Reforms must keep our food kosher - opinion

The issue of kashrut certification has been the center of heated debate for the last several months, with all sorts of accusations and claims of bullying and blackmail. 

 A WOMAN walks past a Jerusalem eatery with a Tzohar kashrut certificate. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A WOMAN walks past a Jerusalem eatery with a Tzohar kashrut certificate.

The rabbi in one of my local synagogues recently opened his sermon with the following joke:

Moshe, a fine, upstanding and pious man, was after a long and prosperous life, summoned to return his soul to the Creator. Upon arriving at the entrance to the upper strata, Moshe was greeted by an angel who enthusiastically welcomed the new arrival. 

“Please,” said the angel, “follow me. We’ve prepared a splendid buffet lunch in your honor,” pointing to a lavish display of beef and poultry.

With some hesitation, Moshe timidly asked, “What, may I ask, is the hechsher on the food here? I mean, who in fact certifies the kashrut?”

Surprised, the angel replied, “Why, the Boss Man Himself, obviously. Surely there is no one more reliable.”

Moshe thought for a moment and, with a shrug of his shoulders, said to the angel, “You know what? Please prepare a platter of fruit for me.”

As is common in most bad jokes, the relevance far surpasses the punch line, and in this specific case, the matter at hand is as topical as it is relevant. The issue of kashrut certification has been the center of heated debate for the last several months, with all sorts of accusations and claims of bullying and blackmail. 

The controversy has finally been moved to the front burner since Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana has declared his plan to legislate reforms intended to bring to an end the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut supervision.

The minister believes that decentralizing the functionality of kashrut supervision and enabling the establishment of independent supervisory authorities under the overall regulatory authority of the Chief Rabbinate will increase the standard of service that is currently being provided.

A centralized authority, in other words, is being exchanged for competition, and the players in the food industry will, presumably, be able to select the kashrut certification of their choice. Although judgment of this plan should be reserved until the actual protocol has been prepared and released, the initial reaction has been, for the most part, positive throughout the political and religious spectrum. With the exception, not surprisingly, of the rabbinate itself.

Not that decentralization of kashrut certification is an entirely novel idea, by the way. Kashrut supervision in Israel has already, to some extent, been decentralized. Sizable segments of the population do not believe that the rabbinate’s standards are sufficiently stringent, and rely, instead, on haredi (ultra-Orthodox) certifications such as Badatz and Chatam Sofer.

Major food manufacturers, in an attempt to avoid losing the haredi or “yeshivisha” market find themselves double certified – first by the local rabbinate and then by one of the more demanding agencies. And, of course, they pay for both. The current monopoly on kashrut certification, therefore is not quite all encompassing; Ma Bell, in other words, is not being subdivided into seven Baby Bells.

Still to be answered, though, is precisely what sort of regulatory oversight is planned? If, in fact, the standards of kashrut are to be defined by the Chief Rabbinate and adhered to by the newly formed independent authorities, the basis of competition will wind up being the cost for the service, and this presents a truly frightening scenario of negotiation and bartering.

It is not at all unlikely that thresholds and requirements will be relaxed in return for contracted services, with the kosher-observant public blind to what is taking place.

I’m not, to be sure, unfamiliar with the idea of competing kashrut certifying services. In the United States, there were several agencies that the Orthodox public had no difficulty relying on, and I was fully aware that business agreements and financial conditions were the determining factors why an industrial pastry manufacturer, for example, would select one over the other.

In addition, there were a number of certifications that were, for the most, anonymous, and the products bearing those – usually displaying nothing more than a simple K – were more often than not left on the shelves by consumers concerned with kashrut.

In the absence of any information to the contrary, the basic assumption was that products carrying the certification of a rabbi or agency whose provenance was unclear had to meet a far less rigid set of hurdles than required by the better-known ones.

Was this an unfair and unjustified assumption? Perhaps, but the prevailing rule of thumb was, and continues to be, “when in doubt, do without.” 

In the States, then, the paradigm of kashrut certification is transparent and understandable. Given the Israeli penchant for cutting corners and readiness to fly under the radar, it is perfectly natural to have concerns of what awaits us if the minister’s objectives are fulfilled.

It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that this initiative was introduced not long after the tragic, senseless death of a young milk-allergic woman, who was accidentally given a dairy-based dessert in a restaurant that served meat.

The establishment operated under the kashrut of the local rabbinate, but obviously there were ample opportunities for blunders. Current kashrut supervisors often focus on the banal – the shape of burekas, the size of the letters in the signs distinguishing pareve products from dairy ones – rather than serious gaps in the ingredients being used, the way vegetables are washed, and environmental and storage conditions.

If the idea of decertification is to make it easier and less cumbersome for a food establishment to be certified as kosher, is this truly something the religious community in Israel needs?

The last thing I want to wonder is if the falafel I’m having for lunch is kosher despite the piece of paper tacked to the wall.

Minister Matan, therefore, needs to ensure that whatever reforms he pushes through does not result in a lack of transparency with regard to the standards of kashrut that have to be met. Fruit platters, in other words, should not have to be ordered in burger joints.

The writer is a retired Technical communicator currently assisting nonprofit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions and struggling to master the ins and outs of social media.