(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a move that threatens to split the Chief Rabbinate, a group of religious Zionist rabbis rebelled against the state's supreme rabbinic authority and announced Tuesday that they would set up an alternative kosher supervision apparatus during the shmita (sabbatical) year.
"If local rabbis refuse to recognize fruits and vegetables grown by Jewish farmers during the shmita year as kosher, then we will," said Rabbi Rafi Freuerstein, chairman of the Tzohar organization.
"We believe it is important to strengthen Jewish farmers and Jewish agriculture and provide reasonably-priced produce to the Jewish nation," he said.
"The Chief Rabbinate is not fulfilling its function as a rabbinic authority for the entire Jewish nation," said Rabbi David Stav, a member of Tzohar, during a press conference Tuesday. "Rather, it has been taken over by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Lithuanian haredi interests. We are trying to save the Chief Rabbinate from itself."
Members of the Chief Rabbinate's governing council attacked Tzohar for undermining state-recognized rabbinic authority and risking a break between religion and state.
"If the rabbinate is dismantled as a result of internal fighting, we risk losing national recognition for rabbinic authority," said Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono and a member of the Chief Rabbinate's governing council.
Rabbi Moshe Rauchverger, another council member, said that Tzohar threatened to break the rabbinate's monopoly over religious services and open it up to Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism.
"If Tzohar starts providing kosher supervision, what is to stop Reform and Conservative from doing the same?" said Rauchverger.
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, who is the supreme authority on issues of kosher supervision, declined to comment.
Metzger is under pressure from Lithuanian haredi rabbis to minimize the use of Jewish-grown produce during the shmita year.
Tzohar said it would provide kosher supervision in cities where the local rabbi was haredi and refused to provide kosher certificates to restaurants, supermarkets and other food-serving venues selling fruits and vegetables grown by Jewish farmers.
During the shmita year, the entire land of Israel takes on a special sanctity and is supposed to remain fallow. Halacha prohibits Jewish farmers from performing field chores such as plowing, sowing and planting.
Many Sephardi and religious Zionist rabbis recognize a halachic loophole called heter mechira [literally, condoned sale] that permits Jewish farmers to "sell" their fields to non-Jews.
Once sold, the restrictions on working the land no longer apply, as long as the work is performed by a non-Jew.
However, in several cities - including Ashdod, Bat Yam, Petah Tikva, Rehovot, Hadera, Afula, Kfar Saba, Jerusalem and Herzliya - the local rabbis refuse to recognize heter mechira. Instead, they demand that their produce be Arab-grown or imported.
As a result, Jewish farmers would be blocked from selling their produce to kosher food concerns.
Only venues that are not under kosher supervision would be able to sell the produce. In contrast, restaurants and other food venues that choose to retain kosher supervision would be forced to buy their produce from haredi supervision operations at a significantly higher price.
Many retail food chains prefer forfeiting kosher supervision rather than paying more for fruits and vegetables.
Nechemia Rappel, head of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, said during Tuesday's press conference that dozens of farmers would face financial collapse if the local rabbis of these cities were allowed to boycott Jewish-grown produce.
"We are talking about a serious, perhaps fatal blow to Jewish agriculture," said Rappel.
The Association of Farmers estimated that the damage to sales could be as high as NIS 1 billion.
Several leading religious Zionist rabbis are behind the move to provide an alternative kosher supervision service - including Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel, Kiryat Arba-Hebron Chief Rabbi Dov Lior, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner and Rabbi Zalman Melamed.
However, Tzohar might run into legal difficulties. According to the law, the Chief Rabbinate is the only body authorized to provide kosher supervision in Israel. Private kosher supervision firms can provide their services only after the rabbinate has already provided supervision.
In an attempt to get around this legal obstacle, Tzohar intends to refrain from calling its service kosher supervision. The group said that several business have already requested a Tzohar kosher certificate, including a large wholesaler.
Farmers and wholesale marketers have petitioned the Supreme Court to force the Chief Rabbinate to certify businesses that sell Jewish produce.
Last week, the Supreme Court asked the Chief Rabbinate to reconsider its position, but the rabbinate stood by its original decision.
Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz has already said that the Chief Rabbinate's stance is untenable from a legal point of view.
Mazuz pointed out that the rabbinate has recognized heter mechira as a legitimate solution to shmita restrictions and has even appointed Rabbi Ze'ev Weitman to implement heter mechira under the rabbinate's auspices. Therefore, the rabbinate cannot withhold kosher certificates from venues that sell Jewish-grown produce.
The Supreme Court is expected to give a decision in the next few weeks.