Got kosher milk?

Israel Rabbinate's decision not to approve OU-certified Haagen Dazs kosher comes from halachic ban on milk not produced in presence of a Jew.

Haagen daz 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Haagen daz 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Recently, a disturbing bit of news fudge-rippled across Anglo-Israeli Facebook pages: the Chief Rabbinate had instructed all grocery chains under its supervision to stop selling Haagen Dazs premium ice cream, claiming it is not kosher – despite the fact that the ice cream is certified kosher by the Orthodox Union of the United States (the OU).
The particular policy implemented by the rabbinate in this case is not so new; it was articulated by former chief rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron in a 2003 article in a journal of contemporary Jewish law. Nevertheless, the outrage expressed at the pulling of Haagen Dazs from supermarket freezers is largely justified.
The bone of contention is a halachic restriction on halav nokhri – milk that was not produced in the presence of a Jew.
The ancient rabbis were concerned about a mixture of milk from non-kosher mammals.
Contemporary practice includes a variety of viewpoints: the most stringent position upholds a blanket prohibition on any milk produced without a Jew present, but leniencies articulated by major halachic authorities permit the consumption of such milk if there is no reason to suspect the adulteration of the milk, if there is credible government supervision of the dairy industry (the basis for the OU’s policy), or if the products in question contain a milk derivative (such as powdered milk or butter) and not liquid milk.
Every kosher-certification organization in the world has subtly and not-so-subtly different standards, stringencies (humrot), and leniencies (kulot). No law mandates that every kosher certifier must accept the certification of every other, and it is not uncommon for a single product to have multiple certifications.
For better or for worse, it has been this way forever.
That being the case, why the outrage about the Israeli Rabbinate’s non-acceptance of OU-certified products that contain liquid milk? There are several reasons: In the first place, the rabbinate’s ruling is predicated on a common misconception about the OU’s policy, based on a leniency articulated by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (and espoused by other major authorities in America and Europe). Bakshi-Doron’s position paper argues that Feinstein intended for his leniency to apply only in extenuating circumstances, and thus does not apply in the Jewish state, where Jewish-produced milk abounds.
This is a distortion of Feinstein’s true position: this leniency applies to any government supervised milk, irrespective of the availability of milk produced in the presence of a Jew.
To be sure, Feinstein sees value in accepting the humra of Jewish-supervised milk, but he clearly views it as being beyond the letter of the law. In the quarter-century since his passing, the trend toward greater humra has managed to revise his legacy, and there are even stories circulating about how Feinstein once induced vomiting after accidentally ingesting government-supervised milk. Such ludicrous hagiographies illustrate the degree to which it has become anathema to accept any leniency, no matter how sensible and no matter how respected an authority promulgated it.
By not certifying this kind of dairy product, the Chief Rabbinate is, in essence, saying that the vast majority of Western olim do not really keep kosher.
After all, every major American kosher certifying organization, and the vast majority of American and Western European Jews who keep kosher, relies on Feinstein’s ruling.
This is even more disconcerting given the Chief Rabbinate’s kosher-certification mandate.
Israel has developed a two-tiered certification system – regular and super-kosher “mehadrin” – precisely because the rabbinate often relies on leniencies in order to enable kashrut-observance among a broader segment of the population.
The rabbinate has even developed an entire system of caveats to indicate when it relies on controversial leniencies. Thus, the fine print on a food label can tell the consumer when a given product is not eaten by a particular community (kitniyot on Passover, for example) or by those who do not rely on a particular kula.
In recent years, however, the rabbinate has gone against its mandate and reversed longstanding lenient policies. Perhaps the best-known example is the refusal of certain municipal rabbinates to accept the hetter mechira, a fictitious sale that allows Jewish farmers to continue to work during the shemita (Sabbatical) year, and which has been a mainstay of the rabbinate’s policy since its inception.
In the case of Haagen Dazs, the rabbinate has changed a policy of benign neglect that allowed individual consumers to make their own choices about kashrut standards.
Of course, one can live without Haagen Dazs ice cream. Nevertheless, it is deeply insulting to have the country’s official kosher-certification body cast aspersions on longstanding and halachically accepted practices.
The stakes might be lower, but the attitude evinced is of a piece with other attempts on the part of Israel’s rabbinic establishment to distrust or neglect Diaspora community customs in order to amalgamate a “unified”– that is, a more stringent–Israeli practice.
It is of no difference whether the targets of this condescension are from North America or North Africa, England or Ethiopia. I would hope it is not too much to ask that, in the future, such products be made available with the caveat: “kosher in accordance with the accepted practice of Diaspora communities.”
The writer is an author and translator from Modi’in. His recent retrospective about Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, entitled “Halacha for Americans,” appeared on Jewish Ideas Daily.