Is food served in restaurants, hotels, event halls and other eating establishments rendered unkosher by the presence of a Christmas tree? How about the holding of New Year’s celebrations, the presence of a nativity scene or a large cross or Santa Claus? The answer, says the Chief Rabbinate, could very well be “yes” in at least some of the above-mentioned instances. That’s because according to a statement it issued this week, “It is forbidden for a Jew to be present in a place where idol worship is being conducted.”

Since, argues the Chief Rabbinate, kashrut supervisors are unable to be present at an eating establishment – say because a Christmas tree is displayed there – they cannot ensure that the food being served is kosher and the establishment will lose its right to advertise itself as “kosher.”

For many it might seem absurd to view a Christmas tree or New Year’s celebrations as idol worship. Today more than ever such symbols and celebrations are devoid of any religious meaning for most people. Nevertheless, the Chief Rabbinate’s rabbis – or any other person for that matter – should have the right to hold such a belief and that right should be protected.

The problem is the Chief Rabbinate’s rabbis have a state-sanctioned monopoly over kashrut in Israel. The law states plainly that no food establishment is permitted to advertise itself as “kosher” unless it first receives certification from the Chief Rabbinate. As a result, if it were to rule that a Christmas tree, or any other Christmas or New Year’s symbol is idol worship, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of restaurants, event halls, hotels and other establishments that serve food would be forced to choose between making Christian clientele feel welcome during the holiday season and holding onto Jewish patrons who will only eat kosher food.

In Haifa or Jerusalem, where there are large numbers of Christian locals and tourists, this could be a tough choice.

Another problem is that because the Chief Rabbinate enjoys a state-sanctioned monopoly over kashrut supervision, the Supreme Court has the power to interpret, and place limits on that monopoly. In the process, the Supreme Court invariably interferes with inherently religious matters best left to the rabbis.

That’s precisely what happened in 1990, for instance, when the High Court ruled that the Jerusalem Rabbinate could not revoke a kashrut certificate from a food establishment because its owners permitted belly dancing on the premises. At the time, the court made a distinction between what it considered to be “core” issues of kashrut and considerations that were not directly related to food preparation and were, therefore, deemed by the court to be irrelevant.

This blatant intervention in a strictly religious matter of Jewish law became a precedent for subsequent rulings that curtailed the Chief Rabbinate’s powers. A ruling by the Chief Rabbinate that Christmas trees render a restaurant unkosher would inevitably be challenged in court. Judging from past rulings, the Chief Rabbinate would probably lose.

This situation is untenable. And the best way to solve it is to end the Chief Rabbinate’s state-sanctioned monopoly over religious services – in particular kashrut supervision.

Restaurants, hotels, event halls and other establishments that serve food and want kashrut supervision should have the freedom to choose from among competing Orthodox rabbinic organizations. Some will be more lenient and others more stringent. Some might rule that there is no contradiction between Christmas trees or belly dancing and kosher food. But even if none do, the Supreme Court will not have the power to interfere. Private kashrut supervisors that do not have a state-sanctioned monopoly over kashrut supervision would have the religious freedom to rule in accordance with their consciences.

At the same time, owners of food establishments and their clientele would have the economic freedom to choose from among a wide range of legitimate Orthodox opinions on what is considered kosher and would not be subjected to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly.

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