The Barkan Winery Controversy: Ugly Precedent Or Healthy Sign?


For many years, the Rabbinical Court of the separatist Orthodox Council of Jerusalem—better known as the “Badatz Eda Haredit” or just “Badatz”—has been considered the gold standard of kosher certification in Israel. Their stated policy is to accommodate the stringencies of as many strains of Israeli-Jewish religious observance as possible.

In most cases, the “higher standards” under discussion apply directly to the food preparation. A stricter agency may require flour to be sifted through a finer sieve, vegetables to be checked more closely for infestations, or the lungs of a slaughtered animal to be smoother. On rare occasions, the standards pertain to individuals involved in preparing the food, as happened last month in the controversial Barkan Winery case.

Israel’s Barkan Winery decided to bring its wines under the supervision of the Badatz, which required that Ethiopian employees be reassigned so that they would not come into direct contact with the wines. The reasoning, in broad brush strokes, relates to the ancient rabbinic ban on the wine of gentiles (“stam yeynam”), a prohibition that can include even wine that was touched or handled by a gentile. Virtually all kashrut organizations accept this ban. The controversial aspect was that Badatz insisted on the removal of all Ethiopians from the production line out of concern that they are not really Jewish.

When news of this policy was reported by Israel’s Kan television station, the response was fast and furious. Thousands of Israelis called for a boycott of Barkan until the policy changed. Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef—whose father, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, issued the ruling that paved the way for the acceptance of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community into Israel as Jews—condemned the Badatz for having racist policies. Politicians and commentators of virtually every stripe expressed their outrage.

It worked. Within a day, Jacques Beer, the CEO of Tempo Foods (which owns Barkan), himself an observant Jew and by reputation a consummate mensch, announced that the employees would be returned to their original assignments. The Badatz, in turn, dropped its certification of the wines in question.

Nevertheless, some observers took away from this episode that there must be a “holy rebellion” against certain manifestations of Jewish law, and some politicians promised to introduce legislation that would make it illegal to doubt the Jewishness of Ethiopians.

It seems to me, however, that we should come away with the opposite message. This was not a case of Jewish law versus morality, as one commentator put it, but part of an internal dynamic process. The Badatz expressed concern for the possible violation of rabbinic law, a situation in which there are ample grounds for leniency. The furious reaction concerned itself with the dignity of immigrants, many of whom are converts: their reassignment was a definite violation of the Biblical injunction to love the convert and immigrant. The message of the threatened boycott of Barkan was: You can go with the Badatz and its standards, but you will lose us. We have our own standards, our own “stringencies,” and if you stick with the Badatz’s discriminatory policies, then, we are sorry, but you simply do not meet our standards.

This was not a case of Jewish law versus morality, as one commentator put it, but part of an internal dynamic process.

The controversy demonstrated that the collective immune system of the Jewish people continues to function, that there is no need to legislate the acceptance of Ethiopian Jews, and that while some may lose their moral clarity in the minutiae of Jewish law, the mainstream can be counted on to correct the course, without engaging in any “holy rebellion.”

There is a deeper takeaway as well, which gets to the bedrock of the complicated relationship between religion and state in Israel.

Consider the economics of the kosher certification industry. Its operation allows small groups with particular demands punch well above their weight. The thinking is that if the cost of certifying something as kosher, or of “upgrading” to a higher standard, is outweighed by the additional markets it will open up, then it is worthwhile to obtain the stricter certification. The premise is that while there are those who would not eat a product that is not up to standard, there are few, if any, who would not eat a product because its standards are too strict.

The results are quite elegant. Under normal circumstances, highly demanding communities that constitute but a tiny fraction of the food market around the world are able to get thousands of products certified kosher. However, when the cost of certification—the financial costs and, as we saw in the Barkan case, moral costs—is higher than what the typical consumer is willing to pay, the market will inform the food producer, which will then either drop its certification or lower its standard. The system is guaranteed by the religious and moral sense of the community of kosher-keepers—and there is in fact no better trustee than those who have been living with this complex of moral, ritual, and financial demands from time immemorial.

In this way, private kashrut certifications like the Badatz and myriad others around the world are far sounder than Israel’s monopolistic Chief Rabbinate. Under Israeli law, it is illegal to label or advertise a product as being “kosher” unless certified by the official local rabbinate of the place of production. Even products certified by agencies with stricter standards must first be certified by the local franchise of the Chief Rabbinate. For instance, Pepsi Cola, in addition to being under the Badatz, is also certified kosher, entirely superfluously, by the Chief Rabbinate of Netanya, where it is bottled.

Moreover, imported products, even if they are already certified and labeled kosher by a foreign agency, must be recertified by a special bureau of the Chief Rabbinate, which sometimes rejects the earlier certification. Haagen-Dazs ice cream, for example, is OU-certified, but since the Chief Rabbinate rejects the commonly-accepted determination (in North America and Europe) that USDA and EU-certified fresh milk requires no additional certification, it deems this ice cream to be non-kosher. In my neighborhood, it can be bought only in a store that is open on Shabbat and sells pork and shellfish products (not to worry; on occasions that call for high-quality dairy, like Shavu’ot, we nevertheless make the trip).

Imagine if the Barkan issue happened not with the Badatz but with the Chief Rabbinate. In such a case, the company would not have had the option of opting for a different agency; it is either certified by the official rabbinate, or it is not kosher. The law interferes with the market’s ability to convey information to sellers. Monopolies in general have little incentive to improve their product, to lower costs, to tailor solutions to the needs of customers, or to ensure that the moral sensibilities of its customers are met, and the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is no exception.

It is for all these reasons that there is a movement afoot in Israel to skirt the law by providing private supervision without using the word “kosher” in any certificate. This movement has potential for certifying eateries but still has a long way to go before it really begins to compete with the Chief Rabbinate at the level of large supermarket chains and manufacturers of ingredients and packaged foods, the mainstays of major kosher certification agencies.

Ironically, the agencies that have the resources to replace the Chief Rabbinate at every level are the Badatz and other private agencies that adopt a “higher standard.” This will require the kosher-keeping public to serve as a watchdog, making sure that stringencies of one sort do not lead to unconscionable leniencies in moral matters. But as the Barkan case showed, the public is up to the task.

Rabbi Elli Fischer lives in Israel where he is a writer and Hebrew-English translator.