Regev Responds

A pluralistic move indeed, but is Tzohar pluralistic?

Tzohar enters the kashrut certification market

An important chapter in the ongoing saga of religion and state has been written in Israel this week. In a widely covered press conference, the Zionist Orthodox Tzohar rabbinic organization announced that it is launching a kosher supervising entity that will compete with the Chief Rabbinate and offer the Israeli food industry an alternative supervision more convenient than that of the state.

A kashrut certificate issued by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, credit: Zeevveez, FlickrA kashrut certificate issued by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, credit: Zeevveez, Flickr

Tzohar’s announcement was hailed by a wide array of organizations and activists, ranging from secular to Modern Orthodox, naturally including Hiddush.

Of course, it did not take long before the Chief Rabbinate and its allies declared: “The Tzohar Rabbinical organization is fast becoming like the Conservative movement, and it would be good for the public to understand that the struggle for the kashrut system is not between the Rabbinate and Tzohar, but between the Rabbinate and the Conservative movement, which has taken over Tzohar.”

A number of observations would help assess the significance of this new development:

  1. Even as Tzohar's self-righteous pronouncements at the press conference maintained that this is not intended against the Chief Rabbinate, it is exactly that. This is clearly another nail in the Chief Rabbinate's coffin, which is being constructed.
  2. As Hiddush's ongoing polling reveals, the public is overwhelmingly on the side of breaking down the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly over kashrut in Israel.
  3. While Tzohar set out ambitious goals for their initiative (10% of businesses selling food are to be certified by Tzohar within three years), the jury is out as to whether these goals will be realized. The challenge is that for most businesses, this is not an abstract exercise. In terms of mindset, they would like to see the Chief Rabbinate's authority wither, but the dominant consideration is the economic impact of switching to the Tzohar "kashrut" line. The question is actually whether there will be a substantial percentage of clients who will refrain from eating at businesses bearing the Tzohar stamp due to doubts or inertia. It's unlikely that businesses currently under the Chief Rabbinate's supervision would significantly increase their clienteles by going with Tzohar. It is mostly the potential loss of clientele that will determine whether this new option will gain a large foothold.
  4. Further entangling the attraction of the new initiative is the fact that it has been very carefully designed to meet the legal complexities involving kashrut certification. What Tzohar is doing is closely monitored and guided by legal advisors. This begins with the law that grants a monopoly to the Chief Rabbinate over the use of the word "kosher" (and its derivatives) in all certifications of compliance of food with kashrut laws. It ends with the recent Supreme Court ruling that created a very narrow window of flexibility regarding alternative certifications. As a result, what Tzohar announced is that they will not issue certificates of "kashrut" or even of compliance with halakha. Their documents will be statements by the proprietors as to their adherence to Tzohar's standards and their being under Tzohar's supervision... all of this without using the word "kosher" (it should be noted that even though Tzohar is very explicit about this, their website announcing the new enterprise describes it as "Tzohar's kashrut infrastructure," and it also projects that within three years 10% of food businesses will operate under "Tzohar's kashrut.")
  5. Clearly, at one point, Tzohar was hoping to take over the Chief Rabbinate when they engaged in a massive multi-million dollar campaign to get their founder and chairman Rabbi David Stav elected as Chief Rabbi. Once he was defeated, it seems that the exclusivity of the Chief Rabbinate became less of a principle for them.
  6. Tzohar's ability to launch this new initiative as based primarily on the landmark Supreme Court ruling that chiseled away at the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly, much to the chagrin and consternation of the Chief Rabbinate and their political supporters. It is important to note that in the past, leading rabbis associated with Tzohar expressed views that were very different in nature than what they are doing now. Some sixteen years ago, there was a pioneering initiative by a group that challenged the Chief Rabbinate's control over kashrut. It was called "Va'ad Shomrei Masoret" (association of guards of tradition), based in part on the desire to reconcile strict adherence to kashrut laws regarding the food itself, while at the same time allowing these restaurants to operate on Shabbat, which was precluding them from receiving the Rabbinate's kashrut certification. Observant individuals raised questions at the time as to whether one who observes kashrut could eat at such places. A response by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a leader in Tzohar at the time, proclaimed, "The public stand is that we are committed to the kashrut infrastructure of the Chief Rabbinate, and cannot be parties to an inferior kashrut infrastructure." Rabbi Shai Piron (who in addition to his active role with Tzohar also served as Minister of Education and #2 on the Yesh Atid's party list) gave a more substantive response in the same vein. He said, "We who are joyous over the State of Israel, the ‘beginning of our redemption,’ are unwilling to accept that everyone will start his own private army. It is dangerous for the state. We need to concentrate all the forces. We need to establish rules that bind us all... so it is in matters of kashrut. Only the Chief Rabbinate is authorized to grant kashrut certification, and any other certificate is null and void." Clearly, at one point, Tzohar was hoping to take over the Chief Rabbinate when they engaged in a massive multi-million dollar campaign to get their founder and chairman Rabbi David Stav elected as Chief Rabbi. Once he was defeated, it seems that the exclusivity of the Chief Rabbinate became less of a principle for them.
