The limits of competition - Israel and kashrut

How odd that Israel would want to revert to the old American-Jewish decentralized system that was so chaotic that it was abandoned! Op-ed.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky ,

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צילום: yaakov Naumi/Flash90
Recently, we have been told repeatedly that competition is a good thing, especially when it comes to the religious services provided by the Rabbinate in Israel. There is merit to that argument. Competition tends to keep prices down, improve service and make the provider much more responsive to the consumer.

But what happens when competition is less of an economic driver and more of an attempt to undermine and weaken the designated provider of those services? What if “competition” is just a slogan that masks a more devious and damaging agenda?

For example, look at the kashrut reforms being proposed. Trumpeting the ideal of “competition” so obscures the proposals that it is difficult to ascertain what exactly is being proposed. One report claims that the Chief Rabbinate will remain the overseer of standards even as individuals, groups or local rabbinates will administer those standards. That would seem to be a proper exercise of competition, although if everyone is implementing the same standards, what does the reform add?

Thus another report reveals that the Chief Rabbinate will remain the overseer of standards – unless a particular merchant or establishment chooses otherwise. In which case, the standards no longer exist.

What will take its place is the execrable form of kashrut supervision that existed for many years in the United States in which individual rabbis gave hashgachot – local or national – and rabbis asked by their congregants as to the reliability of these supervisors would have to investigate these people, one by one. Often the answers were “I don’t know,” “not recommended,” “I know him, he’s OK,” or “I never heard of him.” To the lay mind, it often came down to money, but money does buy a certain level of service and trust.

It is indeed true that you can pay much less to a kashrut “supervisor” who visits once a year or at least less than would be paid to a “supervisor” who visits several times a week. But the need to investigate each rabbi or group and its standards was tedious, inefficient, and unsatisfactory.

Additionally, kashrut standards could widely diverge as well. Some of the more indolent or mercenary hashgachot utilize leniencies (distinct minority opinions) on which most kashrut consumers would not rely. And most of the articles cite complaints of merchants about the hashgacha, the cost, the mashgichim, etc., and never cite the sentiments of the mashgichim or the Rabbinate or the demands of kashrut. The merchant and the kashrut supervisor are not enemies, for sure, but each has different interests that will occasionally clash. Just like the mashgiach is not always right, so too the merchant is not always right.

Over the decades, kashrut in America coalesced into four main organizations whose standards are quite similar, and local vaadim who usually follow the standards of those organizations. Kashrut became more centralized, more efficient, and more beneficial for the consumer. There is even an association of the kashrut professionals that meets regularly to resolve outstanding issues and discuss policies.

That is kashrut in America today, and those establishments that utilize individual or boutique hashgachot usually do it for a reason, and that reason is rarely to improve the level of kashrut. How odd, then, that Israel would want to revert to the old American-Jewish decentralized system that was so chaotic that it was abandoned!

For sure, there are reforms that are possible as any system can be improved, but beware the law of unintended consequences. For example, it may seem as ridiculous to have multiple hashgachot on the same product as it is to provide kosher supervision for water – but both are probably unavoidable. Multiple hashgachot are obviously redundant, until we realize that merchants use them as marketing tools to niche communities. It is advertising, in essence, for the merchant and his product or establishment to a sub-group of consumers.

We wouldn’t castigate the business, or take seriously the complaints of a proprietor, who wonders why he has to advertise on Channel 12 and Channel 20 instead of just Channel 20 alone. That is business, not Torah, and the merchant has the absolute right to say he uses only one hashgacha, even if it forecloses expanding his consumer base. Similarly, the consumer – for whatever reason – can declare that he will only purchase water with a particular (unnecessary) hashgacha. So be it.

We should be mindful of the American experience where many of the current proposals have been tried and have not succeeded. It is sensible to try to duplicate what works rather than duplicate what did not work.

It would make more sense, here as in other areas, if the Civil Service laws were amended to allow for the termination of bureaucrats who were incompetent or nasty. The public deserves better.

