The latest episode of the soap opera that is the relationship between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Israeli public is a gem: As of August 7, kosher bakeries countrywide will need to comply with regulations on the shape of bourekas.
From that day on, every bakery supervised by the Rabbinate, without exception, must have uniform shapes for each filling. If they don’r, they will lose their kashrut certification.
In the interest of modeling the disagreements between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, in which Hillel was praised for always teaching Shammai's arguments first, I will admit that I see the logic in the Rabbinate's decision. The pastry-loving Israeli public tends to associate bourekas flavors with certain shapes, and I imagine it would be very easy to get mixed up and eat a cheese bourekas shortly after eating meat if it were shaped like the potato bourekas that the consumer was used to eating.
Having uniform shapes for each bourekas flavor will help the kosher-keeping public avoid unintentional transgressions of Jewish law, and in enforcing such a regulation the Rabbinate will implement a perfect example of the Mishnaic injunction to "put a fence around the Torah." At face value, this rule will help protect the Torah as well as the people interested in upholding its laws.
Yet, if I may now adopt Hillel’s next practice of presenting my argument second, as soon as I read about the Rabbinate’s new regulation on bourekas shapes, I was reminded of an insight my mother taught me years ago. Commenting on the call to put a fence around the Torah, she warned that if we put up too many fences, we will lose sight of what's inside them. I'm afraid that this is exactly what will happen as a result of the new rule on the shapes of bourekas.
It makes sense that the Rabbinate wants to make it easier for people to differentiate between dairy, parve and meat bourekas by recommending uniform shapes for each flavor. However, by turning this recommendation into a regulation, and insisting that bakeries conform or lose their kosher certification, the Chief Rabbinate is making a farce of Jewish law. What right does it have to enforce such a regulation? The role of a kashrut supervisor is to ensure that a bakery (or any other institution that makes food) produces only kosher food and serves it on kosher dishes; not to make sure its clientele keep kosher. After all, nothing can stop customers from eating dairy products immediately after meat products, even if both are produced according to the strictest understanding of kashrut.
Growing up outside of Israel, I remember that it was not always easy to keep kosher. I had to check labels carefully, knowing that a product that seemed kosher might not have actually met the necessary standards. Yet, this effort was what made keeping kosher so meaningful. The conscious effort of keeping kosher reminds me of the holiness inherent in eating, an act that sustains life. I remember that as a human being and as a Jew I cannot take this act for granted and I must treat it as an intentional act, not one I merely do at my heart (or stomach's) desire.
By all means, I believe that I need to keep kosher because that's what Jewish law tells me to do, not because of the meaning behind it. Yet, at the same time, I experience keeping kosher as a more holy experience when I have to think about everything that I eat, and do not simply stuff myself with whatever is available.
Israel’s Chief Rabbinate may very well have the goal of making as many Jews as possible keep kosher – a goal that I can understand. However, such a goal does not deserve government backing, and so long as the Rabbinate is supported by Israel’s government – as it is today – its new regulations are tantamount to arbitrary laws being imposed by the government.
I would rather put thought into my Judaism than have the government spoon-feed it to me. And I certainly don’t believe that my taxes, or those of any my fellow citizens, should play any part in caricaturing a Jewish law that adds so much meaning to my life.
Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.
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