June 24, 2024
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June 24, 2024
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Why Israel’s Kashrut Reform Bill Matters for the Diaspora

In mid-July, Israel’s Minister of Religious Affairs proposed a bill that would introduce a reform to the country’s kashrut industry. While this is a development that most directly affects Israeli businesses and consumers, by definition as the center of the Jewish world it will have both practical and broader implications for Jews all across the globe.

As this is a complex and nuanced development, I welcome the chance to explore its ramifications and better explain why it’s so historically significant.

Perhaps the next time you come to Israel (and may we be blessed to see the full re-opening of our borders very speedily), or even when you purchase products manufactured here, you might be initially confused by these new developments. It is therefore important that you understand that the ramifications of this process will be that there will be increased effectiveness and greater integrity while always promising that the ultimate commitment remains steadfastly to preserving halachic standards and ethics, which are at the very heart of our tradition.

Beyond the practical aspects of this reform, it deserves to be heralded as a major step forward in making Jewish observance in Israel something that can be embraced by all its people, as food is so central to celebrations and family gatherings. It therefore, alongside many other aspects of daily Jewish life, cannot be something that is held hostage or controlled based on political or personal considerations in the hands of one agency or rabbinical group. Rabbinical services and those aspects of Jewish life that are defined by our ancient traditions must be transparent and open. It is for this reason that this reform is so important for the very future of our Jewish nation and for Judaism in general.

In many ways the passage of this bill should be viewed as a victory for all people who have long sought out this more transparent, effective and competitive kashrut infrastructure—but also for those who strive for a more inclusive and just Israeli Jewish society.

While such a structure is something that exists in other parts of the Diaspora, here in Israel kashrut has always been managed under one centralized monopoly—in the form of the Israel Chief Rabbinate. Such a centralized system by definition leads itself to inefficiency and sadly even corruption. A widespread presence of such irregularities were the conclusions of a comprehensive report on Israel’s kashrut industry issued several years ago by Israel’s State Comptroller.

It is important to stress that such corruption and operational failures are not because the Chief Rabbinate is intentionally seeking to impose anything other than a high level of kashrut. But when you have a system with no competitors and limited oversight, it is only natural that it will lead to cutting corners, improprieties, increased costs and sadly a truly broken system.

It is also well worth pointing out that many within Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community recognize this and even the very individuals who are involved with overseeing the Rabbinate’s kashrut don’t trust it when it comes to the foods they will eat. Israel’s High Court has found that the current system is problematic because of the existence of illicit compensation relationships between business owners and supervisors. Operationally, the very structure where local rabbinates are meant to be supervising local businesses is also broken. At present there are some 30 municipalities, including major cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa, where for several years there has been no local rabbis overseeing the religious councils—an absurdity that lends itself to lax kashrut standards and supervision.

In business, no one would accept such a scenario. So it is hard to believe that the people of the Jewish state should accept it when it comes to one of our most important and sacred traditions.

In February of 2018, following an intensive review of the report and the options under the law to begin to introduce kashrut reform, the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization, which I founded and chair, opened a program to act as a kosher supervising agency. Due to restrictions under the law to keep the Rabbinate’s power centralized, we were prohibited from using the word kosher in our certification. While we faced intense political, public and communal pressures, we knew that this was a process that needed to take place if we wanted to increase the level of integrity of kashrut in Israel.

The reform bill introduced in July has now taken that vision for alternative kashrut supervision and intends to make it the operating standard. Should the bill be passed into law, multiple agencies, fully committed to strict halacha, would be able to provide kosher certification

It is once again critical to explain that despite the ill-informed criticisms that are launched against the proposed changes by political rivals, this process will in no way weaken halachic standards—in fact quite the contrary. The very structure of the bill ensures that the halachic oversight and regulation will remain in the hands of members of the local rabbinates—people whom I know to be God-fearing advocates of strict halacha whose entire goal is to ensure that kashrut observance is accessible and managed in a reliable, professional and transparent way.

While the details are complex to the point that they cannot be fully explained in this forum, on a technical level, the way this reform will take place is that it will allow groups of qualified city chief rabbis to certify independent kashrut organizations to provide kashrut across the country. The practical significance of this change in the law is that independent agencies—like Tzohar kashrut but certainly others that we look forward to welcoming into the marketplace—will now be able to provide full kashrut services all over the country. The key point is that there will be a clear separation between the role of the rabbis, who will set the standards, and the independent organizations who will certify the eateries.

That transparency, competition and integrity that we spoke about above will become the accepted form of supervision throughout the system. Costs will be reduced and, as importantly, decentralization will allow for far better oversight that translates to enhanced efficiency from both the operational and halachic perspectives.

I know that there are those who fear that such a move delegitimizes the Chief Rabbinate or will lead to reduced stringency in kashrut supervision. But as explained above, the effect will be just the opposite because it will preserve the standards of the Chief Rabbinate as the halachic regulator while promising that the operational implementation will be placed in more competent hands.

For Jewish life in Israel to be observed in a way that respects all, it ultimately needs to be conducted in a manner that is first and foremost driven by real Jewish values—values only possible when they are guided by integrity, justice and respect. This is an understanding that deserves to be embraced by every Jew—regardless where on the globe we find ourselves.

Rabbi David Stav is the chair and founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.

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