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(photo credit: Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
In the memorable phrasing of a 1972 Hebrew national hot dog TV ad campaign in
the US, kosher food “answers to a higher authority.” But, unfortunately, the
reality is sometimes more mundane.
Greed, profiteering and fraud are no
strangers to the kosher supervision business. While keeping kosher might be a
mitzva, setting up the apparatus to provide consumers and restaurant-goers with
food that meets Orthodox standards is generally driven by a desire to make
money. As in any business, there are straight and crooked characters.
what appears to be a sincere effort to improve the way the supervision is
performed, a group of Jerusalemites – restaurateurs, rabbis and activists – have
banded together to break the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over it. Restaurants
that serve a religious clientele – but are not certified by the Chief Rabbinate
of Israel – are independently keeping kosher.
Last Friday afternoon,
Carousela, a cafe in the capital’s Rehavia neighborhood, hosted an event
supporting restaurants that serve kosher food but refuse to receive official
kosher certification from the Chief Rabbinate.
The event was organized by
HaTenua HaYerushalmit – The Jerusalemite Movement social action
In some cases, the break with the Chief Rabbinate came as
the result of dissatisfaction with the services it provides. The rabbinate’s
kashrut supervisors, who receive hundreds – sometimes thousands – of shekels a
month – rarely came to make inspections, restaurant owners said. When they did
arrive the examination was cursory.
In other cases, restaurateurs
complained that the supervisors’ knowledge of the laws was lacking or that they
behaved inappropriately when on the premises.
In an investigative report
that appeared recently in Makor Rishon
, it was found that in several cases the
Chief Rabbinate declined to take away a restaurant’s kashrut certificate even
after non-kosher food was found on the premises.
All these allegations
seem to point to a rabbinate riddled with inefficiencies, substandard personnel
and, perhaps, corruption.
Complicating the situation is the fact that the
Chief Rabbinate has no incentive to change. That is because it has a monopoly
over kosher supervision that is enshrined in law. The 1983 Kosher Fraud Law
makes it a crime to advertise a food item or a restaurant as “kosher” unless the
Chief Rabbinate provides certification to that effect. A restaurant that is
unhappy with the services provided by the Chief Rabbinate cannot simply abandon
it and turn to another kashrut supervision operation. Its only option is to pay
more to supplement the supervision provided by the Chief Rabbinate with an
additional supervision apparatus such as Badatz or Beit Yosef. The capitalist
forces of free competition that exist, say, in the US kosher supervision market,
are nonexistent in Israel.
The best solution to this situation is to
break the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut supervision and adopt the sort
of model that exists in the US.
Instead of entrusting the Chief Rabbinate
with both providing kashrut supervision and enforcing kashrut fraud laws – which
creates inherent conflicts of interest – a state-run, secular consumer
protection agency should be responsible for enforcing kashrut fraud
It is generally accepted among consumers that “kosher” refers to
undisputed Orthodox Jewish standards regarding food preparation. Any
restaurateur or food producer who tries to sell food as kosher without meeting
consumers’ expectations would be in violation of the law and subject to fines.
Adopting such a model would open up the supervision market to competition.
Restaurant owners and food producers dissatisfied with one supervisor would have
the option of switching to another. Kashrut supervisors interested in
maintaining clientele would be forced to provide high-quality services at
Kashrut supervisors may or may not answer to a higher
authority. But the introduction of competition will provide them with the much
needed incentive to strive for excellence. We hope the resulting improvement in
kashrut supervision will give the organized Jewish religion a better name.
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