This Normal Life: Judaism’s honesty problem

When clients can’t take their business elsewhere, there’s no impetus to improve.

KASHRUT CERTIFICATION at a Jerusalem eatery – will the rabbinate’s monopoly be broken? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
KASHRUT CERTIFICATION at a Jerusalem eatery – will the rabbinate’s monopoly be broken?
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Judaism has a fundamental problem with honesty, and it’s driving the Jewish world apart.
That was the take-away from a challenging talk by Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, the conclusion of a six-part series on “Jewish Life, Halacha and our Changing Reality” held at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
Leibowitz is an Orthodox activist and provocateur. He started the private kosher certification organization Hashgacha Pratit to break the Israeli rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut in 2013, and is now heading up a new initiative called Chuppot that marries couples according to Jewish law but outside the auspices of the rabbinate.
It’s not surprising, then, that to illustrate the extent of Judaism’s honesty obstacle, Leibowitz brought two examples from his own confrontations with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox-controlled rabbinic establishment.
Story 1: A restaurant under kosher supervision has a special soup on its menu. Just before the evening rush, a very large fly makes an ill-advised dive into the big soup pot in the kitchen, where it is incapacitated, sinking deep into the creamy broth.
Once he is made aware of his bug bogey, the restaurant owner faces a dilemma. If he throws the soup out, as it may now no longer kosher, he risks losing hundreds of shekels of business, Leibowitz explained. But if he serves the soup, he could be causing kosher patrons to unwittingly sin.
The restaurant has a kashrut supervisor, but he mainly stops by once a month to pick up his check, providing no real inspection or guidance. This situation annoys the owner, who doesn’t understand why he has to pay so much for a service he isn’t really receiving.
The relationship became even more antagonistic in the previous few months when the supervisor demanded a pay hike without any corresponding increase in visits. Kashrut supervisors in Israel are paid directly by the restaurants, not by the rabbinate, creating a clear conflict of interest.
The owner doesn’t have any incentive to reach out to his never-there inspector about the soup, and the supervisor doesn’t really want to know about it, as this would entail more work on his part or – heaven forbid – the restaurant might be shut down, jeopardizing his easy-money job.
Story 2: When someone decides to get married in Israel, the rabbinate requires proof of his or her Jewishness. Conversion is sometimes required.
Leibowitz shared the saga of a bride who needed to convert but was assured by the rabbinate that, in her case, it was just a formality and she didn’t have to take the lengthy conversion course required of other brides and grooms.
The day of the wedding was fast approaching, but the rabbinate still hadn’t set a time for the bride to immerse in the mikveh. Finally, just two days before the huppah, this final step in the conversion process was scheduled.
At the mikveh, one of the conversion rabbis asked the bride if she intends to keep all of Jewish Law. She answered truthfully: “No.”
The rabbi looked puzzled and asked again. “Will you keep the Halacha?” The bride responded “No” a second time.
“Well, we cannot convert you until you take the full conversion course,” the rabbi told her. “You can apply again in a year.”
What did the rabbi want to hear? That, yes, the bride would keep all 613 commandments, even if she knew – and everyone else knew, too – that she wouldn’t.
“They wanted her to lie!” Leibowitz cried, pounding his fist on the lectern.
HOW DID we get to a situation where dishonesty is baked into the relationship between “client” and “service provider?” Why don’t the bride and the restaurant owner have a rabbinic ally to whom they can turn to solve problems, rather than cover them up with a wink and a nod?
It stems from economics, Leibowitz explained. For most of its existence, the rabbinate has had no competition. And when clients can’t take their business elsewhere, there’s no impetus to improve.
Leibowitz is passionate about breaking what he described as a government-sponsored religious services monopoly. He did it first with Hashgacha Pratit, which created the first real alternative for standalone kashrut certification.
The program, which started with just a couple of restaurants in Jerusalem, was so successful that it was taken over earlier this year by the Orthodox but liberal Tzohar organization, which now supervises 110 restaurants, pubs, hotels and catering businesses and, significantly, flips the business model so that it’s Tzohar, not the restaurants, paying for supervision.
Leibowitz’s newest initiative, Chuppot, is technically illegal: a law passed in 2013 imposes potential jail time on both the couple and the officiating rabbi if a marriage ceremony is conducted outside of the rabbinate – although Leibowitz says the law’s language is so vague, he’s doubtful it could ever be enforced.
In the meantime, Chuppot, which is headed by Rabbi Chuck Davidson, has already conducted 89 weddings since it was established in July 2018, and is on track, Leibowitz said, to perform 200 ceremonies in its first year.
Since the rabbinate lost its monopoly on kashrut, and with the pressure Chuppot is putting on it with weddings, “they’ve become 100 times more user-friendly to the public,” Leibowitz said.
Will that mean fewer tearful brides driven to despair two days before their weddings? No more flies surreptitiously skimming our kosher soups?
“I think we’re going to win,” Leibowitz said at the conclusion of his talk.
In the competitive marketplace of ideas, creating a climate for honesty to flourish really is the best policy.  

The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.