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Kosher Wars V – The Empire Strikes Back

March 7, 2011 – 10:20 pm19 Comments

Even after 900 years of experience, some still don't trust Rav Yoda's rebel hechsher

By David Werdiger

The “kosher wars” have been reignited recently with the release by Rabbi Moshe Gutnick of The Kashrut Authority (I will refer to them as KA(Syd) to avoid ambiguity) of a statement regarding the standard of kashrut of Rabbi Rabi’s Kosher veYosher (KVY) at an establishment in Sydney. It should be noted that KVY is Melbourne-based, and KA(syd) has the closest thing to a monopoly on kashrut in Sydney. Indeed, the statement states that “[t]he appearance of Kosher V’Yosher in NSW has prompted us to make an announcement at this time”.

Rabbi Gutnick claims “first hand knowledge of the kashrut practices of [KVY]”, and refers to KVY’s controversial “soft matzah” as a representative example of the inadequacies of KVY’s kashrut supervision. KA(Syd)’s statement was posted on these pages and resulted in further debate on the issue.

In the course of this discussion, Anthony Frosh, one of the editors of this publication, has suggested that it is inappropriate for people to make allegations against rabbis without declaring their identity. This issue of commenter anonymity has comes up several times recently in these pages, and frankly, I think it’s a non-starter. An online magazine that wants to stimulate public debate on an issue needs to accept that in the internet world (and certainly in the WikiLeaks world), many people choose, for a host of reasons, to stay anonymous. Pressing them for identity or questioning their agenda simply because they are anonymous directs discussion away from the core issues, and will only stifle further debate. On several occasions, those anonymous commenters have backed away citing battering they have received as the reason. GA should put up or shut up: if this site wants to introduce a stricter comment policy, then it should do so officially, and start moderating all comments. Personally, I feel this would be a huge step backward.

More importantly, there are angles to this debate that go well beyond the kashrut standard or credentials of KVY (about which I will not comment).

There is the matter of laypeople making judgments about kashrut matters. With the launch of soft matzah, suddenly everyone became a kashrut expert, knowing about whether locally produced flour is washed, what the definition of chametz is, and what level of supervision is required for food establishments.

What if we were talking about doctors, and not rabbis? Would laypeople (perhaps not even their patients) constantly second guess them and suggest they know better? Would they say “I have read all about this, and I disagree with your diagnosis”? And if they did, is it reasonable for them to have the same credibility as a doctor?

In an age of modern food science and manufacturing, kashrut supervision has become a very complex matter indeed. There are many issues that can crop up in the end-to-end production of almost any food, and rabbis who work in the industry need a combination of halachic knowledge and manufacturing subject matter expertise.

So what is the layperson to make of a debate between rabbis over who of their supervision is or isn’t kosher? This is the core issue for most of us (who care about eating kosher).

The fact is that in a complex industry like kashrut, there are many valid opinions, and many shades of grey. KA (the Melbourne one) maintains both a regular and mehadrin (“extra kosher”) standard. What does this mean? Is “regular” kosher or isn’t it? Of course it’s kosher, KA would say, but some people prefer to observe extra hiddurim – “beautifying” mitzvot by doing them the best way possible. Why do some mezuzahs cost $50, and some $150? The same applies for a pair of tefillin, an etrog, or any number of other mitzvot.

So in kashrut, as in most of Judaism, there is a spectrum of observance. The spectrum is very wide, and there are no shortages of opinions. One person’s hiddur is another person’s extravagance, and what is a basic level of observance for one, may be quite unacceptable for another.

A while ago, there was a debate between KA and Adass kashrut about that fine product, Nutri Grain, which contrary to its healthy sounding name, happens to have the most sugar of any breakfast food. Adass said it was 100% kosher, and KA said it was 100% not. How could this be? Aren’t both of these Orthodox supervising agencies run to a very high standard (at least on my spectrum of observance)? It came down to a difference of psak (halachic ruling) about a particular ingredient. Eventually, the two organizations sat down, managed to work out their differences, and now Jewish children are all the less healthy for it.

Any kashrut authority establishes a standard for itself, often based on its target market, and/or its mission. One may choose to offer the highest standard possible without compromise. Another may choose to offer a lower standard so as to cater to a larger market. Whatever the case, they all must balance standards against available resources and other market forces.

If you are ill, you can search out the best specialist available in the world, or you can go to the nearest public hospital and wait for hours to see a second-year resident. What you do depends on how seriously you take your ailment, and what resources are available to you. Because the laws of kashrut are religious in origin, one could think of kashrut rabbis as spiritual doctors. The ultimate failure for a doctor results in the death of the patient. When a rabbi certifies food to be kosher when it isn’t, the result is spiritual damage to the consumer – something that most people are unable to perceive. At the end of the day, in both medicine and kashrut, people choose a standard that works for them.

In the interests of disclosure: the writer is a relative by marriage to the owner of Kosher veYosher, and was not solicited in any way to write this piece, nor consulted the agency.

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