Here we go again. On the heels of other kashrut controversies in Israel - generally over restaurants and catering halls that would like to abide by the rules of kashrut without the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate or its supervisors, mashgichim - a winery in the Negev announced it was forgoing the approval of the Chief Rabbinate in favor of the supervision of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement.
This move angered the Chief Rabbinate, who claims, correctly, that organizations outside the Chief Rabbinate are forbidden from labeling products kosher. The Masorti Movement, familiar with the law, has taken pains to avoid labeling the wine “kosher,” instead stating that it meets the requirements as understood by Masorti halakha under the supervision of a mashgiach affiliated with the Masorti Rabbinical Assembly. Pretty wordy, but that’s the price of being excluded from the state-sponsored definition of Jewish pluralism.
The claim that only the Chief Rabbinate can declare an item kosher begs the question as to what “kosher” really means and what it does not. At its most basic level, “kosher” means fit, as in fit for consumption, as defined by Jewish law. Food must not contain certain ingredients, it must be prepared in a certain way, with certain dishes, with a certain person lighting the flame of the fire that cooks it, etc. Some laws are clear and others are less so, some are universally accepted (pork is forbidden) while others inspire different opinions (some drink milk produced by non-Jews, others avoid it).
Yet even these laws are not the only ones Jews should follow. After all, there is a concept that Jews must not perform mitzvot that are only made possible by the committing of a sin. The practical application of this principle is the idea of ethical kashrut, which states, for example, that a business must treat its workers properly in order to be considered kosher. Any Jewish practice that uses wine that was produced by Sabbath-observant Jews with the proper fining ingredients, separating the right amount of produce, could be considered technically kosher. But if the workers are exploited, we have a case of a mitzvah enabled by a sin. Jews therefore have a responsibility that the wine we drink, even more than any other food, is produced by the ethical standards defined by the Torah.
For this reason the Masorti Movement makes sure that the wine produced under its supervision meets certain ethical standards, including paying the workers a living wage. Otherwise, the movement is saying, the wine is not fit for consumption.
The Movement also sees fitness in other areas. As with Orthodox supervision, all filtering agents must be kosher, and the agriculture laws specific to Israel must be observed as well. The Masorti definition of “kosher” at the winery includes ritual kashrut alongside ethical kashrut as signs of a wine fit to drink. Sounds fair to me.
Of course, not every authority agrees with every aspect of what makes a product fit for consumption - ritually, ethically, nutritionally or otherwise. The Masorti Movement has declared that it “bars discrimination on the basis of religion in the employment of workers.” While this is a beautiful business practice, and should be encouraged, it does conflict with the rabbinic prohibition of non-Jews handling wine. The Movement relies on a responsum of Rabbi Elliot Dorff that explains - based on a reading of the sources from the Talmud and onward - the ways in which this rabbinic prohibition does and does not apply today. For some, this may render the wine unfit for their preferences, whereas, for others, this may be another necessary component in making a wine “fit” for them.
Whether or not it is fair, it is unlikely that anyone other than an Orthodox authority will be able to legally declare something kosher in Israel any time soon. In the meantime, in a world in which our labels are filled with information regarding allergies, calories, and other aspects of “fitness,” knowing the ethical and ritual components of the food and drink we consume should only be celebrated.
Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM - the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.
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