Culture, Identity, Religion

Rethinking 'stam yeinam'

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.

52 thoughts on “Rethinking 'stam yeinam'

  1. Issues of stam yeinam aside, please do not fool yourself into thinking that blood is not used as a purifier today. American wines are almost certainly not going to, but wines from other parts of the world certainly do. And in fact it is those fine, organic wines, or those which pride themselves on their “naturalness,” that are most likely to do so. Caveat Emptor.

  2. There you have it: when a conservative rabbi is faced with a choice between his own values and halacha, his values win. And there you have the sliding away from tradition *reformization* of conservative Judaism.

  3. “there is hardly a winery in the world” that statement acknowledges that there are, in fact, wineries which do still use blood as a purifier and that they are few and far between. Further ‘caveat emptor’ which would be of interest to wine drinkers that has nothing to do with ‘stam yeinam,’ vegans should beware that egg white is often used as a purifier in wines and people who don’t like eating clay should be aware that clay is very often used. There was a lot of hubbub a few years back about French wine having blood in it–it doesn’t, it is and has been illegal in France to use blood in wine for a long time. Spain and Italy on the other hand…

  4. @Justin.
    I didn’t realize (a) you were married or (b) your wife was expecting.
    Mazel Tov on both counts !

  5. I’m curious about Rabbi Shevitz’s basing his rationale on ‘we no longer want it so.’ It would seem this statute wasn’t wanted at the time it was enacted. Why else was there a need for the ‘social engineering’? And can his reasoning be extended to other laws as well?
    Also, do you feel that this rule hasn’t achieved its social goal among those who actually kept this practice?

  6. 1) It wasn’t about socializing, it was about intermarrying.
    2) You can always have a beer with your gentile friends.
    Halakha changes when under intense pressure. The desire to sing kum-ba-ya with a goyishe pal over a glass of chardonnay hardly qualifies.

  7. Blood is not the only non-kosher ingredient that might be used in wine. Many wineries use gelatin, as well as meat or dairy derivatives in the fining process. For those concerned about the ingredients in a wine, is a good resource. If you click on the name of a specific winery, it will tell you what the winery says about its own ingredients and practices.

  8. Welcome to the team Justin! I posted on this a couple years back and certainly agree with your basic argument. It is certainly worth rejecting wine kashrut laws on principle.

  9. Well, Justin, why keep kosher at all?
    Wenham, Gordon. “Purity”, The Biblical World, vol. II, ed. John Barton, NY: Routledge 2002.

  10. @J1-Thanks, but there’s probably ALOT you don’t know about me 🙂
    @Desh, there are, but my issue is with things like organic grape juice when one knows for sure there are no problems, or US made wine, et al
    @tzachi, two very different issues, but we can have that conversation on a personal level
    @Neal, Rabbi Dorff’s basic premise, as I understand it, is that one should still use kosher wine/juice for kiddush and enjoy the non-hekhshered wine with meals
    @Josh-why is it relevant?

  11. @Justin- I know a bunch of AJU rab students, and this kind of reasoning would probably fly with (some of) them. My (bad stereotypical?) impression is that those JTS are less likely to rationalize to themselves that being organic is more important than what would normally be considered kashrut.
    Yea, I fully expect to get scolded for this…

  12. Does your choice to buy kosher or non-kosher wine affect in actuality your level of interaction with non-Jews?

  13. In Israel many of the boutique wineries use only 100% certified items in preparation of the wine, since that is what is available in Israel (as the major users are the large Kosher wineries who do the importing). There is NO blood used in the Fining process.
    Do we really want to say that because a non-Jew may have touched the wine at some point during production that we are forbidden to drink it?
    If the idea is that Stam Yenam will lead to frivolous interaction with non-Jews, how is this reduced by prohibiting wine that a non-Jew touched?
    I am aware that Minhag Avotenu B’Yadenu (we have a long commitment to customary practice) but is this the Judaism that we seek?
    Have we not adopted alternative practices “Mipnei Darchei Shalom” (or: because, as they used to say: It’s a shanda for the Goyim)?
    The Dorph Tshuva is not without its flaws. But it is a serious effort to grapple with a problematic halacha.

