By: HaRav Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
Published in the U.S.A.
During July 2021, the Israeli Religious Affairs Minister announced proposed reforms to the Israeli system of kashrut (kosher) certification, the stated purpose of which is to lower the costs of kashrut certification which, in turn, is intended to lower the cost to consumers of kosher food. The proposed reforms are strenuously opposed by the Chief Rabbinate, which currently is the beneficiary of a monopoly — created by Israeli law — over such certifications.
The Chief Rabbinate is a government agency within the Ministry of Religious Services and, under current law, the Chief Rabbinate exercises certain legislative, executive, and judicial powers.
The Chief Rabbinate consists of two Chief Rabbis: an Ashkenazi rabbi, and a Sephardi rabbi (aka: Rishon leZion). The Chief Rabbis serve for a term of 10 years. Currently, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi is David Lau and the Sephardic Chief Rabbi is Yitzhak Yosef, both of whom began their terms in 2013.
In addition to the monopoly over kashrut certifications, the Chief Rabbinate also operates Israel’s religious courts, which exercise exclusive jurisdiction over Jewish marriages, Jewish divorces, conversions to Judaism, and Jewish burials. Israel’s religious courts also share concurrent jurisdiction with secular Israeli courts over matters such as personal status, alimony, child support, child custody, and inheritance. Court orders issued by Israel’s religious courts are enforced in the same manner as court orders issued by Israel’s secular courts.
Under the proposed reforms to the system of kashrut certification, the Chief Rabbinate, rather than directly providing kashrut certifications to businesses (manufacturers, restaurants, etc.), would set national standards and regulate private entities which, in turn, would provide kosher certifications. Most importantly, the proposed reforms would allow private kashrut certification providers to certify the kashrut of an item even though the item does not comply with the Chief Rabbinate’s standards, provided that three municipal rabbis consent to the certification.
The response of the Chief Rabbinate was that:
Although the Chief Rabbinate opposes the proposed kashrut certification reform, it has been reported that David Lau, whose term as Chief Rabbi is scheduled to end in approximately 2 years, has agreed to not oppose kashrut certification reform in exchange for an appointment to the Supreme Rabbinical Court. Perhaps this deal fell through, as it was reported about a month later that Chief Rabbis Lau and Yitzhak Yosef led a protest against the kashrut reforms.
During early December 2021, it was reported that, according to Israel’s state security agency, the life of Religious Affairs Minister had been threatened, in part because of the Minister’s legislative efforts to enact kashrut certification reforms.
At the core of this controversy is whether government should have a monopoly on kashrut certification. The Chief Rabbinate and its supporters claim that kashrut certification reform — a partial divestment of the Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut certification — will result in “the end of proper Kashrut supervision.”
However, the Rabbinate also claims that if kashrut reforms are enacted, consumers will reject private kashrut certifications and “vote with their feet” to reject such certifications. If so, the Rabbinate has nothing to fear, except perhaps for a loss of a significant amount of revenue from businesses who purchase the Rabbinate’s certifications.
The real question is not whether the Chief Rabbinate should be partially divested of its monopoly to issue kashrut certifications by limiting its role to setting national kashrut standards, but rather, whether there is any justification whatsoever for government involvement in setting or enforcing kashrut standards.
First, kashrut certification is an issue only for Jews who voluntarily choose to “keep kosher.” If a Jew decides to not “keep kosher,” he simply buys and eats whatever pleases him. For this Jew, kashrut certifications are meaningless.
Second, for the Jew who does “keep kosher,” there is no reason to believe that he cannot, or will not, take the time and trouble to learn about various private kashrut certifications and choose the certification(s) that best suits him. For this Jew, his decision affect only him and no one else.
Third, the Rabbinate claims that, if kashrut reforms are enacted, Israeli Jews will “vote with their feet” to reject private kashrut certification. However, it appears more likely that the Rabbinate is afraid that if allowed to do so, the masses will in fact “vote with their feet,” and reject the Rabbinate.
In the final analysis, the problem is not limited to Israeli kasrut standards, or even to the proper role of the Rabbinate. The root of the problem, notwithstanding Israel’s Basic Laws, is an Israeli government that is neither Jewish nor democratic.
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Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American attorney who resides in Jerusalem, Israel.