When kashrut isn’t kosher

Taken at face value, most would assume this is a positive development for those who keep kosher.

Kosher certificates (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Kosher certificates
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Earlier this month, Israel’s Supreme Court reached a decision with troubling implications for how we approach issues of religion and state and in particular how religion is governed in our democracy.
The decision, hailed as a victory by the Chief Rabbinate, established that eateries and food production facilities cannot describe themselves as kosher if they do not have specific certification as such from the Chief Rabbinate.
Taken at face value, most would assume this is a positive development for those who keep kosher. Seemingly, the consumer can now be assured that the food that he or she is eating is “officially” kosher with the stamp from the religious authorities of the state.
The problem with this assumption is that by nature, the Chief Rabbinate’s ability to ensure proper supervision over kashrut is deeply flawed. And even while it may have the best intentions of the kosher consumer in mind, the very structure of a centralized bureaucracy as being the only agent able to certify food as kosher is very problematic – and opens the doors to inefficiency, corruption and the almost certainty that non-kosher food is being approved.
To understand the challenge, as well as the logic behind this arguably flawed decision, we must take a few steps back and better appreciate the history of religion and state in Israel.
Since independence, the state has delivered almost all aspects of Jewish religious governance into the hands of the chief rabbis.
In the early years of modern Israel, this was a sensible and even necessary decision.
The country was composed of a small population, and the founders of the state had limited time and resources to dedicate to issues of halachic governance.
We were literally fighting for our existence, so our early leaders – including David Ben-Gurion – designated the Chief Rabbinate to essentially decide how Jewish law would operate within Israeli society.
For years, this system worked well. With a still-limited yet burgeoning population, the Chief Rabbinate was able to effectively manage its structure and oversee issues like kashrut, marriage, divorce, death, conversion and the rabbinical courts. The Chief Rabbinate was also led by visionaries like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who appreciated that halacha in Israel needed to respond to the interests of a population with very diverse backgrounds. It succeeded in that challenge by engaging the population with compassion, respect and an appreciation of differing viewpoints.
Yet, while Israeli society has changed so dramatically in recent decades the Chief Rabbinate has not adapted in kind.
Our demographics are too large and too diverse for any centralized system of religious governance. As importantly, the Jewish society of Israel has become increasingly polarized between secular and observant.
While much of Israeli culture has become more and more secular – yet appreciative of tradition – all too much of the religious establishment has become increasingly conservative and rigid in their approach to practice and the viewpoints of others.
There is also a clear economic cost to the current approach, in a country where costs are already high – sometimes exorbitantly so – of one agency having control over something which effects so many lives drives up costs significantly.
Just take a look at prices for a kosher hotel in Israel and you will quickly appreciate how the status quo impacts each and every one of us.
For an issue like kashrut therefore, the approach of the state in its early years – which clearly motivated the justices of the Supreme Court in reaching this decision – has become largely irrelevant.
Like all aspects of life, how we supervise religious practice needs to adapt to changes within our society. The challenge becomes how to do so while still upholding proper conformance with halacha and not mitigating the importance of tradition.
The answer therefore must be a form of privatization of the responsibilities of the Chief Rabbinate – while still using its guidelines to dictate what is and what is not acceptable.
Specifically, other well-intentioned rabbinical organizations must be given the legal right to act as kosher supervisors – as has been done in other areas of Jewish practice like marriage certification.
By introducing competition into the kashrut market, we will be able to assure customers that their interests are being protected.
Furthermore, individual agencies will be better prepared to work with smaller entities and producers to both ensure their product is fully kosher – but do so in a way that respects their individual and commercial interests.
As in the corporate world, breaking up the monopoly the rabbinate has over kashrut will ensure heightened effectiveness and significantly reduce the fears over corruption which currently exist in a system where consumers have no option for where to get their certification.
As noted above, a new structure would also lead to a sizable reduction in prices – a direct benefit for us as consumers.
This is a development that must be implemented in the very near future. It is necessary for the good of the nation and will work to ensure that the vision of a proud and ethical Jewish state is preserved in all aspects of how we live our lives.
The author is executive vice president of Tzohar (www.tzohar.org.il).