Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
It all started with wine.
I had a fascinating conversation on Facebook the other day. A winery in Israel, operated under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, employed a number of religiously observant, devout Ethiopian Jews. The wine they produce is labeled fully kosher. An alternative rabbinic body from the Eidat Chareidi, the Ultra-Orthodox community cast aspersion on the kashrut of their wines because they consider the halakhic status of the Ethiopian employees in doubt. The Beta Israel community made mass aliyah many decades ago and the Sephardi Chief Rabbinate was unanimous in pronouncing the community Jewish according to Halakhah. The Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox community ruled differently, raising the issue that halakhically, the Ethiopians might be considered Gentiles, therefore rendering the wine at the winery non-kosher.
As we say: oy gevalt.
I shared an article reporting and decrying this incident. An entire, centuries-old Jewish community (of color) rendered illegitimate by a subsector of the Ultra-Orthodox world. What lies at the basis of this incident is the traditional Halakhah (Jewish Law) regarding wine. The Rabbis ruled that Gentile wines are prohibited for the consumption of Jews for three reasons: one, the actual kashrut of the wine (what are the ingredients of the wine? How is the wine clarified and produced?), two, the concern that the wine would be used for idolatrous purposes (not an insignificant risk in Late Antiquity: Pagan polytheists would offer wine libations to their deities) and three, that drinking wine in mixed Jewish-Gentile company may lead to intermarriage. These interlocking rulings on Gentile wine are known as ‘yayin nesekh’ (the prohibition on using wine consecrated to other deities) and ‘stam yayin’ (the prohibition on wine as is).
This is not a theoretical discussion. The classical Halakhah states that no Gentile may produce wine for Jews or even serve it, pour it or touch the bottle.
Are you offended yet?
A person upholding his prohibition would argue that this has nothing to do with devaluing non-Jews; but that it is a ‘gezeirah’, a fence around the Torah – a protective measure so that we do not violate the prohibition on idolatry. It is not meant to be discriminatory, God forbid, but merely to demarcate the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Observant Jews who are invested in the Halakhic process have wrestled with this issue. Orthodox Jews sometimes feel embarrassed by this; and I respect their fealty to classical Halakhah.
Now, let’s look at the prohibition from another angle.
The Facebook discussion got interesting because I drink non-Jewish wine at home, and if I have no hechshered (kosher supervised) wine available, I will make Kiddush on it too. This position generated some discussion on my wall: was I, as an observant ‘Reformative’ Rabbi, being too lenient? A teshuvah (rabbinic responsa) written by Rabbi Elliot Dorff and issued by the Conservative Movement allows observant Jews to drink non-Jewish wine if kosher wine is hard to come by. However, as some Facebook friends pointed out, my position was even more lenient. Not only would I drink regular wine ‘lechatchilah’, if no kosher wine was available, I’d also drink it ‘bediavad’, a priori, out of principle.
That’s because I’m not interested in maintaining fallacious boundaries between Jews and non-Jews. That’s not the kind of Jewish world I want to live in.
Some people responded that the prohibition is worthwhile maintaining because it is a symbolic gesture to taking a stance against intermarriage. I countered that argument too: first of all, are we really so naïve to think that we can stem the tide of intermarriage by banning Jews and non-Jews from sharing an alcoholic beverage? Need I remind you that this University here has a certain proud reputation…
Second of all, to think of intermarriage as something to be ‘banned’ is preposterous: intermarriage is like the tide. It is a natural phenomenon. It is the consequence of being blessed to live in an open society with more acceptance than Jews have seen in all of our history. A symbolic gesture to counter that is ineffective at best and deeply dismissive at worst. If anything, I’d like us to rewire our collective neural pathways on the issue of assimilation and intermarriage. The curse is not that Jews are marrying out. The blessing is that non-Jews are marrying in!
I am not making light of the challenges presented by the real and abiding demographic shifts in our community. In the non-Orthodox world, the intermarriage rate stands at over 70%. The Pew surveys share concerning statistics about Millennial engagement with Jewish life. The forces of assimilation are relentless. But our response cannot be to chase windmills and lose the hearts and souls of our people in the process. While it is entirely legitimate for Jews – including rabbis, of course – to celebrate and favor endogamy (a Jew marrying another Jew) and to worry about Jewish continuity, this discourse should be kept as far as possible from any hint of racism and exclusion. We only fool ourselves if we think that a heavy-handed approach will allow our community to circle the wagons.
We have seen such a heavy-handed approach before. In this week’s (and last week’s) parashah, Parashat Pinchas. Pinchas is a zealot. He is a Priest who saw Zimri, son of Salu, a chieftrain of the tribe of Shimon, engage in relations with Cozbi, daughter of Zur, a tribal head from a Midianite tribe. In a fit of jealous anger at this transgressive behavior between Jew and non-Jew, he killed them both with a spear.
We could unpack this disturbing story many different ways, and over the years I hope to propose alternate readings. But at face value, I think it is reasonable for us to be profoundly disturbed. And yes, I know that similar to the wine question, I am pushing against the tradition. From an interpretative standpoint, the burden of proof is one me to condemn Pinchas, since the tradition praises him: after all, one could argue that he kicked in a kind of trolley dilemma - by spearing the transgressors, he halted the plague slaying thousands in the camp.
Even so, I want us to flip the script on the tradition. Pinchas is symptomatic and symbolic of the underbelly of Judaism that is fixated on boundaries and motivated by a kind of moral panic: ‘if our people intermarry, then how shall we survive?’ It’s a real question that is often the harbinger of real pain. Families can feel a range of emotions: joy or disappointment, loss or love, at the prospect of intermarriage. Pinchas’ mistake was not that he had inviolable principles. His religious integrity is justified. His mistake was his impulsivity and cruelty. His error was reducing Judaism to a zero-sum game.
The daughters of Zelophchad, the true heroes of this Parashah, show us a different model. They, too, are principled and justified. They want to inherit the land that their father left them but the Law bars the five sisters from inheriting because they are women. As Lily will tell us tomorrow, they strategize, plan and execute civil disobedience. They appeal – effectively and respectfully. They flip the script, rewrite the narrative and eventually are honored in their endeavor.
This is a story about Facebook and about wine. But it is actually a story about so much more. It’s about two models of engaging with Jewish challenges: reactive or proactive, judgmental or compassionate, impulsive or thoughtful, shutting down the conversation or opening the conversation.
We may feel that the halakhic minutiae of the Orthodox world feel very far from us in Iowa City. But there are powerful undercurrents to this story that allow us to examine the soul of the different Jewish community that make our people. While I will gladly raise my glass of mediocre supermarket Cabernet for a l’chaim, we are called like the b’not Zelophchad, to live with difference and honor it. We have models on how ‘not to do it’: Korach, Pinchas. Judgment, demagogy, fanaticism. But we also have a model, indeed a feminine model, of how to engage the all-important conversations of our community while also honoring those who are outside of or adjacent to our community. Those who share our lives, homes and tables. And to know and trust, like the daughters of Zelophchad did, that Torah is not a sum-zero game, that our Jewishness is abundant, fruitful, generous and inclusive. However we identify ourselves in the Jewish landscape, may all our conduct by informed by that kindness.