The High Court of Justice ruled Tuesday against the Chief Rabbinate's monopoly on kashrut licensing.
Previously, Israeli law only recognized establishments holding certification from the Chief Rabbinate as being kosher, and therefore, permitted to advertise as such. Restaurants that lacked a Rabbinate-issued certificate were prohibited from advertising their food as "kosher," or from using "kosher-related" words like "supervision" or "Jewish law."
As a result, businesses holding "alternate" kashrut certifications issued by ultra-Orthodox or non-Orthodox groups were forced to obtain secondary certification from the Rabbinate, often at great expense.
The ruling opens the door, for instance, to business owners who open their restaurants on Shabbat being able to describe for customers the religious standards of the establishment. On the other hand, restaurateurs that employ "alternative" oversight authorities will not be permitted to post "kosher" certificates; rather, they will be limited to listing details about the supervision and the standards of Jewish law that are observed on the premises.
"I cannot accept the notion that there are only two categories for restaurants – 'kosher' for restaurants displaying a Rabbinate-issued certificate, and 'non-kosher,' meaning any other establishment, regardless of the nature of the food being served," said outgoing Chief Justice Miriam Naor.
Non-Orthodox and civil rights groups were quick to praise the decision.
"The High Court of Justice's ruling is precedent-setting and means that businesses are finally permitted to present themselves as adhering to the rules of kashrut when they are supervised by an organization other than the Chief Rabbinate," said Riki Shapira Rosenberg, the lead attorney for the Israel Religious Action Center's (IRAC), who brought the petition on behalf of two Jerusalem restaurant owners demanding alternative Kashrut supervision.
"This is an important step in achieving freedom of religion in Israel and recognizing the autonomy of every citizen to decide what is legitimate according to their own religious conscience."
Restaurant owners also praised the ruling, calling it a step towards fixing a "broken" system.
"We've had a Rabbinate certificate for four years, and we've had many issues with them. I felt like the system was broken", says Gabriel Piamenta, owner of Halitatea, a tea house and restaurant in downtown Jerusalem.
"Sometimes, inspectors would ask to be paid off the books; other times they would disappear for entire weeks. The last straw was when, after we moved to a bigger location and I brought another partner into the business, the Rabbinate started charging a higher fee for the certificate because my new partner's family came from Russia and they questioned how Jewish he was."
Following the incident, Piamenta wrote a post on Facebook asking his customers what they thought about the situation regarding the Rabbinate. Ultimately, encouraged by their clientele, they decided to employ "Hashgacha Pratit," a growing oversight group that currently certifies some 50 restaurants who observe the kosher laws, but do not wish to deal with the rabbinate.
The movement, headed by Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, says their kashrut model is based on trust between a business and the community around it. Businesses are overseen by inspectors, but they maintain no affiliation with the Rabbinate.
"We actually pay more money for the alternative certification than we did for the Rabbinate certification, but I feel like we are getting a much better product for our money" says Piamenta.
Mara Vigevani and Andrew Friedman contributed to writing this article.
Article reprinted with permission by TPS.