(photo credit: REUTERS)
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein ruled last week that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel cannot fine restaurants that claim the food they serve is under rabbinic supervision – as long as they do not use the word “kosher.”
Two Jerusalem restaurants had petitioned the High Court to protest fines they had received for turning to an alternative kosher-supervision body that circumvents the Chief Rabbinate.
In Israel, it is illegal to advertise a restaurant or a food product as “kosher” before receiving the imprimatur of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, according to the 1983 Law for the Prohibition of Kashrut Fraud.
Weinstein’s ruling was the first step toward abolishing the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher supervision altogether, a position we have supported for a long time.
Presently, an absurd situation is created in which the State of Israel’s secular institutions – such as the Supreme Court and the Knesset – can tell rabbis what is kosher and what is not. That’s because the Law for the Prohibition of Kashrut Fraud states that “the rabbi providing kosher supervision will take into consideration only those issues pertinent to kashrut.”
Courts have interpreted this to mean that only certain “core” issues are relevant in determining what is kosher and what is not. When rabbis step outside the bounds set for them by the law, the courts rein them in.
That’s precisely what happened in 1990, for instance, when the High Court ruled that Jerusalem’s rabbinate could not revoke a kashrut certificate from a food establishment because its owners permitted belly dancing on the premises. 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.
In 2009, the High Court ruled that the rabbinate in Ashdod could not demand a more stringent level of supervision in a bakery owned by a Jew for Jesus. Rabbi of Ashdod Yosef Sheinin said at the time that according to his understanding of halacha, an apostate Jew could not be trusted to adhere to the laws of kashrut.
The Chief Rabbinate also has tried to deny kosher supervision to hotels and restaurants that display Christmas trees.
Since it is forbidden, said the rabbinate, for supervisors to be present at a place where idol worship is taking place, they cannot properly ensure that the food is kosher. But the Chief Rabbinate was forced to back down.
Of course, the State of Israel is not only curtailing the religious freedom of rabbis to rule in accordance with their conscience. By mandating solely the Chief Rabbinate to define what is kosher, the state also is preventing alternative kosher supervision bodies from providing competing interpretations of “kosher.”
Some rabbis are willing to provide restaurants with kosher supervision free of charge or at a significantly lower fee than that charged by the Chief Rabbinate.
Other rabbis are more concerned with ensuring that food called “kosher” is processed and prepared in keeping with environmental sustainability, fair labor practices and a high regard for animal well-being. The restaurant or event hall should be accessible to the physically challenged.
The State of Israel, or for that matter any state, has no business meddling in inherently religious matters. The genius of the Jeffersonian wall of separation between Church and State in the US that gave rise to the Establishment Clause was not just that it ensured freedom from religion. It also protected the freedom of religion.
That’s why the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly should be dismantled. In its place, a variety of kosher supervision bodies should be allowed to compete freely.
The state can help consumers get information to make decisions regarding food labeled as kosher by passing laws that ensure that a product purported to be certified as kosher by a particular authority is, in fact, certified.
The packaging or the vendor has to display information explaining to the consumer the basis for the claim that the food is kosher. It would include the name and contact info of the certifying authority.
This would empower the individual consumer alone to decide. The state would not have to enforce specific definitions of kosher, thus removing it from active involvement in disputed doctrinal matters.
The State of Israel should encourage different forms of religious expression – particularly of the Jewish variety. Dismantling the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly would further this goal.