Last month, Israel’s Barkan Winery reassigned its Ethiopian-Jewish employees so that they would not come into direct contact with the wines, based on the concern expressed by the Badatz Edah Charedit kashrut supervision that Ethiopian olim are not halachically Jewish. This would make them susceptible to the ban of “stam yeinam,” a Rabbinic prohibition on wine that was touched or handled by a Gentile. The Badatz Edah Charedit kashrut supervision required the reassignment of these employees out of concern that they weren’t really Jewish. This move sparked a fierce reaction by the Israeli media and public, including segments of the Rabbinic leadership, with charges of racism being leveled by top Rabbinic authorities like Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef and political leaders like Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. The enormous negative publicity caused the company to rethink its policy and allow its Ethiopian workers to return to work on kosher wines. Following this decision, the Badatz Edah Charedit removed their kosher certification for non-mevushal wines.
In my view, the heart of the issue is the debate within certain segments of the Israeli population about the halachic status of Ethiopian Jews. In the 16thcentury, the Radbaz accepted the Ethiopian Jews’ tradition of descent from the tribe of Dan. After the establishment of the State of Israel, there was an attempt by the Israeli government to educate these Jews and eventually assist them to move to Israel. However, former Asheknazic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog questioned this ruling based on views of anthropologists who questioned the identity of Ethiopian Jews. Therefore, the Israeli government stopped their attempts at education and aliya for this community. Indeed, many great mainstream Poskim, including Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, questioned the halachic status of this community.
However, in 1973, Rav Ovadya Yosef, as Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote a lengthy responsum where he confirmed this community’s status as Jews. He ruled that members of this community need not even perform a “giyur mi-safek,” conversion out of doubt. He relied on the opinion of the Radbaz against the opinion of the anthropologists cited by Rav Herzog. Indeed, Rav Ovadya Yosef argued that the Radbaz wouldn’t have accepted the Ethiopian Jews’ tradition of descent from the tribe of Dan unless he had conclusive proof. The official position of the Israeli Rabbinate is that members of this community are Jewish. However, the Badatz Edah Charedit kashrut supervision does not agree with the ruling of Rav Ovadya Yosef and the Israeli Rabbinate and they hold that members of this community must undergo a proper conversion in order to be welcomed as full-fledged Jews. In the absence of a conversion, they argue that an Ethiopian Jew cannot be employed by a winery for a position where they will come in direct contact with the wines.
So where does that leave us? When I decided to give a shiur to my community on this topic this past week, a number of people questioned the need for me to give the shiur. They were concerned that it may be offensive to Ethiopian Jews to discuss the controversy regarding their Jewishness. After all, they’ve suffered enough and many put their lives on the line in defense of the State of Israel. Therefore, even if what the Badatz Edah Charedit did was not based on racism but based on their interpretation of halacha, nevertheless, we should all just accept the fact that Rav Ovadya Yosef and the Israeli Rabbinate ruled that they are Jewish and not say anything to suggest otherwise.
What interests me most about this controversy is what does it say about how we should interpret Jewish law. Specifically with issues relating to personal status (Jewish identity, conversion, mamzerut, agunah, etc.), when do we determine conclusively that a halakhic ruling is acceptable and cannot be challenged? Furthermore, is it responsible to rule leniently on a halakhic matter knowing full well that certain segments of the population may not accept that ruling? As an example, Rav Sharon Shalom, a leading Rabbinic Ethiopian Jew who studied at Yeshiva Har Etzion, wrote that Rav Lichtenstein and Rav Amital required every immigrant of Ethiopian Jewish origin to immerse himself as a prerequisite for admission to the yeshiva. Rav Amital explained, “If someone comes to me tomorrow and expresses an interest in you for a shidduch, I don’t want to have to hesitate when recommending you for a match.” Rav Lichtenstein gave a more technical explanation for this requirement. In other words, sometimes a stricter ruling, a giyur l’chumra, might create greater consensus about someone’s personal status. It is an additional burden, but it creates clarity. Similarly, one of the advantages of a centralized Bet Din system by the Rabbinical Council of America is that it is definitely accepted by the Israeli Rabbinate and therefore, a prospective convert knows that his conversion that is performed by an RCA conversion court will be deemed acceptable in Israel.
But that’s not what happened in this controversy. What happened was that the Israeli public and segments of the Rabbinic leadership pushed back against the Badatz Eidah Charedit and said that your standard is unacceptable and they pressured Barkan Wineries to back down. In backing down, Barkan Wineries made a business decision. What does that mean in terms of deciding personal status issues? Is it right to say that the Badatz Edah Charedit position is not a legitimate halachic position? Has the Jewish community accepted the ruling of Rav Ovadya Yosef and the Israeli Rabbinate in this instance and therefore, it is binding on the entire Jewish community? And if that’s true, then what makes this ruling binding on the entire community? Is it because the Israeli Rabbinate ruled on this issue? Indeed, does the modern orthodox community always follow the Israeli Rabbinate’s rulings on personal status issues? Isn’t there a push by many in our community to establish conversion courts outside the Israeli Rabbinate and Rabbinic organizations to marry people outside the Israeli Rabbinate? If that’s the case, then are we being consistent as to when we consider the Israeli Rabbinate the standard by which the community must abide and when we are free to push for solutions outside the Rabbinate?
These are very important questions to consider, especially in dealing with the Jewishness of those immigrating from the former Soviet Union. There are a number of innovative halachic solutions that might be employed to help convert or authenticate the Jewishness of many of these immigrants, or at the very least to convert their children. But what if these solutions are not agreed upon by many Poskim? How does a ruling become acceptable? Should we simply wait until we have enough political power to elect Rabbis to the Chief Rabbinate who support these halachic solutions? Is the Israeli Rabbinate ultimately the standard when deciding personal status issues, because if that’s true then maybe we shouldn’t rush to try to advocate for the dissolution of the Rabbinate. Or maybe we simply wait until a Rabbi of a certain stature issues a lenient ruling and then public pressure is placed to silence those who disagree with the ruling until that ruling becomes not only a legitimate, but the only legitimate position? In the present case of the Barkan Winery, I am fully comfortable relying on the ruling of Rav Ovadya Yosef regarding Ethiopian Jews. However, I do wonder how the unfolding of this controversy will affect how similar halachic decisions of personal status will be accepted by the Jewish community.