The same scenario pertains to conversion, which this government would also like to decentralize and remove from the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. In America, “been there, done that,” and that too failed. It failed so miserably that well over a decade ago, the Rabbinical Council of America, in its most productive and consequential act in the last half-century, instituted the “Gerus Policies and Standards” that made conversion standards uniform and oversaw a network of a dozen conversion courts throughout North America.

For seven years, I headed the Bet Din that oversaw New Jersey and environs. It worked splendidly, and still does. Those who do not participate in that network usually (but not always) have lower standards that correctly call into question their conversions.

To have disorder in conversions is even worse than disorder in kashrut because the stakes are greater. No one wants to create a situation where conversions are routinely insincere, do not require an acceptance of mitzvot, and promote the rejection of people’s Jewish identity by most Jews because the standards were insufficient or the judges unacceptable. That also didn’t work in America, and it was changed for the better. Why would Israel implement here an old system that failed there?


Don’t create anarchy in kashrut, conversion, marriage or divorce – even in the name of the dubious value of competition.
With all due respect, no one authorized Matan Kahane or the Knesset to determine who is a Jew. They can certainly adjudicate who is an Israeli, but “who is a Jew” is a matter of Jewish law to be determined by the decisors of Jewish law, not politicians. They have as much authority to change the definition of Jewishness by altering conversion standards as they do to move Shabbat from Saturday to Tuesday.

Competition is not good in every context. And if it was, and we are enamored with the “competition” cliché, here are additional examples where competition in government services might pertain.

Why should driver’s licenses be granted only by the Ministry of Transportation? Quite frequently, there are complaints about how tests are administered, the costs involved, and the randomness of passing or failing. That too could be privatized, all in the name of competition.

Why isn’t there competition in the government’s guidance on dealing with the Coronavirus? Why must we heed the government’s “experts” who have us zigging and zagging when they are not demanding that we run in circles totally confused, whose advice changes weekly, daily, and sometimes several times a day? We should have competition as well in that sphere. I have plenty of experts who can guide me. I don’t appreciate the government’s monopoly of experts.

Come to think of it, why must we rely on the Ministry of the Interior to oversee the admission of first-degree relatives to Israel during this crisis? The handling of this matter has been appallingly incompetent – convoluted, arbitrary and inefficient. The rules and forms keep changing (three different ministries have already become involved and the forms have changed five times), and this too would benefit from competition from the private sector. Dov Lipman’s Yadlolim organization has done wonderful work stepping in where the government has fallen short, as has the organization “Amudim.” Both would do a better job in approving permits that the government is doing.

Furthermore, many people are displeased by the decisions of Israel’s Supreme Court or Israel’s foreign policy. Why should the government retain a monopoly on foreign affairs, especially when it is unclear that it even represents a majority of the populace? Why should a Court that is unrepresentative of the population be exclusively authorized to make decisions that impact on our lives? There are many people with wonderful ideas who are not currently authorized to speak for the State of Israel or adjudicate cases. Even a little competition would be beneficial here as well.

We would answer that government always has a monopoly on the provision of certain services for the alternative to government monopoly is known as anarchy. And perhaps therein lies the key. People would only countenance anarchy in the provision of services that they deem unimportant – or if they wish to dismantle the entity that administers those services.

The attempt to strip the administration of kashrut and conversion (and who knows what else?) from the Chief Rabbinate is a thinly-concealed effort to dismantle it entirely. It betrays a vision of Judaism as a purely cultural entity that lacks substance, mandates, divinity or any real importance, and will dilute the very notion of a Jewish state. Competition is encouraged usually when the matter at hand is not considered that important.

Every element of government could benefit from competition but we do not allow it when anarchy would result and the service provided is considered critical to society’s functioning. So strengthen the Chief Rabbinate rather than undermine it. Hold the bureaucrats accountable rather than further bloat the bureaucracy. Promote the observance of Jewish law rather than water it down. Don’t create anarchy in kashrut, conversion, marriage or divorce – even in the name of the dubious value of competition.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, Israel Representative of the Coalition for Jewish Values, lives in Israel and is the author of “Repentance for Life” (just published by Kodesh Press).


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