  14. Justin,
    What is the difference between drinking a glass of wine (or more) and using said wine as part of Jewish ritual. As you point out Rabbi Dorph indeed makes this distinction clear in his tshuva. Namely that there are different standards for ritual use of grape products than there are for non-ritual use. There are other halachik issues at play here of course but maybe for another time.
    Also, I have a problem with Rabbi Shevitz’s reasoning of “maintaining this practice, which has very little, if anything, to do with kashrut, is therefore racist and ought to be rejected”. So any Jew who only drinks Kosher wine is a racist? C’mon. That is a dangerous road to go down.
    I don’t think that it is a betrayal of universal, humanistic, or call it what you will values to maintain this practice. Universal values are all well and good and I find it extremely meaningful to find those values within the canon of Jewish texts and ideas. But what makes that phenomenon so fascinating and meaningful is the unique way that Judaism expresses those values. That’s where the magic is.

  15. @uzi-
    Rabbi Dorff’s teshuva, as many of his teshuvot, are apologetic and toe the line between halakhic and value-based. Here he is saying, “look, we know this practice is outdated and serves little purpose today, but we continue it for kiddush because, well, it feels right.” What Rabbi Shevitz and his inspiration are saying is “look, we know this practice is outdated and serves little purpose today. period.” Rabbi Shevitz is not saying that a consumer of kosher wine is racist. He is saying that the origins and propagation of stam yeinam are racist, and he’s right. Therefore anyone who adheres strictly to it FOR ITS SAKE is not necessarily racist but is adhering to racist legislation and should be made aware of that and can they do with it what they will. That the individual may not be a racist doesn’t mean the law isn’t racist.

  16. @justin – ok i see what you’re saying. I guess i don’t understand why a law that most people agree doesn’t serve it’s purpose anymore is seen as so harmful to some other set of values that we may have. Like blue laws for example. do they promote people from going to church and being with their family? maybe maybe not but we still have those and they apply to everyone not only xtians.
    it just seems innocuous and should be left alone. with all due respect I think you have too much white guilt as it were.

  17. it just seems innocuous and should be left alone. with all due respect I think you have too much white guilt as it were.
    or i want an evolutionary religion to continue to evolve and be a part of the justice and holiness it is intended to spread in the world… but you know, you can call that white guilt…

  18. judaism is not only intended to spread justice and holiness to the world. It is also intended to spread those things to Jews. The fact that the halacha of stam yeinam, although it may be superfluous and outdated, is still maintained does not prevent any evolution of our tradition into something that you consider more just. The fact is that this halacha doesn’t affect anyone certainly not non-Jews. it seems to me that you are worried about what non-Jews will think about Judaism, or perhaps what you think about Judaism, if the were to know or find out that the Jews have these laws whose original purpose was to segregate themselves from non-Jews. Do you really think anyone will think that about todays modern Jews? If you do then that’s exactly what I call white guilt. Respectfully of course.

  19. 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.
    Why? The vast majority of organic products sold in grocery stores today (particularly packaged foods like grape juice) aren’t all that different from their “conventional” cousins in terms of nutrition, toxicity, environmental impact or ethical production methods. They’re just more expensive.
    Standards for organic certification are improving (particularly for animal products like meat, eggs and milk, where I can understand choosing to buy only organic), but most of the mass market organic products out there are now made by affiliates of Big Food who apply all the same problematic factory farm production and distribution methods to organic food as they do to everything else–they just figure out how to do it within the bare minimums of the certification requirements.
    If you’re concerned about your health, buying organic should be very far down your priority list–reducing fat, sodium, sugars, other simple carbohydrates and preservatives will all do much more for your longevity and wellness.
    And if you’re concerned about the environment, “organic” should come after “seasonal” and “local” and “vegetarian.”
    Is there something I’m missing?

