Posted: November 30, 2012
The country's ultra-Orthodox Jews control kosher certification, but some restaurants are raising objections and forming their own rival certification association. The dispute is part of a wider debate over how Israel should manage the relationship between church and state.
The Carousela cafe in West Jerusalem is one of a handful of restaurants and cafes in Israel staging a bit of a rebellion by defying Jewish religious authorities who claim they are the only ones who can certify restaurants as kosher, or in compliance with Jewish dietary laws.
Activists, rabbis and customers recently gathered in support of Carousela after the authorities threatened to fine the cafe if it claimed to be kosher without a certificate from the rabbinate. And now Carousela and four other restaurants are taking the authorities to court over the issue, according to The Times of Israel.
Cafe manager Jonathan Vadei says the rabbinate's kosher inspectors are not doing their job, and he and some colleagues have decided to form their own association to do it.
Now, it takes some chutzpah to call the authorities unkosher, but some rabbis have rallied to Vadei's support for doing so. Conservative movement Rabbi Andrew Sacks says the kosher inspection system has become corrupt.
"There are many restaurants and institutions where the inspector comes in once a month simply to collect a check and does not appear the rest of the month," Sacks says. "But beyond that, a serious problem is that the inspectors themselves are paid directly by the restaurateur. So there can be no objectivity."
But Rabbi Eliyahu Schlesinger of the Jerusalem Religious Council says any restaurant that calls itself kosher without a certificate is breaking the law. "To become a doctor you need certification; to become a lawyer you need certification; to be kosher, you need certification," Schlesinger says through an interpreter. "I don't know who is behind this. Probably interest groups, maybe with political interests in mind. The result will be anarchy."
For centuries before the modern state of Israel was established in 1948, there was no central authority over kosher inspections. They were done by private groups of rabbis, as they are in the United States.
"It was based on trust, and that's what we need to install again: the trust between the customer and the owner of the restaurant, without the monopoly and without all the other commercial interests of the chief rabbinate," says Conservative Rabbi Ehud Bandel.
But then the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, gave the rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox Jews a monopoly, not just over kosher inspections but over weddings and funerals too. It also granted the ultra-Orthodox special privileges, such as exemption from military service.
Now Israelis are questioning all of these monopolies and privileges.
Bandel says it is time to reclaim Judaism from the religious establishment. "It's up to us to make sure that the Knesset will change this legislation and enable freedom of religion and free market of religion, which will only be good for religious life here in Israel."
Some see this issue as part of a larger culture war between Orthodox and secular Jews. But Jerusalem City Council member Rachel Azaria says that the two sides are just trying to find ways to live together and improve the city.
"For 15 years, the ultra-Orthodox were taking over, and the regular Orthodox and the liberal and the secular were leaving the city," Azaria says. "What happened over the past few years is we got a secular mayor, and that kind of changed something, and we got our self-confidence back and we're campaigning again to make sure the city is the way we want it to be."
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