Ethiopians and Wine: Not so Fast, Rabbi Cardozo

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s Scandalous halachic decisions: Ethiopians and wine pushes many hot buttons. Exuding an overdose of self-confidence and much dismissiveness, this article exhibits an extremely erroneous understanding of Halacha.

Rabbi Cardozo argues that the prohibition on stam yaynam — non-Jewish wine — should be rescinded, writing that:

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… 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 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… The time has come to abolish the prohibition.

​Rabbi Cardozo seems unaware that the rabbinic prohibition on such wine, decreed millennia ago and codified in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 29b), Mishneh Torah/Rambam (Hil. Ma’achalos Asuros ch. 11-13), Tur and Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah ch. 123-138), is a davar she-b’minyan — a prohibition that in effect is permanently binding, even if its reason no longer pertains. The Rambam rules specifically (Hil. Ma’achalos Asuros 11:7) that even the wine of gentiles who do not worship idols is forbidden to be consumed. This is clear as well from the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 123:1), and it dispositively contradicts Rabbi Cardozo’s presentation of the matter.

Furthermore, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 36b) records that the Sages prohibited “stam yaynam” as a precaution against intimate relations with non-Jews/intermarriage; when one is free to engage in “social drinking” with anyone, the likelihood of it leading to an intimate relationship looms large. Tosafos and Ritva (ibid. 29b) elaborate that the prohibition on stam yaynam was formulated primarily as a measure to prevent such relationships, but the sages modeled the prohibition after the biblical prohibition on wine that was used for idolatrous sacrament.

Thus, contrary to Rabbi Cardozo’s assertions, the prohibition on stam yaynam is not subject to rescindment, and such wine may not be consumed regardless of whether or not non-Jews engage in idolatry and regardless of whether or not there is a likelihood of intermarriage, for the prohibition is a davar she-b’minyan and in effect is permanently binding. Rabbi Cardozo writes that “The time has come to abolish the prohibition,” but he is seriously uninformed as to the Halacha.

The prohibition of stam yaynam as an enactment against intimate relations with non-Jews/intermarriage is more relevant today than ever before, with skyrocketing and hair-raising intermarriage rates among non-Orthodox Jews (71% as documented in 2013, and assuredly even higher today). Rabbi Cardozo is unaware that the Talmud states that the prohibition on stam yaynam was formulated as a preventative to intimate relations with non-Jews/intermarriage, but were he to know what the Talmud says, he would probably reconsider and take back his words.

Rabbi Cardozo proceeds to harshly attack the Edah Ha-Chareidis for not accepting Beta Yisrael from Ethiopia as definitive Jews, writing that:

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.

Although Rav Ovadia Yosef ruled that members of Beta Yisrael are definitely Jewish — a ruling strongly promoted by his son, the current Sephardic chief rabbi — most halachic authorities, including Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Menachem Mann Shach and Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, disagreed. Furthermore, genetic testing does not indicate any serious link between Beta Yisrael and the rest of world Jewry, and many major historians do not accept that Beta Yisrael have Jewish roots. (The great religious dissimilarities between Beta Yisrael and the rest of world Jewry further militate against Beta Yisrael’s claims of Jewish origins. Whereas the native Jews from regions east of the Land of Israel, who inhabited those regions since the Exile of First Temple era, have texts and observances nearly identical with those of the rest of world Jewry, Beta Yisrael ‘s texts and observances, claimed to be from not too much earlier, are vastly different.)

Thus, the whole matter of Beta Yisrael’s status is one of legitimate dispute, and for Rabbi Cardozo to launch a blistering attack on the halachic opinion of the Edah Ha-Charedis, which accords with the majority opinion, is totally uncalled for, to put it kindly.

This is far from the first time that Rabbi Cardozo has painted in broad strokes against halachic norms, lacking basic familiarity with the sources. I ask that Rabbi Cardozo please exercise caution, learn the material first, and not be so quick to pass judgment in areas with which he lacks adequate knowledge.

About the Author
Rabbi Gordimer is a kashruth professional, a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at Coalition for Jewish Values, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, and a member of the New York Bar. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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