The economics of Judaism

In Israel market forces have been the most powerful catalyst of change in the relations between religion and state.

A Kashrut certificate hangs at the entrance to a bakery in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A Kashrut certificate hangs at the entrance to a bakery in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Monopolies are bad; free and fair competition is good; mixing politics and religion poisons both; these are no-brainers that most people can agree on.
Here in Israel, unfortunately, the situation is a bit more complicated. In the Jewish state there is a Chief Rabbinate that has a monopoly over religious services for Jews. A restaurant cannot call itself kosher without the approval of Chief Rabbinate functionaries. The only marriages for Jews recognized by the state are those conducted by the Chief Rabbinate. Divorces must be conducted in the Chief Rabbinate’s rabbinic courts. And budgets for the building of synagogues and mikvaot, and for the upkeep of religious sites such as the Western Wall are controlled by rabbis with strong ties to the Chief Rabbinate.
But this week the Tzohar rabbinical association announced it would be opening its own kashrut licensing authority that would compete with the Chief Rabbinate.
This is not the first time that Tzohar has clashed with the Chief Rabbinate. The Orthodox organization became popular for conducting wedding ceremonies that were loyal to tradition but were also sensitive to the personal needs of the bride and groom – and it often does it free of charge.
Tzohar has challenged the Chief Rabbinate on issues such as conversion to Judaism, arguing that Israeli citizens who served in the IDF and who have tied their fate to the Jewish people in Israel should be given a more “user friendly” approach to becoming Jewish. Tzohar has also sued the Chief Rabbinate in secular court for its stringent kosher supervision during the shmita or Sabbatical year. The organization has urged the Chief Rabbinate, to no avail, to use prenuptial agreements to help protect women’s rights during divorce proceedings.
Kashrut supervision is the most lucrative area of operation for the Chief Rabbinate, its “holy of holies” from a financial point of view. And the Chief Rabbinate has jealously protected its monopoly. But thanks to a landmark High Court decision last year, a loophole now allows private kashrut supervision bodies to provide services.
The law states that to call food “kosher,” it must have the authorization of the Chief Rabbinate. But, ruled the court, nothing in the law prevents a restaurant or a food producer from advertising that its food was prepared in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law, without stating that it is kosher.
The ruling was made in response to a petition by Hashgacha Pratit, a private kashrut supervisor that began challenging the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly five years ago in response to deficiencies with its service and complaints about bad practice and corruption. Because there had been no alternatives to the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut supervision, the Chief Rabbinate had no real incentive to improve.
Now Tzohar is planning to take advantage of Hashgacha Pratit’s successful battle, and will incorporate the small kashrut supervisor’s operations within its own. This is an important development along the way to the gradual dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate as a monopoly.
Tzohar is a rabbinical organization that is respected by the public for doing what the Chief Rabbinate should be doing – providing services with sensitivity out of a desire to show the beautiful and profound sides of Jewish tradition.
The Chief Rabbinate’s monopolistic powers have made it resistant to improvement; the politicized process of choosing chief rabbis on both the local and national level renders the spiritual attributes of rabbinic candidates almost irrelevant; rabbis close to the Chief Rabbinate will never willingly give up their many powers.
In Israel market forces have been the most powerful catalyst of change in the relations between religion and state. The huge influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union created a demand for non-kosher food that was quickly satisfied by savvy food importers. Affordable travel packages to Cyprus and other destinations made it possible for Israelis to bypass the Chief Rabbinate and tie the knot in civil ceremonies abroad. A demand for commerce on Shabbat has led to the growth of retail on the Jewish day of rest.
If Tzohar can provide good kashrut supervision at affordable prices, there will demand for it, and the Chief Rabbinate will gradually lose its relevance. And if Tzohar succeeds with kashrut supervision it will only be a matter of time before there will be pressure to open up other religious services to competition as well.