as victims.

  2. Joel Rich says:

    any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” -J. Donne

    Will those who rely on R’O Yosef’s interpretation of shabbat restrictions be considered shomer shabbat? Will those who want his student’s hechsher be required to fire shaitel wearers? Just pointing out the slippery slope.
    Joel Rich

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      Joel, your reply is a non-sequitur. Your desire to maintain a certain Halachic standard implies no judgment of anyone else. If I tell you that you are wrong to maintain that standard, then I am interfering with you, not vice-versa. So judging whether someone else is Shomer Shabbat is precisely the opposite of that person telling you who can handle your wine.

      And in neither case is it at all legitimate to cry racism, as if there were no legitimate, race-blind reason to question whether a community which adopted some Jewish practices, yet never had a Shulchan Aruch, could be deemed Jewish without conversion.

  3. Joel Rich says:

    I didn’t say anything about racism, I simply pointed out that setting standards for who may work in a winery and thus touch wine involves much more than just a determination of Jewishness.
    BTW-we see the issue of opinion reliance in kashrut in general. IIUC one major kashrut agency in the US relies(relied?) on a light bulb in the oven to solve the bishul akum issue- I believe this was also a daat yachid (individual opinion)

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Isn’t the Shulchan Aruch a stand-in for the Oral Torah? If they had following the latter in all key respects while still in Ethiopia, others would have been less likely to challenge their Jewish descent. Since the whole Oral Torah is traceable to Sinai, an Orthodox Jew couldn’t argue that they were exiled from Israel before this Oral Torah existed.

  5. Yaakov Hoffman says:

    Joel–It is only a “mechallel Shabbos befarhesia” who forbids wine. Technically, someone who violates Shabbos only privately may handle wine. Of course, as a matter of policy, all reliable wineries demand that their employees actually be fully Shabbos observant. However, there is no question whatsoever that someone who observes Shabbos based on his rabbi’s rulings may handle wine, even if these rulings differ from those of the certifying rabbi. Such a person does not even begin to approach the level of rebellion against the Torah R”L that would potentially disqualify a Jew from handling wine.

    The kashrus organization to which you refer has indeed been attacked for using a light bulb to count for “bishul Yisrael.” However, they are at least quite open about the fact that they rely on this.

  6. Joel Rich says:

    or perhaps their “oral torah” developed differently (which would be logical to assume occurred given the isolation of the 2 communities)

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      Joel, as Bob said, we trace the Oral Torah to Sinai. Putting it in scare quotes and implying that the Oral Torah “developed” (not talking about gezeiros here, but Torah SheBa’al Peh MiSinai) would disqualify you from being able to handle wine. Presumably that’s not what you meant, and were merely unaware that the Ethiopians were unfamiliar with a wide range of basic Halachos from the Torah itself.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    This matter of “development” was a key element in the controversies between Rav SR Hirsch ZT”L and the leaders and sympathizers of the Juedisch-Theologisches Seminar, Breslau.

  8. Joel Rich says:

    Yaakov H-all related to my point-if Ethiopians followed their indigenous “rabbinic leadership” (kessim ), we don’t accept them (if I understand correctly). While not to the same degree, many sfardim felt this is what the ashkenazic community felt about them.
    I wish I were as sanguine as u concerning what will be acceptable in the future (other than accepting the most stringent standard accepted by a miyut sheino matzui demographic)

    Yaakov M- your argument seems to me that they are not, and never were Jewish, if they don’t have our mesora (including the Torah items u mention) That’s a defensible position as well Time will tell what definition klal yisrael adopts


  9. David Ohsie says:

    The premises of this article are very suspect. Calling Rav Ovadia’s shitah a “daas yachid” is like calling the Shitah of Rav Moshe on conservative and reform marriages a “daas yachid” (actually, it’s more absurd). Rav Ovadia was the unquestioned greatest Sefardi halachic authority for many generations with worldwide influence and so represented around half of worldwide halachic authority all by himself. Moreover, his position was adopted by the Israeli Rabbinate and is not the “unique position” of Rav Ovadia. The Eidah, on the other hand, is a very extreme sect that still doesn’t think that the State of Israel should exist. The result is that these people come to country, adopt a fully orthodox lifestyle and go through whatever process they are told to go through to be accepted as Jewish, and then along comes some Rabbis who are so extreme that think that voting in Israeli elections is treif and start to question their Jewishness. The assertions in this story are very poorly sourced, but I would certainly protest my Jewishness being questioned in such a circumstance. Sometimes extremism in Chumra leads to Kula in respect for others.

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      This comment not only offers further proof that the accusations against the Badatz are false, but brings up an important aside on coercion versus religious freedom.

      First of all, even were it true that Rav Ovadia was “the unquestioned greatest Sefardi halachic authority for many generations” (Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira zt”l was more a Kabbalist than a Halachist, but what about, for example, HaRav BenTzion Abba Shaul zt”l?), he still was the one among the Gedolim to poskin that Ethiopians should be deemed Jewish with no conversion, and everyone else disagreed. Given that Rav Yosef was the Sephardi Chief Rabbi when he gave his opinion, the fact that “his position was adopted by the Israeli Rabbinate” is not what you would call a great Chiddush. [The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi at the time was Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who initially opposed Rav Yosef’s opinion and then reversed course. Rabbi Goren was not without controversy for going against the consensus of Ashkenazi gedolim.]

      As Rav Hoffman pointed out, Reb Moshe himself disagreed with Rav Yosef, as did Rav Shach, Rav Auerbach, Rav Elyashiv, and Rav Waldenberg. The commenter is unable to mention any Gadol who explicitly agrees with Rav Yosef, so calling him a “daas yachid” in this matter is simply accurate.

      Unable to address the issue, the comment then engages in ad hominems about the Eidah’s irrelevant beliefs on Zionism and Israel — and expresses the idea that the Eidah should have to discard the Eidah’s own beliefs. And this is the meta-issue that warrants publishing this comment with reply.

      To be certain, the comment bolsters its point with multiple claims about the Ethiopians in Israel which are demonstrably false. No one suggests that they universally “adopt[ed] a fully Orthodox lifestyle;” no one expects Ethiopians to follow Orthodox Jewish practice more than anyone else. They underwent no “process” whatsoever to be accepted as Jewish, as the very point under discussion is Rav Yosef’s opinion that no such process was needed.

      But then, the commenter borrowed an argument from Reform and Conservative clergy who demand that their bogus conversions be accepted as authentic. Needless to say, regardless of what the State of Israel says on such a “convert’s” Teudah, no observant Rabbi would perform a marriage for one to an actual Jew — and to blame the Orthodox for this state of affairs inverts reality. The same applies regarding any Rabbi following Ashkenazi poskim in a case of an Ethiopian Jew (who did not convert).

      This is not the first time in recent memory that I’ve seen someone project his own attitudes onto others as a justification for denial of their civil rights. This comment falsely asserts that by following its own authorities, the Eidah is showing dis-“respect for others” — and that therefore the Eidah should have to change its standards.

      So who is disrespecting others, to the point of trampling upon their religious freedom? Oh.

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