Keeping Kosher: By Faith, Not By Force

| Written By:

To what extent should the Rabbinate interfere in a citizen's plate? Dr. Shuki Friedman, Director of IDI's Center for Religion, Nation and State, argues that kosher supervision should be based on trust not coercion, and warns that the attempt to preserve the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly on the kosher laws is a symptom of a much larger problem.

Published in: Yedioth Ahronoth

How closely should the Chief Rabbinate be scrutinizing the plates of Israel’s citizens? That is the question the Ministerial Committee for Legislation will have to answer when it considers the proposed amendment to the Kashrut Fraud Prevention Law, which would cover everything from soup to nuts.

According to rough estimates, the kosher supervision industry in Israel turns over tens of millions of shekels per year, and some people believe that the figure is much higher. Beyond the Chief Rabbinate, some 33 organizations in Israel currently issue certificates of kashrut of one type or another. Most of these organizations are affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox community and are run on a for-profit basis, generating considerable gain for their directors and paying generous salaries to hundreds of employees.

Due to the multiplicity of groups that issue kosher certification and the weakness of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, the kosher supervision industry is one of the most compromised, if not most corrupt institutions, in the State of Israel. It suffers from a variety of structural flaws: businesses that are being supervised must pay the salaries of the supervisors, the supervisors sometimes treat the businesses they supervise in a disgraceful manner, and financial interests are thrown in for good measure. This results in a situation in which cases of fraud and corruption are discovered time and again in the Chief Rabbinate and other kosher supervision organizations.

Kashrut certification in Israel serves an official state function. The Chief Rabbinate was given the authority to issue the label “kosher” long ago, ostensibly because it is the state body that regulates religious issues in Israel. In reality, however, the current state of affairs has led to an unnecessary clash between religion and state, since prior to the establishment of the state and the Chief Rabbinate, whether or not food was kosher was simply a matter of trust between individual members of the community or members of the community and businesses.

The prevalent feeling toward the kosher supervision industry and the organizations that provide certification in Israel, even among religious Jews, is one of revulsion. The determination of whether food is kosher should stem from trust. The need to pay a “kosher tax” on products, coupled with the feeling that the certification—which is paid for with good money—is not reliable, has led to a search for alternative solutions.

Many businesses in Jerusalem and other places have decided to stop using kashrut supervisors, while continuing to keep the kosher laws scrupulously. At the same time, the Hashgacha Pratit ("Private Supervision") organization has been established in order to provide a system-wide solution. The idea behind this private kosher certification organization is simple: it provides owners of restaurants and food-service businesses with instruction regarding the proper observance of the laws of kashrut, and customers patronize those businesses out of trust in their owners.

The Chief Rabbinate, deeply upset by these initiatives, has fought against them with all the means at its disposal, exercising its enforcement powers and imposing fines. While the Rabbinate never objected to private ultra-Orthodox kosher certification, it found these new initiatives, which are not motivated by profit at all, to be problematic. When two restaurant owners, undaunted, petitioned the High Court of Justice, arguing that establishments with alternative supervision or that attest to their own observance should not be fined or indicted for deceiving the public, Israel's Attorney General stated that according to his interpretation of the Kashrut Fraud Prevention Law, business owners in such situations are acting within their rights.

But the joy of the business owners—and of everyone who cares about kashrut—was premature. The amendment to the Kashrut Fraud Prevention Law, which is to come up for a vote in the next several weeks, bars businesses from even hinting that they are kosher unless they have certification from the Chief Rabbinate, even if they observe the laws of kashrut meticulously. Businesses that receive certification from Hashgacha Pratit or attest to their own observance of the kosher laws will not be able to call themselves kosher on pain of fine.

The kashrut issue is a symptom of a larger problem. The essential problem is the way that the Chief Rabbinate sees its role. Instead of working to improve the kashrut system and earning the public’s trust, the Rabbinate is choosing to crack down on enforcement and to coerce the public, which has no other recourse, to use its services. As it has done with kashrut, so it behaves in other areas as well.

If I may venture a prediction, these tactics will not help the Chief Rabbinate. The train has left the station long ago; it is far too late. Consumers who keep kosher, including members of the religious community who observe the strictest standards, will vote with their feet, no matter what the law may say. A way to circumvent the amended law will be found, and the Chief Rabbinate will find itself irrelevant once again.

Dr. Shuki Friedman is the Director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and is a Professor of Law at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot.

This article was originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth. An English version was published as "Kashrut Should be Based on Trust, not Money," on the Ynet English website on July 5, 2015.