Emerging competitors to kosher food supervision monopolies in Israel and the United States present an economic threat that could bring about fundamental changes in contemporary Orthodox Judaism in each of these centers of Jewish life.
In late February, the Tzohar rabbinic organization announced that it was establishing its own kashrut framework that would operate independently of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. This week, the Beltway Va’ad issued “hashgahah” certificates to five vegan restaurants in the Washington D.C. area.
This last initiative, headed by Maharat Ruth Friedman, who serves as clergy at the Liberal Orthodox Ohev Shalom – The National Synagogue, has already been attacked publicly for placing a woman in a position of authority that had heretofore been reserved for male rabbis. Similarly, until now Tzohar has concentrated on providing religious services to secular-oriented Israelis in a more user-friendly manner, but generally in cooperation with the Chief Rabbinate. In creating a fully-independent supervision agency, it has not only been accused by Haredi figures of lowering halakhic standards, but by fellow Religious-Zionists of undermining a major symbol of the reemergence of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.
Women’s religious leadership and the Chief Rabbinate’s sole control over religious standards for the broader Israeli population, are among the most contentious issues for contemporary Orthodoxy. In 2017, the Orthodox Union, the largest organization of American Orthodox synagogues, adopted a rabbinic legal decision that forbids any of its member congregations from hiring women as clergy. This ruling was intended to put an end to the appointment of women like Friedman, who passed exams equivalent to those of male ordination students, to Orthodox synagogue positions previously held exclusively by rabbis. During the same period, in parallel, the Chief Rabbinate’s strict legal interpretations regarding conversion, and unwillingness to respect the positions of prominent American colleagues, garnered sharp public protests and negative campaigns.
What the more recent Tzohar and Beltway Va’ad initiatives share in common, however, is that they are channeling their challenges to accepted religious norms through the business of kashrut, a vehicle with major financial implications. This differs from the ritual arena, where the economic ramifications are less immediate or direct. Indeed, historical precedent suggests that the dietary avenue may be the most effective tool for forcing the establishment to accept those who present alternative religious views.
The rise of the Hasidic religious streams during the second half of the 18th century in Eastern Europe, offers an insightful historical perspective from which to consider the current conflicts. Although Hasidic groups today are considered among the most vociferous guardians of tradition, when they first appeared, they were accused of being heretical upstarts that threatened rabbinic authority.
A prime example was the Hasidic adoption of distinct rules for ritual slaughter of meat and poultry. The result being that the “shehitah” of the local communally-employed functionary was invalid, and those who followed the Hasidic way had to use the services of an expert in the alternative, mystically-embedded method. Not only did this lead to a loss of income for the traditional ritual “shohet,” it also severely damaged the communal treasury, which received a tax on every animal slaughtered by the established figure.
The initial response of the local rabbis was to place an official ban (herem) on Hasidic shehitah, in keeping with bans on other aspects of the nascent trend. However, the communal leadership eventually realized that the growing cadre of Hasidic followers adhered more to the mystical warnings of their spiritual leaders than to the official communal body’s legal sanctions. Left with the choice between the burgeoning economic crisis due to the loss of tax income, and acceptance of the novel Hasidic kashrut rituals and their purveyors, the authorities removed the prohibitions and accepted both forms of shehitah – as long as the tax was paid to the communal chest.
Once their shehitah was given official authorization, observed the late historian of Polish Jewry Chone Shmeruk, it was only a matter of time before the entire movement was legitimized. Thus, the threat to the financial stability of the establishment paved the way for one of the most important spiritual revolutions of the past three centuries to gain mainstream validity.
It is too early to tell what the economic implications will be of Tzohar’s new agency for the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut monopoly. Will it facilitate the more fundamental changes that many hope will be realized? It would be no less premature to declare the appointment of a women as the head of a local American supervision initiative as the harbinger of broader acceptance of women as Orthodox religious leaders. Nevertheless, the common economic underpinnings of these undertakings, and the historical precedent that they echo, may offer fresh promise to those grasping for effective means to revolutionize contemporary Orthodox Judaism — and a warning bell to those who vigilantly defend it against innovation.