Making kashrut kosher

March 23, 2017 11:50
3 minute read.
A Kashrut certificate

A Kashrut certificate hangs at the entrance to a bakery in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The Supreme Court recently discussed a petition filed by two restaurant owners in Jerusalem who felt that they had been harassed by the local rabbinate. They had been fined by the rabbinate, ostensibly for violating the law prohibiting fraud in kashrut, after they had decided that they had had enough, stopped working with the rabbinate, but continued to present themselves as kosher.

The Supreme Court deliberation focused on a matter of principle: Who has the authority to decide what is kosher in Israel? But that was not really the focus of the discussion. There is no dispute that the law prohibiting fraud in kashrut, enacted in 1983, gives authority to the chief and municipal rabbinates to provide kashrut certificates. The controversy is whether it is reasonable in a Jewish and democratic state to force a business owner to receive a kashrut certificate from the rabbinate if he or she chooses to observe the Jewish law and wishes to explain this in writing to clients.

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The judges highlighted the absurdity of the current situation: Business owners cannot even hint that they act in accordance with religious law and keep the dietary laws if they are not willing to pay the rabbinate for the often unsatisfactory service it provides. The unfortunate result is that people are losing confidence in the kashrut institution.

Those opposed to introducing the required changes use arguments like “We must not lose trust in the kashrut.” They probably don’t want to acknowledge the reality that the rabbinate has turned the system into an object of contempt.

When a supervisor comes to a business that has been functioning for over 30 years with a kashrut certificate and suddenly requires that his salary be doubled if the business does not want its kosher certification to be taken away, it can be defined as protection money.

Unfortunately, this is neither an unusual nor an exceptional case. This does not encourage people to trust the kashrut system.

It is increasingly obvious that the rabbinate does not want to – and perhaps cannot – change anything. Since Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau took office three-and-a-half years ago, there has been significant recognition by the Chief Rabbinate of the failures in the kashrut supervision system, and a kashrut committee was even established to address the matter, but there has been little if any actual change.

In July 2018, Lau is slated to begin his term as president of the Supreme Rabbinical Court. Who will assume responsibility for the failed kashrut certification system in his stead? The family of the Sephardi chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, owns one of the most powerful haredi kashrut companies in the market: Badatz Beit Yosef.

Indeed, the political party that elected Yosef, Shas, has many reasons not to change the existing state of affairs in the kashrut system: Many municipal rabbis serve as their representatives, chairmen of religious councils are affiliated with them, and many kashrut supervisors who are their potential voters depend on the system for their livelihood.

The Supreme Court has recognized the absurdity of the current situation and will probably make a decision that will grant businesses partial freedom from the monopoly of the rabbinate.

However, the system itself will still exist and continue to mislead many kashrut consumers who mistakenly believe that there is real, quality kashrut supervision in businesses.

Therefore, it is time for real change: transferring authority for providing kashrut certifications from the religious councils and municipal rabbis to the Chief Rabbinate, which will regulate the system and issue licenses to private entities to provide kashrut. This proposal, which Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah is promoting together with MK Rachel Azaria, is on the table of the Knesset and must win wall-to-wall support from all for whom kashrut is truly important.

Only in that way can we, the captive kashrut consumer audience, begin to rely on kashrut in Israel and stop associating it with corruption and blasphemy.

The writer is head of the state and religion department of the religious-Zionist organization Ne'emanei Torah Va'avodah.

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