Ki Tissa: Foundations and Walls

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa

Regardless of the local weather, all over the world this week’s Torah
portion is Ki Tissa, which contains the story of the Golden Calf and
many subsequent injunctions against idolatry in all its forms-
including even having treaties with the “idolatrous” nations that
Israel will encounter when it gets to the Promised Land:

“Beware of making a covenant with the inhabitants of the land against
which you are advancing, lest they be a snare in your midst. . . ”
(Shmot/Exodus 34:12)

Based on this passage- which, depending on how you read it, goes up
till verse 15 or so- the ancient rabbis banned certain kinds of
commerce with non-Jews, with the reasoning being that:

1) some of what might be purchased could have been intended for
idolatrous sacrifices, and

2) if Israelites ate and drank the foods of the local “idolaters,” it
could lead to such social friendliness that intermarriage and a
weakening of loyalty to the God of Israel would result.

Among the items produced by non-Jews which were banned by the ancient
rabbis was wine, which they understood to be often used in offerings
and sacrifices to pagan deities. This led them to prohibit “yayin
neshech,” or “wine of libation,” very strictly- that is, any wine
which could possibly have been produced with religious rites in mind.

Going a step further, a more general (and slightly less strict)
prohibition was put on “stam yaynam,” that is, “regular wine” made
outside the Jewish community. Wine that is “mevushal,” which means
cooked or boiled, was considered unfit for ritual use, and is thus
permitted in some situations where other wines would be prohibited.
For example, many strictly observant Jews will not drink wine that has
been sold or even handled by non-Jews, but in some cases if the wine
is “mevushal” it can be bought in an ordinary liquor store or
supermarket.

Thus we get from a verse in this week’s Torah portion which seems to
prohibit making treaties with surrounding nations to that square
bottle of sweet Manischewitz “wine” (Chianti Classico it’s not) which
you may have encountered at a synagogue, Shabbat table or Passover
seder. (I should note here that I’m following Sefer HaHinnuch, a
medieval textbook on the commandments, which does however point out
that some major scholars see the prohibition on the wine of non-Jews
coming out of a verse in Deuteronomy.)

So far, so good- except for the fact that in this instance, the social
context of the halacha makes all the difference in the world. (Once
again, I think I just summed up Conservative Judaism.) Reasonable
people can and do differ on how best to strengthen the Jewish
community, but I personally cannot believe that regarding our
neighbors as “idolaters” is the best way to do so. We live in a world
where the Jewish community stands in religious solidarity with
Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and other people of good faith
in coalitions which support social justice and a compassionate
society- can we really lobby, march, or pray with our neighbors one
day and the next day think that drinking their wine will fatally
weaken our Judaism?

Thus, the Conservative Movement has embraced the possibility of a more
lenient stance on the kosher status of wine (while at the same time
pointing out that some wines, especially European ones, can be “fined”
with animal or dairy ingredients, which is a totally different problem
in keeping kosher.) Our teacher Rabbi Elliott Dorff has argued that
the prohibition on “stam yaynam” could be discontinued in a
pluralistic society where most wine is made by large corporations,
unconnected to any religious practice or community at all. I certainly
agree with R. Dorff’s perspective (which is more nuanced than I can
describe in a few words) and I might go even further to say that
traditional practices which depend on a suspicious view of our
neighbors demand moral scrutiny as a general principle.

To put it another way, there are very good reasons to keep kosher, but
a fear that in purchasing wine, one is being tempted to idolatry, or
supporting it in some way, is not, to me, one of them. It is certainly
a great idea to buy Israeli wines to show connection to and support of
Israel, but that is a positive perspective, not one based on fear or
suspicion.

Rejecting idolatry isn’t only about looking at what’s out there in the
world; it’s also about looking within, and uprooting from within
traditional teachings any residual xenophobia from earlier periods of
Jewish history. I believe the prohibition on the wine of non-Jews
falls in that category, and I encourage those reading this to study
the issue further. Conservative Judaism has always seen traditional
practices in the light of evolving knowledge and social perspectives-
let’s drink to that!

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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