Once Again, Israel's Rabbinate Is Trying to Expand Its Monopoly Over Kosher Food

A bill backed by Shas seeks to outlaw independent kosher supervisors, claiming this would be in the public's interest. Who are they kidding?

Avishag Shaar Yishuv

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation reportedly approved on Sunday a bill to further restrict restaurants not under supervision by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel from representing themselves as kosher. Under the proposed legislation, which is now headed for its first reading in the Knesset, restaurants with oversight by private kashrut organizations would be subject to fines for implying that the establishment serves kosher food.

Economy Minister Aryeh Deri, who is also chairman of Shas, which is sponsoring the legislation, said the bill would “preserve the status of the Rabbinate and lower the cost of living.” Accepting his words at face value, one might reasonably conclude that this legislation is intended to protect the kosher food-consuming public. Unfortunately, this understanding is deeply flawed.

There have been serious irregularities in the Rabbinate’s fulfilling of its existing duties of supervising kosher establishments. In 2014, the Hitorerut Party published the results of a survey of businesses in Jerusalem with kashrut supervision by the Jerusalem Religious Council, the largest kashrut supervision organization in Israel and that which is appointed by the Rabbinate to supervise kashrut in Jerusalem. The study found that only 20 percent report that the mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) "comes and does what he should." For the remaining 80 percent of businesses polled, the mashgiach fails in his duties: 14 percent of the businesses polled report the mashgiach doesn't show up, 25 percent say he comes but does nothing and 41 percent say the mashgiach comes but only does a part of what he should do.

After receiving a report on irregularities in the Jerusalem Religious Council’s kashrut supervision, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Aryeh Stern sent a letter earlier this month to Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef saying the system was so deficient, he could no longer take responsibility for kashrut in Jerusalem.

Clearly, the Rabbinate has demonstrated incompetence in fulfilling its existing duties of kashrut supervision. Expanding its reign would therefore not be in the public's interest at all. Rather, it would only serve to consolidate more power into the hands of the Rabbinate, extending its reach to a monopoly over kashrut and broadening its influence over all matters of Jewish life in Israel.

This attempted power grab comes despite the Rabbinate having already demonstrated that it is unworthy of trust when it comes to kashrut supervision. Neemanut, trustworthiness, is one of the fundamental halakhic (Jewish law) principles for kashrut; the basis for deciding where we can eat.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, a member of the Jerusalem City Council for the Yerushalmim Party (who is also a trusted friend of mine), is the head of Hashgacha Pratit (literally, "Private Supervision," but also idiomatically "Divine Providence"). Hashgacha Pratit provides oversight to restaurants that do not wish to get kosher certification from the Rabbinate, citing various reasons – like the Rabbinate's failure to provide proper supervision and the extra costs of meeting some of its excessive demands (such as using only bug-free Gush Katif vegetables, instead of allowing the restaurants to check for bugs themselves).

In a conversation about Hashgacha Pratit and its core values, Leibowitz said, "In addition to the crucial religious value of kashrut, there is a social value of trust at play. Not trust freely vested, but trust built through partnership, transparency, inspection, clear boundaries and communication. Competition, transparency and informed consumerism are the foundations of a strong civil society. Monopoly, power and patronizing laws are the opposite."

The illogic of the proposed Knesset bill is of Alice-in-Wonderland proportions. The bill would outlaw competition, providing a complete monopoly on kashrut oversight and supervision to the Rabbinate and its affiliates (a system that has created a situation so bad that the chief rabbi of Jerusalem currently won’t sign kashrut certificates because of it!).

The Knesset needs to do the opposite of what is being proposed. It needs to break the monopoly of the Rabbinate and open up kashrut to competition. The current system of certification requires a restaurant to have a Rabbanite heksher to be called kosher. A restaurant may then add another heksher if it wants a higher level of kashrut. This system is expensive and inefficient. Let's stop forcing restaurants to have a Rabbanite heksher to be called kosher and have the consumer decide which hashgacha (supervisory seal) he or she wants to hold by and eat at those restaurants.

As all systems in a democracy need to be subject to checks and balances, and as a Jewish State, if we hold kashrut as a national value, a new independent governmental agency, replacing the Rabbinate, should be established to provide oversight of the competing hashgachot. If the United States has the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Israel should have Kashrut Leumi, National Kashrut.

There is a rising tide of public opinion in Israel challenging the Chief Rabbinate’s singular ultra-Orthodox vision of Judaism. Now is the time for the Knesset to show leadership, stop this absurd bill and break the Rabbinate's monopoly over matters of kashrut.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.