Seeing Red Over Wine Heksher


It’s David and Goliath in the Holy Land, again, but this time the giant is the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the weapon wielded by the little guy is a bottle of dry red.

A tiny winery attached to a desert eco lodge is challenging what it says is the rabbinate’s monopoly — economic and theological — over the supervision of wine production by securing an alternative heksher, or kosher seal of approval, from the Masorti movement.

Now the battle is officially joined, according to a report in Haaretz, with the rabbinate issuing a warning on its website that the Rujum Winery’s product is not kosher, something the Masorti movement freely admits, since by Israeli law only the rabbinate can declare something kosher.

“It’s absolutely an issue of religious pluralism,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Masorti movement in Israel, which is affiliated with the United States-based Conservative movement. “If consumers want to accept our version of the law, it’s unjust to deny them that in a democratic society.”

Indeed, Ziv Spector, one of the winery’s partners, said religious considerations of a kind, in addition to economic ones, compelled him to seek a new supervisor. Because he is not sufficiently observant, the rabbinate would have required him to hire extra employees to hold his keys and regulate his access to his own winery.

“I consider myself to be a good Jew since I was born,” said Spector, who says he is proud to be descended from a line of Polish rabbis, including a grandfather who led his flock to Palestine. “And then someone comes to me and says you’re not a good Jew, if you don’t wear a kipa and you go to the beach on Saturday … that was enough for us, we don’t want to be part of it,” he said.

Spector is not alone in feeling this way; many of Israel’s smaller wineries simply skip certification. Rujum, which sits in the town of Mitzpe Ramon amid Israel’s famous craters, makes only about 5,000 bottles a year. But friends of his who feel rabbinic supervision of wine is important suggested that he check out the Masorti movement, so he approached them in 2011.

It was beshert; the movement had already entertained a similar request from another small winery, Rabbi Sacks said. The original petitioner had moved on by the time the movement had clarified its various positions and declared itself ready to supervise wineries, at which point Rujum found them.

For the movement, the difficulty lay mainly in the halachic, or legal, question of whether they should, like the state rabbinate, forbid non-Jewish involvement in the winemaking process. Ultimately, they rejected this requirement on the grounds that it is “racist and xenophobic” and not necessary under their understanding of Jewish law, Rabbi Sacks said. They did, however, institute new standards stipulating that vineyard owners adhere to certain standards of worker treatment, such as the payment of a living wage.

Spector knows his end-run around the rabbinate could hurt demand for his product, which is mainly reds blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Malbec grapes.

“Hotels in Israel won’t get the wine. Kosher restaurants won’t get the wine,” Spector said. “But for us, it’s OK, you have to believe in what you are doing, the same as we believe we should grow grapes and do wines in the high desert. We believe in the Negev.”

Then again, a new market might open up precisely where one is closing. Rujum is working with the movement to sell its wines through Masorti and Conservative synagogues worldwide, Spector said.