In Israel, an institution known as the Badats (from an acronym meaning “court of justice”) provides kosher certification that even the most scrupulously observant respect. The Badats recently made a stir outside of ultra-Orthodox circles when it demanded that the Barkan winery, in order to maintain its certification, not allow Ethiopian Jewish workers to come into contact with the wine. The rationale? An ancient rabbinic decree prohibits wine produced by non-Jews, and some ḥaredi authorities do not accept the Jewishness of the Ethiopian community. Elli Fischer comments on the episode:
[T]he response was fast and furious. Thousands of Israelis called for a boycott of Barkan until the policy changed. The Sephardi chief rabbi Yitzḥak 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 Badats 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, . . . announced that the [Ethiopian] employees would be returned to their original assignments. The Badats, in turn, dropped its certification of the wines in question.
[S]ome 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 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 kosher-certification. Its allows small groups with particular demands to punch well above their weight. . . . 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 forgo 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.