  20. thepedant-
    there is something you’re missing. you’re assuming I’m buying processed, packaged food with an organic label. and I don’t. I buy produce. My wife and I do not consume processed foods. I agree with you 100% that buying organic crackers or whatever is no healthier for you than ritz. That being said, I do believe it’s healthier for the earth because of the pesticide and chemical fertilizer usage. I think for most people all of your recommendations are spot on. My wife and I only buy local food (which by default means seasonal), until she became pregnant we were both vegetarians and will only eat sustainably (i.e., long line deep water) wild-caught fish. And I would agree with you that most organic grape juices are not any different. but Santa Cruz juice company is one of the most amazing companies around. They produce their ENTIRE line of products on renewable energy and reuse 96% of their waste. How amazing is that!?! And living where I live, it’s local by most standards.
    thepedant is 100% right, though, for other consumers. While I disagree that organic is not important, eating locally is the most important thing and avoiding processed and packaged foods will save your life.

  21. Hechshers on wines are nice for knowing that the ingredients are all kosher, as wines don’t list their finings on the bottle. With grape juice, it’s a different story. I reject the principal that a non-Jew touching a non-cooked grape juice or wine makes it traif. There are certified vegan wines that are not hechshered, and i wouldn’t see anything traif about them. What kind of idolatry are we afraid exactly? And what affect does it have that can be prevented by flash pasteurization?
    I mean, I’m not hung up on the whole organic thing either, so although shelling out for Kedem is something i’d probably only do for Pesach, making kiddush over Welch’s Grape Juice (mevushal) and Manischewitz (it’s vegan folks, and it’s cheap as hell!) is just fine for me.

  22. “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?”
    So well-said, Justin. I grew up in a home that was neither kosher nor observant. In fact, I was raised on ham and cheese sandwiches. Over time, I have become more observant (in my own way,) but kashrut has never appealed to me precisely because I consider it divisive, both between Jews and non-Jews, and between those Jews who keep kosher and those who don’t. For me to dismiss kashrut altogether is not a big deal, though, since I never was kosher. However, it makes me happy to know that more observant people than I are struggling with its divisiveness as well.

  23. I should have added, that one of my greatest “anti-kosher” moments occurred when I was in a meeting with the staff of Asilomar, where we held the last two Hazon Food Conferences. I was on the exec committee for both conferences, and at that first meeting with the managers, chef, etc., well before the first conference, we had to explain that despite their rules about how alcohol is handled, their staff could not handle the wine that would be on the tables once it was open, and our people had to pour it themselves, otherwise it wouldn’t be kosher. Perhaps someone who has kept kosher all their lives wouldn’t blanch at this at all, but inside I was cringing.

  24. @ Alix-
    thanks for sharing and being open and honest. I appreciate your comments, but I think that there are ways to approach kashrut that it, as an institution, does not have to be separating or divisive. I think it can be, and is for myself, an incredibly meaningful experience that connects me to mindfulness and our tradition. Kashrut, as a practice, is an integral part of Jewish practice and I would encourage you to delve into it with an open heart as a means of connecting to Jewish history, culture and practice. Practices such as stam yeinam or bikul akum (prohibition against non-Jews cooking food) are elements of kashrut but they do not encompass it in totality, in my opinion. But, yeah, totally, observance is a struggle and living ancient traditions in a modern world is a struggle.
    Again, thanks for being honest and sharing!

  25. Justin, thanks for your response. Believe me, I have wrestled long and hard with the question of kashrut. In my eyes, the whole practice of kashrut is to instill a sense of mindfulness about food, which I am already doing. Like you, I eat a mostly organic diet. I only eat meat that was killed humanely, which is a higher standard than kashrut (to me). I try to only eat sustainable fish. To me, these values are more important than not mixing milk and meat, or avoiding bugs, which are almost inevitable in organic produce (give me bugs over pesticides any day).
    I have more personal reasons for my anti-kashrut sentiments as well, they will be revealed in Sue Fishkoff’s book “Kosher Nation,” which is due on Oct 12 from Random House (Hazon is a big part of the book) and should definitely be reviewed by someone on this blog. It will no doubt be a great read (Yes, Sue is a friend, but she’s also a great writer).

  26. @Alix-
    If you can get me an advance copy I’d love to read and review it. Let me know and I’ll shoot you an email with my info.

