Civil Fights: Finally, the Rabbinate gets competition

First signs of a religious revolt has come from the Tzohar rabbis.

October 2, 2007 20:46
agriculture biz 88 298

agriculture biz 88 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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The Tzohar organization's recent decision to issue its own kashrut certificates during the current shmita (sabbatical) year was welcome news. Shmita is an esoteric issue, uninteresting to most people. Yet the decision's potential implications should be of interest to all Israelis. Tzohar, an organization of Orthodox Zionist rabbis, was established to improve the state rabbinate's service. For instance, Tzohar rabbis may only officiate at one wedding per night, to prevent the all-too-frequent phenomenon of rabbis arriving an hour late because they were at another wedding, or rushing through the ceremony and then vanishing to go to another wedding. Tzohar concluded, correctly, that such behavior gives religion a bad name. Until last week, however, Tzohar worked strictly from within the rabbinate. Now, it has finally broken with the rabbinate, over one specific issue: kashrut certification during the shmita year. Religious law forbids Jewish farmers in Israel to cultivate their land during shmita. Decades ago, however, then chief rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook concluded that a year without cultivation would devastate the pre-state Jewish community's fragile economy. He therefore instituted the heter mechira ("sale permit"), which allows Jewish farmers to "sell" their land to non-Jews for the year (much as Jews sell their hametz during Pessah). Then, since the land is owned by non-Jews, it can be cultivated as usual during shmita. The heter mechira was never accepted by all religious Jews, and opposition has grown as the state's economy has developed, on the grounds that what was vital for a struggling, largely agricultural economy is unnecessary in a thriving, largely nonagricultural one. Consequently, increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews refuse to eat produce grown with the heter; instead they import from overseas, where the laws of shmita do not apply. HOWEVER, many religious Jews, including leading religious Zionist rabbis, still support the heter. They argue that religious law is not meant to destroy people's livelihoods and make economic activity impossible; and that today, when agriculture is increasingly export-based, Jewish farmers could not survive a year without cultivation, even were the state to compensate them: Their markets would be lost to competitors. Moreover, most imported produce during shmita has traditionally come from Gaza, and for Israel to be financing a Hamas-run terrorist proto-state would violate the fundamental commandment of preserving life. It is, obviously, legitimate for individuals to refuse to eat heter mechira produce, or for the private haredi kashrut organizations (such as Badatz) to refuse to certify such produce. What is not legitimate, however, is that this year, for the first time, the rabbinate - which is supposed to represent the state as a whole, including the many people who accept the heter - authorized municipal rabbis to forbid the heter within their jurisdictions. Consequently, state-funded rabbis in several major cities have threatened to deny kashrut certification to any restaurant or grocery store that uses or sells heter mechira produce. THIS IS WHAT prompted Tzohar's revolt. Religious Zionists had always viewed the rabbinate as embodying, however imperfectly, a religious worldview compatible with the existence of a Jewish state. But to many, this latest ruling seemed likely to kill Jewish agriculture in Israel: If buying heter mechira produce will cost businesses their kashrut certification, they will not do it; and since there is no state compensation (the heter supposedly makes it unnecessary), the loss of income could bankrupt many farmers. Tzohar therefore decided to create its own kashrut organization to certify businesses that use heter produce. Though the certification project is ostensibly limited to the shmita year, if it succeeds, Tzohar will probably continue it. And that could finally break the rabbinate's near-monopoly on the kashrut business - thereby benefiting all Israelis twice over. First, competition would almost certainly lower prices for certification, as it does in every field. And since most grocery stores, and many restaurants, have rabbinate kashrut certification, all consumers would presumably benefit from these savings. Second, all Israelis currently pay twice for kashrut certification: once through higher prices, and again via their taxes, which support the rabbinate's enormous kashrut bureaucracy. Tzohar rabbis, however, are not part of the kashrut bureaucracy; they will be paid only by those they certify. Thus should they take over part of the rabbinate's kashrut business, the government could reduce the rabbinate's funding. FOR THIS reason, the rabbinate will presumably fight Tzohar tooth and nail. Yet Tzohar has some powerful weapons. First, since the rabbinate has tolerated private ultra-Orthodox kashrut organizations for years, it will have difficulty portraying Tzohar's move as illegitimate. Second, Tzohar represents the same community that the rabbinate does: religious Zionists and traditional Jews. The haredim have never accepted the rabbinate's authority, and secular Jews do not care. Thus not only would anybody who accepts rabbinate certification also accept Tzohar certification, but the rabbinate cannot attack Tzohar without alienating both many of its own members and its most natural power base. (Paradoxically, the rabbinate also has an ultra-Orthodox power base, since despite rejecting the rabbinate's authority, the haredim support it as a source of jobs for their own rabbis. Haredi appointees are largely responsible for the change in the rabbinate's stance on the heter.) BUT BEYOND the immediate, kashrut-related benefits, Tzohar's revolt also has potentially far-reaching consequences for vital issues such as marriage, divorce and conversion. Granted, Tzohar is unlikely to introduce competition on these issues anytime soon. First, legislation would be needed to end the rabbinate's current legal monopoly over them. And second, precisely because these issues have national implications that kashrut lacks - marital status has financial and legal ramifications, and converts are entitled to automatic citizenship - ending the state monopoly in these fields is far more complex than ending the kashrut monopoly, which has no more justification for existence than any other economic monopoly. Nevertheless, should Tzohar's gambit succeed, the implicit threat will be there: Just as religious Zionists, once the kashrut monopoly's staunchest supporters, ultimately led a successful revolt against it, they are liable to do the same in other areas unless the rabbinate shapes up. That threat could even prompt the rabbinate to reform. But if not, it is a good bet that the revolt will someday occur.

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