My pregnant wife sitting at home, I stood in the grocery store aisle with two bottles of grape juice in my hand–in the one hand I had the bottle of Kedem grape juice (I usually buy the organic, but they were all out) and in the other hand, a bottle of organic Santa Cruz 100% Concord Grape juice. I didn’t know what to do. My wife and I are dedicated to maintaining an organic diet. Some consumers choose organic products only when available; we choose to ONLY purchase organic products, if there’s not an organic option, we don’t get it. But here it was, Friday afternoon, too late to run around to more stores to look for organic juice that had a hekhsher. What to do… Can I, a soon to be rabbi ordained by the Conservative Movement, say kiddush on juice without a hekhsher? It’s not something I had ever done before… would I be willing to start? I was.
Unlike some, I have read and learned quite a bit about stam yeinam. Literally meaning ‘their wine,’ it refers to the practice of maintaining that when it comes to grape products, only Jewish hands may be a part of the production from start to finish. Dating back to Talmudic times, this practice was solidified, codified and reinforced by the work of the Tosafot (Franco-German medieval Talmudic commentators specifically interested in halakhic legal theory). In theory, the practice has two reasons, as far as my research has shown me. 1) There was the fear that wine purchased for kiddush could have been used or dedicated for avodah zarah (idol worship), and 2) that in certain areas blood was used as a purifier (the salts would act to separate out impurities in the wine). So today, in 2010, when there is no more avodah zarah as it was meant by the Talmud and there is hardly a winery in the world that would use blood as a purifier, what do we do with this tradition? (Hebrew readers who are interested in this topic should DEFINITELY check out Hayim Soloveitchik’s book on the topic titled “יינם”)
As I was sharing my erev shabbos conundrum with a friend of mine (who also happens to be a rabbi ordained by the Conservative Movement) he told me that the rabbi of the shul he davens at refuses to buy hekhshered wine “on principle.” I was intrigued, perhaps even delighted. So I wrote Rabbi Dan Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, CA and asked him why he adopted this practice and where the idea came from. He told me that the idea came to him from his friend, Rabbi Norbert Samuelson, professor of Jewish philosophy at ASU. And here is what Rabbi Shevitz had to say about his decision to adopt the practice of protesting ‘stam yeinam,’
Stam yeinam was designed as a matter of social engineering to keep Jews and non-Jews from socializing. Aside from the obvious fact that it hasn’t worked, we no longer want it so. I enjoy many non-Jewish friends and reject legislation that would segregate us.
Maintaining this practice, which has very little, if anything, to do with kashrut, is therefore racist and ought to be rejected. I will still use some Israeli wine ( I like Castel), if I have it, because a) it is good; and b) I wish to support the Israeli economy. But I drink it despite the hechsher, not because of it.
I, for one, wholeheartedly agree with his surmising and his decision and have, in turn, adopted it as a practice of my own. Since that particular Friday afternoon, I have been purchasing organically and locally grown 100% grape juice (which is WAY tastier than kosher grape juice) and have been happily making kiddush over it. And it has lead to me think deeply on a number of theological beliefs (such as chosenness, the notion of a God-given land or the sanctity of one plot of land over another, et al) which perhaps simply serve the basic purpose of separating the Jewish people from 99.8% of the world.
This Elul, as I have prepared my mind and spirit for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I have often asked myself, is it time for us, as a people, to move on theologically and culturally from forced separation? Are we doing ourselves a service by maintaining these practices and beliefs? Or, as it appears to me, are we holding ourselves back from truly being in the world and truly recognizing ALL humanity as being created in God’s image? Do these practices instill in us a heightened spirituality? Or do they prevent us from living on a higher spiritual level of togetherness and openness?
If the purpose of Torah (as I understand it) is to increase justice and holiness in the world, can we really say we are doing that by maintaining as racist and abhorrent a practice as refraining from ‘stam yeinam‘? I think not.