  27. Justin, the guy who does the Heebnvegan blog (Michael Croland maybe?) posted about it already on jcarrot, so I imagine gally copies are available. I’m writing to Sue now, but sure, send me an email with your info and I’ll pass it on to her. (can you see my email address?) I don’t want to post it here…

  28. I’m glad to know that there’s more to kosher wine than goyim not touching the grapes. I’m not Orthodox, so I still don’t care that much — but it’s good to know.

  29. Justin, et al- R. Dorff’s t’shuvah says much more than you’re giving it credit for. He’s well aware of the moral issues re: stam yeinam and also explores other kashrut issues re: wine.
    I think my point in linking to it was to point out that some of these issues – re: stam yeinam – were raised more than twenty years ago and that it might be worth seeing what leading scholars have produced on exactly the issue you’re raising.

  30. @Neal-
    Thanks, I think that’s valid. I also had the pleasure of learning Rabbi Dorff’s teshuvah with non other, than, well, Rabbi Dorff. I agree with most of his work in that teshuvah. Where I now depart from it is to say that it is more important to make kiddush on hekhshered wine than to be true to the our values in the face of the moral issues it presents.

  31. “Racist”? Seriously? Please Justin — aren’t there any other words left to describe things you don’t like?
    You don’t find it interesting or meaningful that the specific regulations of ‘stam yeinam’ apply only to wine and to no other food? Levying particular restrictions and regulations upon a single food — sure would be an interesting way to apply a “racist” agenda, don’t you think?
    Isn’t it at least as likely that ‘stam yeinam’ exists because of the special status that the Talmud saw as accruing to wine, starting in the Torah text itself, and because sitting down to drink with people, whether individually or in groups, is a prime way of removing distinctions and barriers and setting the stage for a deeper relationship?
    Isn’t it possible that they wanted to introduce a friction point so as to remind Jews that there are some boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed, and that their identity and mission remains distinct from the people around them?
    Nah — let’s just speed things up and call it all “racism”. So much easier!
    As for R. Dorff’s paper he doesn’t claim a “moral problem” with stam yeinam at all. Simply that most Western gentiles today aren’t idol-worshipers. In any event he rather pointedly asserts that “If I thought for one minute that prohibiting wine made by Gentiles would have the slightest effect on diminishing the number of mixed marriages, I would drop all other concerns and opt for prohibiting it on that basis alone.”
    I think his later claim that “the prohibition against wine alone will not accomplish the rabbis’ goal of preventing mixed marriages in contemporary society” is fighting a straw man. Firstly I doubt “the rabbis” would ever have claimed that any particular standard “alone” would accomplish anything.
    More centrally though, I’d bet that the rate of intermarriage amongst people who observe ‘stam yeinam’ is far lower than among those who don’t. Has R. Dorff not noticed?
    He’s obviously a smart guy so I’m sure he has noticed, whether before he wrote the paper or afterwards. But I suspect that the real driver behind the opinion comes under his heading “Common Practice”: “…the fact is that for many the prohibition has fallen into disuse…. We are better off acknowledging the fact that this prohibition has fallen into disuse and letting it be.”
    Most of R. Dorff’s constituency doesn’t know or just doesn’t care. That’s the bottom line.

    1. More centrally though, I’d bet that the rate of intermarriage amongst people who observe ’stam yeinam’ is far lower than among those who don’t.
      I’d bet that the rate of intermarriage is even lower still among people who die in infancy. Why doesn’t the Conservative movement have the courage to promote infanticide?

  32. Eric-
    after having conversation on the subject with a good friend of mine, I agree with you–racist is not the correct term. Mind you, it was Rabbi Shevitz’s description. I think xenophobic, as noted by my friend, is a more accurate term. The meaning of the term racism has been watered down and while I think its current usage includes this type of law, it is not wholly accurate.
    I think that the problem that people like myself, and many others, that have issue with a law such as ‘stam yeinam’ is precisely in that it creates an artificial boundary that ought not be crossed. If you’re comfortable saying that Jews are ‘different’ and it is less desirable to socialize with non-Jews than it is to socialize with Jews then you’re comfortable with ‘stam yeinam,’ and if that works for you, grand. But it doesn’t work for many, myself included. Rather, that type of superficial separation and segregation prevents many from connecting to the holiness and justice the Torah and the Jewish tradition demands of us. You’re right, the Tosafot did want to introduce that friction point, based on xenophobic values, and I, today, want to reject what they did. If you want to continue to live by their values, by all means, enjoy explaining to 99.8% of the world why they can’t touch your wine bottle.

