Want to Blame Someone for Israel's Lack of Religious Freedom? Look No Further Than Reform Movement

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A demonstration in favor of the "private supervision" initiative regarding kosher food certification, in Jerusalem, July 2015.
A demonstration in favor of the "private supervision" initiative in Jerusalem, last July.Credit: Emil Salman

The Reform Movement in Israel is usually identified with the struggle for freedom of religion, but has now become a party to serious damage inflicted on religious freedom and pluralism in the country.

A superfluous petition it filed with the High Court of Justice suffered its predicted defeat on Monday, possibly bringing to an end an initiative for instating an alternative Orthodox scheme for certifying kosher products, called “private supervision.” The format of the alternative program will certainly change now, granting an unprecedented monopoly to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in kashrut-related issues.

The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which filed the petition along with two businessmen, acted in a manner that essentially lent support to the rabbinate and to the ultra-Orthodox and national-religious camps, which are now applauding – and justifiably so – since for them this ruling is akin to a miracle.

The High Court ruling against the petition lends unexpected support to the creaking and dilapidated ship called the Chief Rabbinate, which has been the subject of repeated blows in recent years, including in the High Court and among the Jewish public in Israel and the Diaspora. Thus, on a day when the police were raiding the rabbinate's offices, exposing yet another possible corruption case associated with that organization, the High Court was obliged to offer it support, something that would not have happened without the petition.

The alternative kashrut initiative is not the product of some huge, wealthy American organization. This is a local grass-roots community initiative in Israel, which in less than four years became a success story, with massive support that swept through the social media. It involves 25 cafes and restaurants across the country that dissociated from the rabbinate’s official certification process, putting their trust in a document issued by a voluntary nonprofit organization. The number 25 is growing – or at least it was until the High Court's ruling was handed down.

This initiative constitutes one feature of a popular movement of young Orthodox men and women who wish to follow the halakha (traditional Jewish law) in their own way, without kashrut or mikveh (ritual bath) supervisors, and with as little contact as possible with the religious establishment. This group doesn’t seek recognition, rather freedom of religion. (Some of its members were frustrated by the frail arrangement at the Western Wall that was aimed at strengthening the religious establishments – the Reform and Conservative ones, on one side, and the Orthodox rabbinical ones, on the other).

Facing this rebellion, the rabbinate and religious factions in the Knesset fought back. This happened when the chief rabbis decided to vehemently oppose the petition relating to kashrut certification, it happened Monday at the Interior and Environment Knesset Committee, which discussed a bill intended to bypass the High Court by bolstering the rabbinate’s standing vis-a-vis public ritual baths, and it also happened last week with the rejection of a proposal to strike down legislation calling for a two-year prison sentence for people holding private wedding ceremonies.

These steps don’t improve the Chief Rabbinate’s image in the public, but who needs the public when from time to time salvation comes from above, from the Knesset or the courts?

Last year “private supervision” won a historic achievement in terms of state-religion relations, when the attorney general determined that it was legal to display an alternative certification document as long as it didn’t include the word “kosher” and it was clearly stated that it was not issued by the rabbinate but by a private organization. This opened the way to expanded freedom in kashrut certification. However, the IRAC wanted to take things further, essentially allowing anyone who so desired to claim that their goods were kosher.

The petition has some merit, inasmuch as it demanded a free an open market for religious services, but it wasn’t thought out thoroughly, given the legal context involved, with its clearly defined, existing kashrut law and in light of the political furor the petition evoked.

The petitioners seemed to relish a fight with a legal body that had no part in the private initiative, thus putting the whole move in grave danger. “Private supervision” wasn’t part of the petition but those spearheading the scheme, among them Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, made a fatal mistake when they didn’t block the petition.

It was already clear last July which way the wind was blowing. Justice Uri Shoham, who was in the minority that supported the idea, told the petitioners that they were overreaching. He anticipated legislation that would block their efforts.

Shoham referred to a bill presented by ultra-Orthodox Shas at the time, intended to strengthen the rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut. While other Haredi factions and the rabbinate kept quiet with regard to the AG’s decision – they fought the petition.

The petition was the sole motive for the drafting of the bill, which was approved in a preliminary reading in the Knesset, but has been suspended since then. There was good reason for this, since the High Court ultimately did a better job in the service of the rabbinate.