Israel needs a Judaism that is more personal and accountable

Busting the kashrut monopoly represents a return to an age-old form of rabbinic authority, and heals the damage of public distrust in state religious institutions

Ever since the Romans put an end to the council of elders known as the Sanhedrin in the fifth century,  religious Jewish communal life has been placed in the hands of local rabbinical authorities, primarily the mara de-atra (Aramaic for master of the house). As the major Rishonim, the formative rabbis who codified Jewish law, the Rambam and the Rif state “asu gedolim eilu kerabam”  they have made these great ones their teachers.

This mandate to follow the local rabbinic leaders makes sense. Such figures understood the local realities and sensitivities and felt a closeness to the community and the individuals who formed it. These rabbis were easily accessible and prominent in their locales.

This did mean that Jewish law or custom could differ from place to place, but this was something to be embraced rather than feared. This is one of the reasons why the reforms being enacted by the new government in Israel to decentralize issues like kashrut, conversion, marriage and divorce should likewise not be feared, but rather welcomed.

While the media like to describe this government as “the government of change,” which it certainly is, it is more than that. We are looking at issues and situations that have sadly become stagnant at best and corrupt at worst and seeking to create new realities, or in the case of reform in the arena of religion and state, to return to a former reality that serves the interests of society as a whole.

More than this is a breaking of the Rabbinate’s monopoly on issues like kashrut, there is a dismantling of the equation created in recent times in which kashrut has been equated with corruption. Unfortunately, average Israelis see what has become of kashrut with their own eyes, and when they associate a central part of Judaism as dishonest, it moves them further away from it.

This is why, from my first days in the Knesset, I dealt with issues relating to religion and state, including the issue of kashrut. I saw that the relationship Jews in Israel had with the issue of kashrut certification in the State of Israel – the lack of clarity, the double payments for the same kosher supervisor for different certifications – threatened not only the status of the rabbinate, but also and especially the status of Judaism in the state.

For a nation that prides itself on being both Jewish and democratic, this is a sharp blow to our central ethos. It harms our Zionist spirit.

Furthermore, dissolving the rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut has significant economic implications estimated at many millions of shekels every year – shekels that will end up in the consumer’s pockets in substantial savings.

Most of all, however, the reforms led by Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahane are a step toward rebuilding the credibility of kashrut. From now on, those who keep kosher in this country can rest assured knowing that the kosher certification that a business owner chooses will be free of outside considerations, and will be a certificate attesting to kosher supervisors who fulfilled their role more faithfully than before. Certification will be provided by local rabbis who are cognizant of the reality on the ground and are known and accessible to the patrons.

As with all competitive markets, the business owners and the consumers will have the freedom to choose. If they see that a particular kosher supervisor is not living up to their commitment, they can take their business elsewhere. When there is no choice and a monopoly in any particular market, it invariably leads to corruption and the constant raising of cost which has an impact on the price the consumer has to pay.

Cronyism and extreme centralization are never good things for any modern industry, and become the enemy of ethical and moral behavior. That is why the enactment of desperately needed reforms is central to the ethos of this government. Of course, like any monopoly on the verge of shattering, there will be voices who will cry and threaten.

Reforms by this government are taking place across the spectrum. Excessive bureaucracy is being limited, regulatory burdens are being eased, competition is being increased in many industries and the cost of living is being reduced.

These are principles that unite this government, and we dare not leave issues relating to religion and state behind.

Whether religious, traditional or secular, being Jewish should be a source of pride for all. Every time a Jew in Israel meets an aspect of Judaism they see as petty or corrupt, it erodes this pride and weakens a central aspect of the Jewish solidarity and peoplehood that are the foundations of this country.

There is a reason our great rabbis, in their infinite wisdom, saw the need to create a more personal and accountable Judaism, which survived for thousands of years.

It is time for the State of Israel to return to that Judaism.

About the Author
Elazar Stern is Minister of Intelligence and has been involved in numerous reforms on issues like conversion and kashrut throughout his professional, military and political life.