The first phase of the liberalization of the certification system for kosher food (known as kashrut) was launched on January 2 in Israel. For many, it is the start of a silent revolution in the relationship between state and religion, which could have huge repercussions.
The country’s rabbinical authorities, ultra-Orthodox, indeed hold in their hands the main institutions of Jewish life, from conversion to funerals. The vast majority of food products are thus subjected to kashrut. Until last week, this approval was only possible by religious councils, branches of the Chief Rabbinate. But since January 2, it has been open to all local religious institutions. These are still subject to inspections by the Chief Rabbinate, but they can now be put in competition.
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One of the proven goals of this reform, voted in Parliament in November 2021, is to lower the cost of living. For devotees who follow the kosher rules – about two-thirds of the Jewish population, so about half of the 9 million Israelis – as well as for the shops and restaurants they frequent, this could amount to millions of shekels in. savings per year. In 2016, Kashrut supervision costs amounted to more than 800 million euros per year.
Countering the centralized power of a religious minority
More important, perhaps, some see it as a way of countering the centralized power of a corrupt religious minority. A falafel establishment is targeted by an intoxicating campaign after refusing to pay the kashrut inspector when the restaurant was closed during the pandemic? An ice cream factory is forced to pay a fine because a pita was found in the bag of one of its employees at the time of Passover? … The anecdotes of corruption with mafia overtones are known to everyone in Israel.
For the critics of the reform – they are rare, and most of them connected to the ultra-Orthodox establishment – the risk is not limited to a hypothetical loss of speed in dietetic rules. This would undermine the cohesion of the state and its very Jewish character.
“This reform could lead to conversion and marriage outside the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, and inevitably to the separation of the communities of Israel”, deplored the two Chief Rabbis of Israel in a joint statement in October.
A moment of opportunity
At the center of this affair is a man, Matan Kahana, minister of religious affairs close to the prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and who has spent most of his career in the military. If he likes to remind people that he is himself Orthodox, that he follows a vision of strict Judaism, since his arrival he has been working on a great upheaval of religious institutions of which kashrut is only the beginning. “It is a step forward for those who want more freedom of worship in Israel”, explains Tomer Persico, a researcher at the Hartman Institute of Jewish Studies.
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For now, it is still the logo of the Chief Rabbinate that we see in the fronts of restaurants, even in Tel Aviv, bastion of secular Israel. Reform will take time, and the time of opportunity may be limited. It only passed because the government in power holds on to a very fragile parliamentary coalition which, for once, does not include the ultra-Orthodox. Everything could change in the next election.