When I joined the Jewish people as a young man of 16, being the child of a mixed marriage, I could not in my wildest dreams imagine 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 having 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, its healthy attitude to life 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 anti-Semitism 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, Jerusalem/New York: Urim Publications, 2018, especially chapters 3 and 27.)
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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 (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 less or of no importance, and which could, under certain circumstances, even be deliberately terminated (Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Teshuvot veHanhagot, Jerusalem 5757, volume 3, # 317); or one where a corneal transplant from a non-Jew is not permitted, since he may have seen things that Jew should never see (Rabbi Ovadia Hadaya, Yaskil Avdi, Jerusalem 1982, volume 6, Yoreh Deah 26, sections 6-9); 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, showing 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 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. (Jewish Law as Rebellion, chapter 22.)
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Only this week (Tuesday, June 26) 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. The Rabbis felt it would be inappropriate for Jews to drink wine if the bottle was even moved by such people, and they forbade its consumption even if the wine was produced by Jews. (It reminds me somewhat of my youth, just after the Holocaust had come to an end, when the Dutch would refuse under any circumstances to buy German products, or even have them in their homes. It was completely taboo.)
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 (Rabbi Menachem Meiri [1249- c.1316] Beit HaBechira on Sanhedrin 57a; Avoda Zara 2a, 11b, 26a), so should this law be abolished.
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, Rabb Shabtai Be’er (17th-century Venice), ruled that it was permitted to use non-Jewish wine for kiddush and havdalah — probably when no kosher wine was available — but not for general consumption. (Marc B. Shapiro, Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its history, Littman Library, 2015, pages 96-97 and footnotes. For a full treatment of this topic, see Jewish Law as Rebellion, chapter 3.)
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 havdalah, 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 anti-Semites, 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 discriminating toward 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 that 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.
Every week I receive hundreds of emails and important observations on my essays, via many channels. Unfortunately, the volume makes it impossible for me to respond to every comment. Please know that I deeply appreciate every comment, and learn from them all. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments. I hope you will continue to do so.
— Nathan Lopes Cardozo