(photo credit: REUTERS)
The High Court of Justice heard on Tuesday arguments against the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut supervision, while at the same time details emerged indicating that the Chief Rabbinate itself is considering far-reaching reforms of the kashrut sector.
In June of last year, the High Court rejected arguments to allow restaurants to declare themselves kosher with a kashrut license from an independent kashrut authority and not that of the Chief Rabbinate.
The petitioners were able, however, to have the case heard in front of an expanded panel of seven justices, an option they availed themselves of on Tuesday.
For many years, severe criticism has been leveled at the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut system as being unreliable and open to corruption.
Several restaurants decided to dispense with their costly rabbinate supervision but maintain their kashrut standards, and eventually the independent, Orthodox Hashgacha Pratit kashrut licensing authority was born, which now has several dozen restaurants under its supervision.
Two of the initial restaurants to dispense with their licenses appealed fines they were subsequently given by the rabbinate for continuing to declare themselves to be kosher, which they appealed to the High Court, leading to last year’s ruling The Law against Kashrut Fraud states that only the Chief Rabbinate, through its local rabbinate branches, may issue kashrut certificates and only restaurants that have a rabbinate certificate may represent themselves in writing as kosher establishments.
Hashgacha Pratit got around this law by not specifically using the word kosher in its kashrut certificates, using instead words associated with kashrut such as supervision.
The justices on Tuesday leveled tough questions at both sides, criticizing the claim of the petitioning restaurants, represented by the Reform Movement in Israel, that the rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut injured their freedom of employment.
Justice Noam Solberg insisted that the issue should not be dealt with by the court at all but rather through legislation in the Knesset.
“There are severe, very serious problems with the kashrut system of the rabbinate, but this is no reason to ignore the law or to give it an evasive interpretation,” said Solberg.
Justice Esther Hayot took issue with the approach of the Chief Rabbinate, which argues that people will be fooled by fraudulent kashrut authorities if the licensing field is opened to competition.
“This approach is a bit paternalistic, which says that a person cannot work out for himself if this is important or not for him and decide to enter [the restaurant] or not,” she said during the hearing. “In other places, there are kashrut certificates of all different types. As long as his presentation [of the business as kosher] is correct, and he says what he does and does not do, why can’t he write it [that his restaurant is kosher]? Who is he deceiving?” On Tuesday morning, Army Radio reported details of reforms the Chief Rabbinate is itself considering for overhauling the kashrut system, largely in response to the pressure it has faced by Hashgacha Pratit and the legal challenges to its monopoly.
According to the report, the Chief Rabbinate’s internal committee will allow restaurants to request kashrut supervision from any local rabbinate, and not just the rabbinate in whose jurisdiction the restaurant is located, something currently not permitted.
This would have the effect of boosting competition between rabbinates to improve their kashrut supervision services.
In addition, kashrut supervisors would no longer be employed and paid by the restaurant or business under supervision, as is currently the case, which would remove the inherent conflict of interests such a system suffers from.
However, a spokesman for Chief Rabbi David Lau said that the rabbinate’s kashrut committee has not yet made any final decisions on which reforms to implement.
Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, founder of Hashgacha Pratit, said that the slated reforms represented the Chief Rabbinate “waving a white flag,” and that it showed the body was beginning to internalize the fact that its monopoly is under threat.
“Every day it is ever more clear,” Leibowitz said. “The public wants kashrut, but is disgusted with the kashrut of the rabbinate. Hashgacha Pratit will continue the fight to ensure that there is real competition in the kashrut market in Israel.”