Free Kashrut

In Israel sometimes, it seems that when it comes to matters of religion-and-state the country takes one step forward and then two steps backwards.

Last year, the High Court of Justice dealt a blow to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut licensing, deciding to give restaurants and other food businesses the independent right to describe how they observe kashrut standards without requiring them to have a certificate from the rabbinate. The decision effectively gave independent kashrut licensing organizations like Hashgaha Pratit and Tzohar the right to broaden their scope and activities.

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At the time, then- Chief Justice Miriam Naor, wrote: “The choice of whether or not to eat at such a food establishment should be in the hands of the consumer. Each person [can act] in accordance with his own preference and the level of stringency he chooses.”

We praised Naor’s decision for two primary reasons.

The first was that it increased people’s independent right to choose how they want to practice religion.

The second reason was that it took authority away from the Chief Rabbinate, an institution we have long argued turns more people away from Judaism than it brings closer.

But now, all of this progress might go down the drain. On Thursday, the Attorney-General’s Office issued a ruling that alternative kashrut organizations like Tzohar will not be able to issue their own kashrut certificates for restaurants that are under their supervision.

According to the ruling, restaurants and other businesses – assuming they wish to – will be able to use Tzohar’s kashrut supervision service, but will need to produce their own certificates declaring the kashrut standards they follow and stating that Tzohar oversees those standards. In other words, Tzohar can do the supervision but it cannot issue a certificate. That remains solely in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate.

This is absurd. The Chief Rabbinate is not the sole authority on Judaism or on halacha. Jewish law is open for interpretation and as seen in countless examples throughout centuries of Jewish life, some rabbis rule one way, while others rule another way.

Think about Shammai and Hillel. The two scholars sparred on hundreds of issues and while Hillel’s opinions were mostly accepted, the sages stressed that Shammai’s rulings were also valid.

In other words, while the Chief Rabbinate can oversee kashrut regulations, so can other rabbis. They do not have exclusivity when it comes to Jewish law.

The Attorney General’s Office’s decision is also worrisome since it ignores financial considerations.

The Chief Rabbinate makes a good deal of money from the kashrut services it provides restaurants and food companies throughout the country. The decision allows it to continue operating like a monopoly.

Allowing new players into the industry would create competition and that is something that the Chief Rabbinate obviously does not want.

This is a classic case for Israel’s antitrust regulators to weigh in on. The rabbinate is given exclusive use of the term kashrut. Opening up the market should be in everyone’s interest. It will create more competition, lower costs for struggling food businesses and create diversity throughout state-controlled services.

When it comes to religious life in Israel, diversity is needed in more than just kashrut. The rabbinate’s control over marriages, conversions and divorces also needs to be broken up. People deserve to have the right to practice religion as they wish.

Proof of the need for diversity is the face that Tzohar currently has almost 100 restaurants and other establishments which have signed up to its kashrut supervision, the majority of which previously had no such supervision. These are companies that refused to work with the rabbinate, and signed up once new Kashrut supervisors entered the industry.

In response to the ruling, Tzohar said it would take time to review the full decision but would “continue to work towards our goal to increase the number of kashrut observant consumers and to raise the level of kashrut supervision.”

We hope Tzohar succeeds.