On a recent trip to America, I witnessed a new challenge to the kosher consumer. There is no central or puissant authority defining and enforcing the term “kosher.”
Concomitantly, Israel’s kosher consumers are in a dither with Orthodox rabbis challenging the monopoly of the chief rabbis, who alone define and are authorized by law to apply “kosher” in the marketplace.
It is clear who owns the legal rights to words such as Google and Xerox, but who owns kosher, as in “Whoever wants to eat kosher shouldn’t eat at Jerusalem’s Pasta Bar”?
In America, civil laws define the term kosher. Definitions vary from one jurisdiction to another.
In Israel, only the chief rabbis have the legal right to declare a restaurant, a food or any other product kosher. The power to label something kosher is the latest challenge to the authority of the chief rabbis, tearing at their tightfisted control of Israel’s civil society.
Hotam, a nongovernmental organization linked to the chief rabbis, declared the expanding restaurant chain Pasta Bar not kosher and called on kosher consumers to boycott it.
Pasta Bar was under the kosher supervision of the chief rabbis but switched to the independent Tzohar association for kosher supervision. But Tzohar cannot openly declare a restaurant kosher, nor can the restaurant advertise itself as kosher because only the chief rabbis have the legal authority to make such a call.
Peggy Cidor of The Jerusalem Post describes the fight for control of the term as a “street war” that has “many of the components of a real war — threats, shaming, and stories in the press and on social media.”
The competing claims to control “kosher” are among the many challenges to the monopolistic authority enjoyed by the chief rabbis. The kerfuffle over who is a Jew, conversions, marriages, divorces, control of public mikvahs, compliance with Shabbat laws by retail stores and other issues are gaining traction.
Whom Do You Trust?
Kosher in America is the essence of capitalism. It is a free-for-all. Anyone may start a kosher certifying agency and promote it any way he wishes. It is an industry in which consumers exercise freedom of choice and agencies practice freedom of speech.
For-profit and nonprofit kosher certifying agencies are big business. Agencies succeed by building brands with recognizable logos. Kosher symbols are as impactful to consumers as are logos on sportswear.
Greater recognition of a kosher logo translates to more sales and revenue. Restaurants, food sellers, produce and vegetable purveyors, candy and chewing gum makers, and medicine and vitamin manufacturers choose one certifying agency over others based on local acceptance and recognition.
Manufactured products, including refrigerators, dishwashing and laundry soaps, aluminum foil, paper plates, and toothpaste are also certified as kosher by agencies. It’s all about driving customers to buy products.
The competition in Israel is becoming as fierce as in the United States.
I received a threatening letter from a local rabbi in the South when I was asked to broach a negotiation between the rabbi and a national kosher certifying organization. The local rabbi was building a business by persuading alcohol distillers to come under his kosher agency, and the bulk of the family’s income depends on the cooperation of the distillers.
He sent the national agency and me a churlish response, threatening to take us to a religious court if we approached any of his clients or potential clients.
Financial statements are seldom if ever made public by for-profit or nonprofit kosher agencies in the United States and Israel. Information about money, who’s making it and how much, is the most closely guarded secret in the annual $12.5 billion world of U.S. kosher certification. Estimates are that the industry is growing annually at 11.5 percent.
The Atlanta Kosher Commission certifies “over 150 companies and thousands of products in the Southeast. And beyond.”
Lurking in the shadows, waiting to see whether the power in Israel is ripped from the chief rabbis, are the U.S. agencies. They fear the near-absolute power of the chief rabbis will extend overseas in determining which kosher certifications are valid and which to avoid.
Such a move to consolidate power worldwide by the chief rabbis would cause financial hardship for the U.S. certifying agencies.
And there is cause for worry. The chief rabbis have purportedly assembled a blacklist of American rabbis whose marriages, divorces and conversions are rejected by the rabbinate in Israel.
Moreover, the challenge to kosher labeling emanates from the Orthodox Tzohar organization, not the Reform and Conservative movements. Tzohar boasts nearly 1,000 Orthodox Zionist rabbis. This internecine and objurgating brawl delegitimizes the chief rabbis and the status of “kosher.”
Follow the Money
American kosher consumers live with chicanery when it comes to kosher designations. Entrepreneurs coined the term “kosher style.” A kosher pickle means it tastes like a pickle made to Jewish taste but not kosher standards. “Kosher style” is anathema to kosher consumers.
Manufacturers and purveyors not wanting to pay the fees or meet the standards required for certification are deftly attracting kosher consumers with look-alike “kosher” logos on their labels.
The small print reveals that the food is made with kosher or kosher-certified ingredients. The “kosher” symbols they use do not represent any established certifying agency. Maybe the design is to trick consumers.
In my marketing classes, students discuss the power of symbols. Logos transmit a brand and standards to consumers, replacing the need for wordy explanations. A feckless or mendacious cake manufacturer with a package design including a symbol made to appear as a kosher symbol is overreaching.
The purpose of reliable kosher symbols is to fulfill the bon mot that independent parties trust but verify everything to which they affix their logos.
A Potentially Frightful Ending
Challenges to the chief rabbis are founded in verified stories about no-show inspectors, inspectors demanding “gifts” from businesses they inspect, and assignments based on nepotism and favoritism rather than seniority and qualifications.
The corruption and venality that allegedly riddle kashrut administration in Israel amplify all other disputes, adding to the vulnerability of the chief rabbis.
The media and satraps are all over this war in Israel. It is up to the chief rabbis to erase all doubts about kosher quality, effectiveness and efficiency in the minds of consumers.
To paraphrase Shel Silverstein, oh, how I loved tradition and practiced everything tried and true. I relied on rabbis to tell me what to do. My passion waned and practices, too, when I heard what the rabbis do, never caring for the consumer’s point of view.
Businesses and community organizations interested in scheduling speaking engagements this summer with Harold Goldmeier can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.