A plan to reform kosher certification has been met with controversy and the usual storm of anger and debate that divides the secular and religious in Israel. The kosher certification reform of Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana (Yamina) passed its final readings at the Knesset Committee for Special National Infrastructure Initiatives and Jewish Religious Services on Wednesday morning.
This is an important attempt to change the system. For too long, Israel has been stuck under a monopoly run by the Chief Rabbinate when it came to kashrut certification. This monopoly has no parallel in the history of the Jewish people. One of the unique aspects of Judaism historically is that it is not a top-down hierarchy but a religion of debate enshrined in the historic religious texts such as the Talmud and Mishna. Jewish communities lived all over the world and maintained their traditions, from kosher food to conversion processes. This autonomy and unique aspect of the Jewish people has unfortunately been overturned in the world’s only Jewish state where coercion is preferred over religious freedom.
This is because there is a complex layered process within Israel by which some aspects of the state are outsourced to religious authorities. These authorities have sometimes become reactionary and even abusive in their methods and the way they speak about the Jewish people in this country. What that means is that when the religious parties felt they would lose power as former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu left office after a decade-plus, they made inflammatory statements that often bordered on incitement. This toxic combination when it comes to religion and state has meant that any attempt at change or reform is met with vicious debates and extremist rhetoric, often from the rabbinical authorities who want control.
Currently the system enables local rabbinates under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate to issue kosher certificates. The reform would empower independent authorities to provide supervision and certification to businesses.
“We are breaking the monopoly of the rabbinate,” committee chairwoman MK Yulia Malinovsky said. “What pains them is that they are losing the power to decide for all of us.” Her role has been met with incitement by extremists in Israel whose comments seem more appropriate to the Taliban than a functioning democracy. Incitement, according to Israel radio interviews, has included comments telling her to go back to Ukraine and calling her non-Jewish.
We have grown accustomed to this and tolerated it for too long. Soldiers who go to recruiting stations in our country are called “goy” and “shiksa” by religious extremists. People of color are spat on in religious neighborhoods. There is no end to the red lines that are crossed by the extremists. These same extremists claim they need control over kashrut, but many of them protest in a manner that shows a vile hatred for our country and often for the Jewish people. Malinovsky is correct; this hatred stems from privileged people who fear losing power.
Indeed they have the power over our marriages, they have had power over conversions, over kashrut and over too many things. With great power comes great responsibility. But they have not exercised responsibility and they have often abused their power with a sense of entitlement. They have compared reform Jews to pigs. To protest the kosher reform they grilled shrimp and crab in a bizarre protest.
The kosher supervision process in Israel has long been rife with corruption. In one case – more befitting the mafia – a rabbi accepted cash and gifts in exchange for certifying things as kosher. A comptroller report from 2017 noted that the method by which supervisors receive money from the businesses they supervise leads to conflicts of interests.
Breaking up the monopoly and allowing competition will give the public the ability to choose who they want to work with and will improve the system. It can end the corruption and lethargy inherent in monopolies like the one that has been led until now by the Chief Rabbinate. Most important: It will show those who incite that they cannot hold this country hostage any longer.