A Kashrut certificate hangs at the entrance to a bakery in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In yet another step toward the much-needed dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious services, the High Court of Justice ruled last month that restaurants without authorization from the rabbinate can continue to provide kosher food – as long as they don’t call it “kosher.”
While legislation gives the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over calling food “kosher,” rabbis seeking to challenge this monopoly can simply provide a detailed explanation of the kashrut standards to which they adhere.
Admittedly, the idea that the Chief Rabbinate – or anyone else for that matter – has a monopoly over the use of the word “kosher” is a bit weird. But that is the reality of the Jewish state in the 21st century.
Thankfully, this reality is changing. We hope that soon the Chief Rabbinate will cease to exist – at least in its current form.
Historically, proponents of a wall of separation between religion and state have often been deeply religious thinkers, particularly in America. As much as men like Thomas Jefferson wanted to protect citizens from state-backed religious coercion, they also sought to defend religion from state control and from narrow political agendas.
In Israel, too, a growing number of devout persons are fighting for various levels of separation, not out of a desire to be free from religion, rather out of an understanding that only by allowing religious expression to develop unhindered will it be possible to protect the true beauty of faith and religious conviction from cynical politics, nepotism and corruption.
One of the religious leaders at the forefront of the push for the development of dynamic and diverse forms of religious Jewish expressions is Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of the Tzohar rabbinical association and chief rabbi of Shoham.
Though Stav is opposed to the complete dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate, he is aware of its many deficiencies.
Like other state-run bodies, the Chief Rabbinate is plagued by red tape and by career bureaucrats who receive a monthly salary from the taxpayers regardless of how well or badly they perform. Often they have gotten to where they are not because of their commitment to Jewish ideals or their ability, but thanks to whom they know.
If the services being provided are mundane – the issuing of a driver’s license, the transfer of a welfare check – contact with the state-run department or agency is bearable, if aggravating.
But if the “service” being provided touches on the foundations of religious faith or identity (for instance when one’s conversion or Jewishness is being scrutinized by a marriage registrar), the result can be devastating.
The same is true with regard to kashrut supervision.
Since its inception, the Chief Rabbinate has suffered from inherent conflicts of interests, corruption and nepotism.
Last May, a State Comptroller’s Report noted cases in which supervisors “work” 27 hours a day, incidences of nepotistic allocation of work hours by local rabbinates, and the hiring of close family members by senior local rabbinate officials, as just some of the many deficiencies in the state’s kashrut system.
The report said that some rabbinates’ kashrut standards were so bad that customers might be misled into thinking some restaurants and businesses are kosher when they aren’t.
Breaking the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly would enable market forces to go to work. Kashrut supervision operations that provide good, reliable and inexpensive services would earn the respect of religious restaurant goers and owners who truly care about keeping kosher.
Those services that don’t would be punished by the market.
Supervisors who really care about maintaining the highest standards for their clients would be attracted to the work. Those who are in it to make a buck or because they have the right connections would be weeded out.
And what is true about kashrut is equally pertinent to marriage, conversion, the appointment of local rabbis and other aspects of religious services. Men like Stav understand that the problem is not with Judaism; it is with a system that has distorted something otherwise beautiful and meaningful.