  33. Unlike some, I have read and learned quite a bit about stam yeinam.
    If you’d read and learned as much about kiddush as you have about stam yeynam, you’d have known to make your kiddush on the bread, instead of paskening for yourself erev shabbos in the supermarket – hardly a time when rational, unbiased decision-making is likely.

  34. I don’t understand why anybody hasn’t yet raised the fact that wine becomes forbidden not only when a gentile touches it, but also when a Jew who does not observe Shabbat touches it.
    There, now it’s not racist. Discuss.

  35. Amit: Does that rule actually get followed? The logical consequence of that is that no two Jews who follow that rule and who have Shabbat practices that differ at all can ever share a bottle of wine.

  36. Desh – it gets followed by winemakers first of all – I almost washed floors at Karmel Mizrahi one summer because I was shomer shabbat. Second, the “differing shabbat practices” is not what we’re talking about – you want the person to be a flagrant violator of Shabbat, with an intent of violating shabbat. (IE – if I hold by the Driving teshuva, I’m covered, but if I just drive thinking its wrong to drive on shabbos, I kill the wine). Third, it gets followed by many people, including myself, since otherwise, YN is racist.

  37. If you haven’t got grape-drink or bread, then you do it on cheimar medina. Fancy-pants organic fruit juice, for instance. Still better than deciding policy on the fly and justifying it post facto as an anti-racist statement.

  38. I think you’ve misunderstood my thought process…
    It wasn’t a post facto justification. It was an in the moment decision based on already acquired knowledge. The fact that these other rabbis hold what they hold and said what they said was not about my decision, it was kind of like icing on the cake. My personal psak (which I have not made for anyone else) was only fortified by these rabbis personal decisions (one of whom I know and respect).
    I am not justifying my act as an anti-racist statement. I believe that stam yeinam is silly. I know for a fact that my grape juice has no ‘treif’ additives and that all that keeps it from having a hekhsher is that non-Jews were involved in its production, therefore I determined that, for me, it is kosher and that I would be comfortable making kiddush on it. Not because it’s organic, but because I know it’s not dedicated for avodah zarah, nor does it have blood or other nonkosher additives.
    I’m not calling on anyone to write a teshuvah doing away with stam yeinam, I don’t think it’s important enough or practiced enough to merit writing one myself (plus I am not sold that USCJ teshuvot are relevant, anyways).
    I’m curious why my personal decision to make kiddush on grape juice without a hekhsher is so offensive to you?

    1. I don’t see any basis for distinguishing between wine for kiddush and wine for any other purpose. The reason for avoiding stam yeinam isn’t because this wine doesn’t fulfill the obligation for kiddush, but because this wine is forbidden to consume under any circumstances. (Ditto, and kal vachomer, for wine with kashrut issues such as blood.) Either you agree with this principle, or you don’t. And if you don’t, then the wine should be permitted under any circumstances, including kiddush.

  39. Grape juice does not fall under stam yenam!! grape juice as long as its 100% does not need a hekhsher!!
    this is the Law! you cannot make more gezerot and you cannot broaden gezerot past what they were for.

  40. There is a big difference between anti-kashrut and anti-kashrut agency. A lot of them insist products without their supervision aren’t kosher. The truth is, all a hecksher means is that someone who is theoretically versed in the halachot of kashrut whose opinion you may or may not agree with has done the research *for you.* Its a convenience, not a requirement. One who is well-versed in these halackot – or knows how to learn – can do the research themselves. And, there are plenty of reasons food manufacturers in America can be regarded as trustworthy until proven otherwise(fear of government, loss of reputation, potential civil actions).

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