Let’s have a frank talk about kosher. I’m not referring to a certain segment of our people that are so overly obsessed with this particular mitzvah that they never eat at other people’s home’s and never eat out even at kosher restaurants. I’m referring to a great many Jews for whom being kosher is important but their practice ranges from basic to strict adherence.
Basic kosher means no pig, shellfish or cheeseburgers. After that, we have a whole range of issues starting with how kosher animals are slaughtered followed by strict regulations that the animal should have no defects, salting of the meat and the draining of the blood and other more technical parts that require trained experts in slaughtering and overseeing the process.
A kosher home would have separate dishes and cutlery for dairy and meat. All the food in the home would come from kosher establishments or would be stocked with products that have been labeled kosher by a credible certifying agency. Finally, a kosher restaurant or catering hall would be one where all the products are kosher and the establishment has some sort of rabbinic supervision.
The definition of kosher has evolved in proportion to the overreach of right wing rabbis who seek to maintain rabbinic hegemony over all religious standards, not just what we put in our mouths. Whereas, once not too long ago kosher certification meant that food was permissible to eat because it meets all the kosher standards, now supervising authorities seek to determine everything from the hours of operation to the ambiance in a particular establishment.
In Israel, this has already become de rigueur led by the Chief Rabbinate and followed by various Haredi agencies vying to have the strictest most prohibitive standards. In the US, particularly in the greater New York area this is a relatively new phenomenon.
In 1990, the New York Times ran a story about a kosher dinner cruise boat called Glatt Yacht where the kashrut supervising rabbi, or mashgiach, forced patrons to cease mixed dancing. This might seem almost normal today, but in 1990, there were still plenty of Modern Orthodox people who had mixed dancing at their affairs and not a few yeshivot and synagogues who allowed it at their annual dinners, so this was big news.
By 2000, local kashrut organizations called Vaads or Vaadot, attempted their overreach most glaringly in Long Island’s Five Towns when they attempted to dictate dress codes for restaurant staff and labeling which owners were Orthodox or not. The New York Times covered that mess too and the Vaad had to back down from the backlash.
Now it is common practice for these Vaad’s to push the envelope evoking a strategy Constitutional Originalists use to challenge liberal policy in the judicial system. Every small victory builds towards the greater goal of continued rabbinic control over the standards of Jewish life and perhaps turning the clock back to the days of animal sacrifice and stoning adulterers.
In 2006, the same Long Island Vaad pulled certification and forced the sale of one of the largest kosher supermarkets and butcheries in the area with little or no transparency (Vaads are funded by members of the community). The letter they issued cited various violations over the years without naming one. They did point out what was likely the real reason for the withdrawal of certification, the store’s hiring of a mashgiach from outside the Vaad, a direct challenge to their monopoly.
A year or two later the same Vaad declared that Streits Matzoh, from one of the oldest kosher bakeries in America with nationally recognized certification could not be sold in Vaad stores. Again, no explanation and no transparency, after a huge outrage from shopkeepers to patrons alike the Vaad backed down.
Business owners that I have spoken to in many areas where there are Vaads like to refer to these kashrut supervisors as La Kosher Nostra. They are usually the only game in town. If a business uses another kosher supervision local rabbis will generally declare the place as un-kosher or at minimum say they cannot vouch for the kashrut. Often times frequenting a place out of Vaad favor can lead to talk of a person not having a kosher home or even being non-observant. The salaries of the mashgichim they appoint are set by the Vaad and can make the difference between a business being profitable and not. One kosher business owner quoted in one of the New York Times stories said that “he pays the sanitation haulers, he pays the Vaad, it’s the cost of doing business.” The commercial sanitation industry was notoriously Mob run in case you missed the reference.
Growing up, I was taught that restaurants and delis that had signs designating them as kosher but were open on Shabbat were not in fact kosher. To the community I grew up in that makes a certain amount of sense, if the proprietor doesn’t keep the laws of Shabbat the way we do how can we trust the kashrut?
This, however, has created what I call the tzitzit check phenomenon. In my yeshiva high school it was not uncommon for any rabbi in the school, in the grossest violation of privacy to rub your back to determine if you were wearing tzitzit (ritual fringes). If you weren’t, you had to go home and get them and you were likely ridiculed in front of your class. Ridicule might be questioning your faith, your level of observance and your future as a Jew.
Today, as rabbis continue to create new rules as to what is kosher and what isn’t based not on the dietary laws but on lifestyle choices, the motives and religiosity of Jews are questioned by their fellow religionists constantly. So while some businesses that push back win the battle to get certification, the word goes out in certain circles, that frequenting that establishment, though strictly kosher, is looked upon negatively or outright verboten.
We are becoming a religion of ultra-Orthodox and Other, I am proudly Other. I lament everyday that my religion, culture, practice and standards are being hijacked by people who don’t look like me, think like me, act like me but claim to be protecting me. This is not success of the right wing but a failure.