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June 28, 2016 12:28 am

Proposed Plan Takes a Bite out of Israeli Rabbinate’s Kashrut Role

avatar by Eliana Rudee

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Israel's High Court of Justice. Photo: Wikipedia.

Israel’s High Court of Justice. Photo: Wikipedia.

The Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that privately supervised kosher eateries cannot use the word “kosher” in their restaurants. The Chief Rabbinate, the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment of Israel, is currently the sole institution with the right to certify food as “kosher” in Israel. The ruling comes in the wake of various tensions between the State and the religious establishment, which pre-date the state of Israel’s founding.

David Ben-Gurion, then Chairman of the Jewish Agency, established the Status Quo Agreement between religious and secular Jews in order to gain approval for a state from the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. In the absence of an Israeli constitution, this agreement has become the document stipulating policy principles in various arenas considered fundamental to Orthodox Judaism, including Shabbat, kashrut and family laws. Initiatives relating to the religious status quo in Israel are often presented in the legal and judicial fields, but more recently, there have been various grassroots initiatives to challenge Israel’s religious status quo.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, the founder of Hashgacha Pratit, has dedicated his career to providing an alternative, private kashrut certification for food businesses. He maintains that the Rabbinate is neither Zionist nor pluralistic, and that it is doing damage to broader Israeli society. His project questions the Rabbinate’s monopoly over the financially valuable kashrut certification service, and intends to open the market to competition, providing customers with a better product.

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“This quite ridiculous arrangement has created a system fraught with corruption, at worst, and at best, the lowest standards of service and quality,”  said Rabbi Leibowitz. Hashgacha Pratit thus intends to empower restaurants with kosher certification, education, and a trusting community. The ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, believing that government-approved practices in Israel should be bound to Jewish law, argue that this initiative is anti-establishment and not kosher. Nevertheless, various Jerusalem food institutions have adopted this new certification, including the wildly famous Pasta Basta located in the Jerusalem shuk.

Inbar Oren Shalem is the director of Havaya Israeli Life Cycle Ceremonies, another organization that provides the Israeli public with an alternative to the rabbinate, regarding life cycle ceremonies such as birth ceremonies, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, and burials. Those participating in the ceremonies are given the power to design their own ceremony. Of course, such ceremonies are not recognized by the rabbinate and largely criticized.

Oren Shalem maintains, “A woman who gets married in accordance with the rabbinate needs a get (bill of divorce) from her husband in order to be free to marry another person. If he doesn’t want to give her the get, she cannot get re-married.” She explained that she is not against people getting married with the rabbinate, “if they choose to, and want live by its rules and repercussions.” As such, Havaya offers workshops for Israelis who are getting married, providing them with the tools to understand the legal repercussions of a rabbinate marriage.

Dr. Laura Wharton is the director of Shabus, a Friday night bus service that offers private transportation around Jerusalem from 6pm to 3:30 am on Friday nights. More than 1,300 people pay dues to the private company for the service. The drivers are Muslim so as not to violate any Jewish individual’s observance of Shabbat. Currently, there is no public transportation in Israel during Shabbat, outside of cities that are largely Arab, because the Rabbinate holds to Jewish law that prohibits the use of cars on Shabbat. But Dr. Wharton maintains that over 70 percent of Israelis support public transportation on Shabbat.

As ongoing tensions about the religious status quo divide Israeli society, there is no doubt that the discussions and initiatives represent a liberal, pluralistic push-back to the religious establishment.

Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center and the author of the “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, Forbes, and The Hill. Follow her column on JNS.org.

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