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The Politics of Kashrut

By Rabbi Eric Solomon | Issue Date: June 2000

The laws of kashrut are complex and often mired in politics and separatism. Meant to serve a myriad of purposes, these laws have varied impacts on our 21st century lives.

The hekhsher symbols on a kosher product generally denote which kashrut supervisory organization has given its stamp of approval to the product. As there are differences of opinion on kashrut issues and each agency has its own symbol, consumers are able to contact an organization if they have any further questions or avoid a product if they do not agree with the agency’s stance. The most common symbol is “OU” and is connected with the Orthodox Union.

The level of kashrut under the strictest organizational observance is “Glatt” kosher . When meat is slaughtered, it can still be considered un-kosher if the animal is inspected and there is found to be significant damage to its lungs. A kosher animal can have some slight imperfections in the lung; a Glatt kosher animal does not have any imperfections in the lungs at all. Also, a Glatt restaurant is under kashrut supervision by a rabbi or a number of rabbis at all times so there is almost no chance that any laws of kashrut may be broken. Other kosher (but not Glatt) restaurants may have a rabbi who periodically checks on the kashrut at a restaurant (as much as daily) but that rabbi is not “always” there.

The process is assisted by the Mashgiah (“supervisor”) who watches food preparation carefully to make sure the food, instruments and utensils remains kosher throughout its process of cooking, baking, etc. In cases where kashrut is broken, he may be asked to “kasher” utensils or dishes through techniques such as pouring boiling water on it, burning it with a blow torch, etc…

While this may seem straightforward, problems do arise and the recent experience of Israeli hotels is a good example. Tens of thousands of tourists were expected to arrive in the Holy Land to tour the holy sites in time for the last Christmas of the millennium. Ordinarily, this would be cause for great celebration. For years, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism has aimed to attract Christian tourists and the year 2,000 seemed to provide the most effective, free advertising that the state of Israel could have hoped for.

This past year however, Christmas fell on Shabbat causing great concern for the ultra-orthodox government ministers who manage the Ministry of Religious Affairs and provide the kashrut certification for restaurants. Hotels, in particular, had already planned to accommodate and attract Christian tourists by playing Christmas music in hotel lobbies, holding fancy midnight galas and offering special tours of Old City landmarks. These activities, customary during every other Shabbat of the year, became a cause célèbre because those who were ultra-orthodox were concerned that the desecration of Shabbat would turn from a mild annoyance to a massive display of irreligiousity on this exuberant holiday. Those who controlled this powerful ministry were prepared to threaten withdrawal of the hotel’s kashrut certifications as a deterrent. This threat did not go unnoticed by the hotels who knew that the “bread and butter” of their clientele were the kashrut-observant Jewish guests, who dined in their restaurants throughout the year.

The majority of Israelis argued that, in reality, the food preparation of these hotel restaurants had not changed one iota. How could the Ministry of Religion remove the kashrut certificate when not one piece of treyf ever passed the reception desk? It became obvious to many that the Ministry of Religion was wielding its kashrut certification power to control business practices that conflicted with their interests. Kashrut, which should have stayed in the kitchen, entered the Knesset and engendered a national conversation about the power of the ultra-orthodox in Israeli society.

We in the U.S.can’t simply put our hands over our eyes, for we face a similar dilemma. Here, a number of kashrut supervisory organizations check the process of food preparation and place their symbol on the labels of the food we eat. For the most part, these organizations act responsibly. However, they are almost exclusively associated with the Orthodox movement and sometimes with the ultra-orthodox community. By purchasing foods with the hekhsher of these communities, we are indirectly supporting organizations which often represent values that contradict our liberal views. The paucity of liberal hashgakhot (kosher supervisory groups) has placed us in a “Catch-22.” Either we finance those organizations with whom we disagree, or we are left to consume food that may not be kosher.

As a Jew who confronts this issue daily, I can only offer this information in order to raise our consciousness. Perhaps as more and more Jews begin to think seriously about kashrut and its ethical ramifications, a new hashgakhah will arise which represents our liberal Jewish values. In the meantime, I hope that we will all continue to struggle with the mitzvah of kashrut and work towards a day when it will only be a matter of the soul and the palate and will be an expression of the unity of the Jewish people.