Stirring the kosher pot

It is time to replace the kashrut law with one that is just and works.

Kosher restaurant (photo credit: REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)
Kosher restaurant
(photo credit: REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov)
As some of us may remember, once upon a time anyone of reserve-duty age had to get a permit from the army every time they wanted to leave Israel. When it was suggested that the requirement be dropped there were many concerned citizens; how would the army be able to function if it never knew who was in the country and who was not? People tend to become entrenched in the way things are, and to fear change. This is no less true when it comes to many people’s attitude regarding the Chief Rabbinate and its legally sanctioned authority over kashrut. The fear of what would happen were there to be a free market in the kashrut industry brings many to prefer the status quo, no matter how problematic.
And problematic it is. From the state comptroller’s report to private studies and word of mouth it appears that the official kashrut certificates are at times not worth the paper they are printed on. Stories abound of mashgichim (kashrut supervisors) who spend minutes a week or less in the establishment, sometimes refusing to eat there themselves.
These men are paid handsomely for their time. One owner told me he calculated that he was paying NIS 200 a minute for the service based on actual performance. It is not surprising that the owner begins to ask himself who the customer is really trusting, and what is it they are paying for. Another owner told me he felt he was paying protection money, and nothing more.
We see here the same patronizing assumptions that lead a country to require reserve soldiers to stand in line for a permit every time they want to leave the country. The assumption is that the customer is not able to take responsibility for the food she eats, and that it is the government and the rabbis who have to ensure public safety. No matter that it is at the expense of civil and economic rights, no matter that the system does not work. One might think that there are not hundreds of thousands of Orthodox consumers in other countries who responsibly buy kosher products under private supervision.
An open market would bring private agencies to recruit the supervision and endorsement of wellknown, trusted rabbinic authorities. It would require a sorely lacking level of transparency regarding the standards and level of supervision. Agencies would also compete in the crucial areas of pricing and service, providing the very best to the paying and deserving business owner.
Yes, there would be charlatans, short cuts, cheaters, but we know for a fact that those exist today as well. The only difference is that currently the consumer is clueless, relying on the rabbinate, thinking it is not his problem. Responsible consumerism is a core requirement in this day and age, and the patronizing assumption that the public is not able to care for itself is typical of the patriarchal rabbinic attitude, not to mention the bureaucratic governmental one.
This is not to say there is no place for regulation and enforcement.
That would be the natural role for a governmental agency.
But it must be separated from the monopoly on supervision. As it is the only agency whose system is exempt from inspection is the rabbinate itself. And thus the law for the prevention of fraud in kashrut sometimes seems to be the law for perpetration of fraud in kashrut.
For the past two years the Yerushalmim party and I have been running an alternative community- and trust-based model of kashrut supervision. It is absolutely sound from an Orthodox halachic standpoint, many times more reliable then the public model, and it brings people who keep kosher and people who do not together with the common goal of being able to go out and “break bread” together.
This model cannot work everywhere, nor is it intended as a large-scale solution, but by demonstrating an alternative model that works we will continue to challenge the rabbinate on its own turf, to stir the pot so to speak, until the lawmakers wake up and draft a new law, one that is just and one that works.
The author has lived in Jerusalem for nearly 20 years.
He is the dean of the Sulam Yaakov Beit Midrash, an Orthodox rabbinic training program with a focus on social awareness. The secretary general of the Yerushalmim party, he is the founder of their alternative kashrut initiative that is based on community volunteers.
The project has received significant national coverage and has led the Ministry of Religion to initiate policy reforms.