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(photo credit: Courtesy)
A Jew for Jesus who demanded kashrut supervision from the Chief Rabbinate won a Supreme Court decision on Monday likely to spark another confrontation between the nation's highest legal arbiter and the Orthodox rabbinical establishment.
In its verdict, based on a precedent that found belly-dancing to be unrelated to kosher food, the court ruled that an Ashdod baker's belief that Jesus was the messiah did not make her baked goods unkosher.
Therefore, argued the court, the Chief Rabbinate could not demand more stringent kashrut supervision arrangements than for any other baker.
The Orthodox rabbinate reacted negatively.
"It's absurd that the Supreme Court is telling rabbis how to keep kosher," Ashdod Chief Rabbi Yosef Sheinen said in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post.
"What does the Supreme Court know about kashrut?" asked Sheinen. He said that according to his understanding of Halacha, an apostate Jew could not be trusted to adhere to the laws of kashrut.
"The Supreme Court is undermining the level of kosher supervision," added Sheinen, who said he had not read the entire ruling yet and therefore had not fully formulated his opinion.
In 2006, Sheinen revoked a kashrut supervision certificate issued to the Pnina Pie bakery in his city when he discovered that its owner, Pnina Conforty, was a messianic Jew.
Later, after Conforty petitioned the High Court of Justice, Sheinen and the Chief Rabbinate agreed to a compromise.
The rabbinate's governing body ruled that if Conforty wanted a kosher supervision certificate she had to meet certain conditions not normally demanded of secular Jewish eatery owners.
Conforty had to hire a worker approved by Sheinen. This worker had to be paid by Conforty via the local religious council or via an employment agency, and not directly by Conforty, to prevent extortion.
This worker would be allowed to bake and do other errands for Conforty in addition to his kashrut supervision role, but Sheinen would define the worker's duties and salary.
In addition, Conforty had to give a kashrut supervisor keys to the bakery.
The Chief Rabbinate also demanded that she promise not to engage in missionary activity on her premises.
Conforty refused to accept these conditions and the Chief Rabbinate refused to soften them.
The High Court on Monday rejected Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger's argument that Conforty's un-Jewish religious faith undermined her trustworthiness.
"The Kashrut Law states clearly that only legal deliberations directly related to what makes the food kosher are relevant, not wider concerns unrelated to food preparation," ruled the court.
The decision rested on a ruling handed down by the High Court two decades ago involving Ilana Raskin, an immigrant belly dancer from Philadelphia who enjoyed tremendous popularity in the late 1980s until Jerusalem's chief rabbis ruled that food served in wedding halls and restaurants in which Raskin appeared was not kosher.
That High Court rejected the claim made by the Chief Rabbinate at the time that any owner whose immoral sensitivities were callous to the depravities of belly dancing could not be trusted to serve kosher food.
Justice Eliezer Rivlin wrote that his court accepted the distinction made in the Raskin case between "core" kashrut issues and considerations that were not directly pertinent.
Dr. Aviad Hacohen, dean of Sha'arei Mishpat Legal College and an expert in religion-state issues, predicted that the High Court's intervention in the Chief Rabbinate's decision-making would spark a religious war.
"We are likely to see a rekindling of old animosities between the Supreme Court and the rabbinate," said Hacohen. He pointed out that Sheinen was aligned with the more haredi stream of Orthodoxy and that Ashdod was heavily populated by the Ger Hassidic sect.
"I also think it is highly problematic for the High Court to make a distinction between 'core' kashrut issues and ones which in its eyes are not relevant," Hacohen said.
Meanwhile, Conforty said she was ecstatic.
"I've been waiting for three years for this decision," said Conforty, who added that without kosher certification her business had been failing.
"Finally I won. This is my baby," she said.
Conforty said that when she opened her first bakery in Gan Yavne in 2002 she enjoyed impressive business success. But after her faith was publicized in an article in a Messianic Jewish magazine, she suffered from demonstrations outside her bakery and posters with her picture distributed throughout the city warning that she was a missionary.
As a result, Gan Yavne Chief Rabbi Meshumar Tzabari revoked her kashrut certificate. At the time she did not fight Tzabari.
In 2006 she opened another bakery in Ashdod. But soon word got around that she was a Jew for Jesus and former customers and haredi anti-missionary groups began picketing her bakery while Sheinen revoked his certificate.
"I should be allowed to praise God in any way that I want," said Conforty, who grew up in a traditional Yemenite family. "No one can force their religious beliefs on me."
Conforty said that she "came to faith" while working in Ohio for an evangelical Christian family.
"God arranged it that I arrived at a place where there were Christians who love Israel more than most Jews do. Their love and faith were so different from the religion I learned at home that was based on fear. I was never taught to serve God out of love until then. They taught me that Yeshua is the messiah."
Conforty said that her gradual embracing of faith in Jesus put her marriage in jeopardy.
"I was on the verge of divorce and I prayed to God. I said to him, 'If Yeshua is messiah then you have to bring my husband back to me and make peace between us. No more than 10 minutes passed before my husband came to me and accepted the faith."
Conforty said that she did not actively proselytize. "But if someone shows an interest, I talk openly."