  7. Tzohar’s challenge to the Chief Rabbinate's kashrut monopoly is praiseworthy, but the answer must not stop at legal loopholes and creative language. Rather, an assertive public demand for an open market for kashrut certification, along the lines of what exists in the USA (with multiple kashrut authorities offering their services with full disclosures of the identities of the religious authorities behind them) is necessary in Israel. In this way, kashrut professionals and organizations would be subject to the necessary legal scrutiny in order to avoid fraud.
  8. Another example of the relativism involved in this saga involves a strong political proponent of preserving the Chief Rabbinate's exclusive power. I am referring to MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home party) who attacked this new initiative. He said, "This is the elected Rabbinate of the State of Israel, ‘the beginning of our redemption,’ and any separation, privatization, or creation of an alternative to the Chief Rabbinate in this field is a separation in the Jewish people; it may give rise to deficiencies in the Israeli public..." In a radio interview, he stressed the importance of maintaining one State rabbinic authority, just as it is important to one State military authority. However, remembering Yogev's past controversial pronouncements, it seems he is less concerned about the general principle of maintaining "one State authority" than about preserving monopolistic establishments that he subscribes to ideologically. Alas, he did not hesitate to publicly and harshly attack the Supreme Court when it followed legal avenues that he opposed, proclaiming that "a D-9 armored tractor should be sent to raze the Court."
  9. Rabbi Stav himself, while relying unhesitantly on a Supreme Court ruling that challenged and eroded the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, had no problem with attacking the Supreme Court in the past in another area, which didn't meet his halakhic and religious interests. Namely, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of civil recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions, Rabbi Stav came out against the Court. He declared that, "its decision is mistaken, and such social faith-based questions should be decided in the Knesset, not by a court, which addresses them in legal terms... the Supreme Court demonstrates a double standard, as to processes that are fictitious at their core [i.e. Reform and Conservative conversions]... and creates an illusion in Israeli society that henceforth Reform conversions are recognized in Israel."
  10. All who wish to see Israel's deficient alignment of religion & state should welcome this new, key building block in the ongoing saga of religion & state in Israel - namely, the regulation of kashrut. The challenges to the Chief Rabbinate rise from different directions; and ultimately the will of the public that desires to see the monopolistic State powers entrusted to the Rabbinate dismantled will make its way through the thick skin and myopic vision of Israel's politicians. As we know, this is not just about kashrut. It is also about Shabbat, marriage, divorce, military service, and many other issues that are directly affected by the anachronistic Chief Rabbinate. The bottom line question is: which is the desirable alternative path? Tzohar's approach is misguided and narrow-minded. They are not opposed to monopolistic power, as long as the power is theirs (or at least that their theological opponents on the liberal and secular side should not gain similar recognition under Israeli law). Tzohar's view is that a more lenient and welcoming Orthodox rabbinic approach will solve all of Israel's needs, in terms of its Jewish and democratic character. What they still refuse to accept or support is that in a Jewish and democratic state, religious freedom should be enjoyed by everyone, whether Orthodox or not. Similarly, freedom from religion should be respected as well. Therefore, they oppose allowing civil marriages in Israel. They are also at the forefront of fighting Reform and Conservative Judaism to the point that they refused to include Conservative and Reform rabbis in a public program in Tel Aviv for Shavuot. Nonetheless, they seek support (financial, moral, and political) from Jewish Federations and non-Orthodox communities overseas without proper disclosure of their anti-pluralism agenda. Undoubtedly Tzohar rabbis provide valuable and important services in Israel, but they do not provide the desirable answer to Israel's ultimate challenge regarding its Jewish and democratic character, nor to Israel's unholy alignment of religion and politics. Religion should be taken out of politics, and the best prescription for Israel's Jewish-democratic identity crisis has been and remains the promise of Israel's Declaration of Independence, ensuring "freedom of religion and conscience" and "complete social and political equality for all... regardless of religion." Nothing less and nothing more.

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