Religious Affairs: A big production and power struggle over produce

For religious Zionist rabbis the haredi takeover is a betrayal of the chief rabbinate's mission.

Sabra fruit (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sabra fruit
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Kashrut, the usually mundane discipline in Jewish law that distinguishes between what a Jew can and cannot put behind his or her teeth, has in recent weeks mobilized a surprisingly diverse cast of characters - thanks to the controversies surrounding the shmita [Sabbatical] year. The Supreme Court has weighed in on this inherently religious issue, bullying the Chief Rabbinate into retracting a halachic decision. The IDF might provide military protection to anti-Zionist Edah Haredit kosher supervisors as they enter and exit strongholds of Palestinian terrorism - such as Nablus and Hebron - to make sure tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are really being grown in Arab-owned land, which, they believe, is not governed by the strictures of the shmita year like Jewish land is. There were even rumors that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - recognizing an opportunity to use economic forces as a catalyst for peace - had entered the shmita fray. A senior source in the Edah Haredit cryptically observed two weeks ago during Rice's visit here that "the puzzle was coming together." He meant that Rice was pressuring Israel to facilitate export of fruits and vegetables from the Gaza Strip to the haredi market as a way of alleviating the economic plight of the Gazans. But the lead players this shmita year have been the two competing camps within Orthodox Judaism: modern Orthodox religious Zionists and the haredi rabbinic establishment. This week, the latest salvo was fired in an ongoing war between these two camps. Chief Rabbinate legal advisor Shimon Ulman, echoing the views of some of the more haredi members of the rabbinate's governing body, warned that punitive measures would be taken against a group of religious-Zionist rabbis, known as Tzohar rabbis, who, in a blatant act of rebellion, began operating an alternative kashrut supervision apparatus for the shmita year. Ulman said that Tzohar rabbis were breaking the law by offering kosher supervision without the chief rabbinate's permission. These Tzohar rabbis, many of whom are themselves members of the chief rabbinate, are protesting a decidedly haredi trend sweeping the rabbinate. Since 1993, when Rabbi Avraham Shapira and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, two of the most respected religious Zionist halachic authorities of this generation, stepped down as the chief Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis respectively, the religious Zionist hold on the rabbinate has wavered. A dearth of religious Zionist halachic authorities of similar stature to Shapira and Eliyahu created a vacuum after these two men stepped down. Haredim, replete with spiritual heavy weights, identified an opportunity to gain control of an institution that provides jobs to hundreds of rabbis and has a monopoly over kashrut and other religious services. Unwilling to give legitimacy to the decidedly Zionist Chief Rabbinate by appointing one of its own, but interested in gaining control of its institutions, haredi leadership supported the appointment of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau in 1993 and Rabbi Yona Metzger in 2003, two rabbinic figures known more for their eloquence than their legalistic abilities. FOR RELIGIOUS-Zionist rabbis such as Haim Druckman, Dov Lior, Ya'acov Ariel and Tzfania Drori, supporters of the alternative kashrut body, the haredi takeover of the rabbinate is a betrayal of the Chief Rabbinate's goals and mission which were first articulated by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the father of religious Zionism and founder of the Chief Rabbinate. Kook, who died before the establishment of the State of Israel, envisioned a Chief Rabbinate that could rise to the challenges facing a Third Jewish Commonwealth in the modern era. Kook believed that the Chief Rabbinate would permeate the burgeoning Jewish state with the holiness of the Torah by applying Jewish law to every aspect of social and political life. Built in to this approach was the belief that a halachic solution should be found for the entire Jewish nation, both secular and religious. However, haredi rabbinic leaders, most of whom are at best ambivalent about the entire Zionist endeavor, saw the Chief Rabbinate primarily as a tool for strengthening control over religious affairs and tailoring them to a narrow, strict and purist interpretation of halacha. Needless to say, these rabbis, when ruling on issues of shmita, did not factor into their legal equations the Zionist ethos of supporting Jewish agriculture, which is seen as an extra-halachic consideration. As a result, this shmita year, the haredi-influenced Chief Rabbinate permitted local chief rabbis of predominantly secular towns such as Herzliya and Petah Tikva to adopt haredi kashrut criteria that disqualify produce grown by Jewish farmers. These local rabbis, backed by the Chief Rabbinate, rejected the legitimacy of "heter mechira" or "permitted sale," a halachic solution which circumvents the restrictions against plowing, sowing and harvesting the Land of Israel every seventh year by temporarily selling Jewish-owned land to a non-Jew for the duration of the shmita year. As a result, restaurants, caterers and hotels in these towns were faced with choosing between paying two to three times as much for produce under haredi supervision which is grown by Arab farmers or imported from outside the borders of Israel, or forfeiting kosher supervision altogether. Jewish farmers feared that a drop in demand for their produce would seriously hurt their revenues. Last week, the Supreme Court, in a rare intervention in a thoroughly religious issue, overruled the Chief Rabbinate and ordered it to provide kosher supervision in towns where the local rabbi refused to do so. Central to the court's decision was the fact that the Chief Rabbinate itself recognizes heter mechira as a legitimate halachic option. Holon Chief Rabbi Avraham Yosef (son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef) and Tnuva Rabbi Ze'ev Weitman are both on the Chief Rabbinate's payroll as heads of a commission tasked with implementing heter mechira (selling the land, overseeing distribution etc). But until the Chief Rabbinate acquiesces to fulfilling the Supreme Court's ruling, Tzohar rabbis say they intend to carry on with their plans to provide heter mechira produce throughout the nation. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Israelis do not understand what the big fuss is about. They just want to be able to get a fresh salad at a decent price.