A shawarma restaurant with a kashrut certificate issued by the Chief Rabbinate.
A shawarma restaurant with a kashrut certificate issued by the Chief Rabbinate. Photo by Emil Salman
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Thousands of kashrut inspectors across Israel will now be employed by a commercial corporation with the goal of making them independent of the businesses they inspect, under a plan announced Monday by the Chief Rabbinate and the Religious Services Ministry.

The move comes more than 20 years after the state comptroller lambasted the fact that kashrut inspectors are paid by the businesses they supervise.

This was one of several changes due to be translated into legislation in the coming weeks and were announced at a press conference convened by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett and Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben Dahan.

All are aimed at increasing the transparency and uniformity of kashrut supervision, but, like several other steps Ben Dahan and Bennett (who also serves as economy minister) have taken over the last year, they are also meant to bolster the Chief Rabbinate’s status in the face of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) competitors and a growing number of non-Haredi private kashrut initiatives that seek to be independent of the rabbinate. Or as Ben Dahan said explicitly, “We’re coming here to empower the Chief Rabbinate, to strengthen it.”

Some moderate Orthodox groups welcomed the changes, but others said all it does is tighten the Chief Rabbinate's stranglehold on religious services in Israel.

Tzohar, an organization of moderate religious Zionist rabbis, welcomed Monday’s announcement as “an important reform that will increase transparency in the kashrut system and enable more Jews who so desire to keep kosher. We all hope it will be implemented soon.”

Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, another moderate religious Zionist group, expressed the hope that this would be a first step leading to "a fundamental change in the structure of the kashrut system vis-à-vis the badatzim [Haredi kashrut organizations], which currently operate as completely private businesses with no supervision.” The group said it would also like to see a community model of kashrut supervision that involves nonprofits.

Hiddush, an organization that promotes freedom from religion and religious pluralism, said the changes do little but reinforce the Rabbinate's monopoly on kosher certification.

“What we have here isn’t a revolution, but a retreat,” Hiddush said in a statement. “Instead of the state ceasing to deal with kashrut supervision on its own and becoming a regulator, it intends to employ tens of thousands of kashrut inspectors itself. Instead of the state abolishing the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut, which has made Judaism so hateful to the public, it’s strengthening it. Instead of the state encouraging a free market in kashrut, including secular, Reform and Conservative kashrut, which would enable everyone to eat kosher according to his own beliefs, it’s supporting zealotry.”

Under the plan unveiled Monday, every religious council would offer three levels of kashrut certification to businesses in its jurisdiction. They are kosher, kosher mehadrin (special) and kosher lemehadrin min hamehadrin (extra-special), to be represented, respectively, by one, two or three Stars of David.

In addition, uniform rates per hour of supervision would be set, the relationship between the inspector and the business would be regulated, and inspectors would start receiving benefits in addition to their salaries. The new corporation would be responsible for dealing with all complaints against inspectors, and it would be the party contracting with the businesses to be supervised.

As part of its effort to fight private kashrut initiatives, the Religious Services Ministry also recently set up what it termed a “kashrut police,” which essentially meant granting additional powers to the unit responsible for preventing kashrut fraud.

Ben Dahan said that over the past year, he has examined various ideas, including turning the rabbinate into a regulator that would supervise private kashrut inspection agencies. But he ultimately rejected this idea, opting instead to strengthen the rabbinate.

At the press conference, he lashed out at businesses that make use of private kashrut certification, even as he minimized its importance.

“This is a minuscule trend, I would say, a mere sprinkling, that is trying to create some kind of alternate kashrut," he said. "[This] kashrut can’t replace the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut.”

Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, who has launched his own private kashrut initiative in Jerusalem, welcomed what he called “the correction of severe distortions” in the kashrut system, but said he would continue to expand his alternative kashrut program to bring about "trustworthy, transparent and honest kashrut.” The solutions offered Monday, he said, are "purely cosmetic."

"They don’t solve the problem of the tyranny of a single organization, the Chief Rabbinate, which is the sole [kashrut] supervisor. There’s no solution to the Rabbinate’s excessive demands, such as Gush Katif vegetables,” he said, referring to a brand of hydroponically grown vegetables that are guaranteed bug-free. “And of course, kashrut expenses won’t go down because of what is being termed a reform."

Leibowitz also said the three-star rating system could be more harmful than helpful.

“The kashrut stars rating won’t improve anything, and even the opposite: In addition to regular kashrut and strict kashrut, super-strict kashrut will now be added,” he said. “The real root problem of Israel’s kashrut system is the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly, and until the market is opened to competition, the system will remain contaminated and untrustworthy. What we have here is a nice solution to the wrong problem. "

Bennett said that a year ago, he and Ben Dahan unveiled a “revolution in religious services,” including a proposal, which has since become law, to let couples register their marriage anywhere in the country instead of only in their hometowns. “We promised, and we kept our promise,” Bennett said. “This morning, we’re embarking on the next revolution.”

But Bennett made no mention of another promise made at that press conference a year ago – to merge dozens of religious councils nationwide. That change has yet to happen.

Lau used the press conference to comment on his recent decision to let women serve as kashrut supervisors, which he said he made after consultation with the Chief Rabbinate Council. After issuing this decision, he said, he got a letter from the religious women’s organization Emunah, which once filed a petition to the High Court of Justice about this issued.

“The letter said it’s a pity you weren’t here a year earlier, and then the court petition would have been unnecessary,” Lau said. “I told them explicitly that there’s a source in Jewish law for women being able to be kashrut supervisors; there’s no barrier. Then along comes the High Court and rules, in a different context, that if a rabbi wants to rule according to another interpretative system [that bans female kashrut inspectors], it’s his right to do so. But if you ask my opinion, the [proper] rabbinic interpretation in my opinion is yes, certainly female supervisors can function.

“Let’s remember that the inspector is the agent of the rabbi,” he continued. “The rabbi is actually the one who, when you see his name on the [kashrut] certificate, you’re relying on the certification that rabbi gives. If the rabbi puts his trust in a woman, after she has passed the Chief Rabbinate’s exam and been authorized – and there are exams for kashrut inspectors – then I think you rely on the rabbi and the inspector.”