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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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19 Comments »

  • Malkmus says:

    I’m not sure I agree with this comparison of kashrut to medicine. One is based on science, the other on interpretation of an ancient text. Accordingly, the suggestion that different hechshers represent different standards (of strictness) on some kind of kashrut spectrum, I believe, is misleading. Different hechshers represent different interpretations of an essentially ambiguous text (or body of writings). Provided each certifying rabbi or authority is able to explain and justify it’s rulings, people should be able to choose whatever interpretation makes sense to them and follow it accordingly, without suggestion from others that it represents any lower or higher standard in religious observance.
    When we view kashrut correctly as an interpretation and not a science, we open ourselves to the possibility that Rabbis Rabi and Gutnick and all the other certifiers can all be right and we thereby celebrate tolerance and diversity and being good to one another which, frankly, is far more important to me and, in my opinion, central to being Jewish, than whether my matzah is soft or hard.

  • non-rabbi says:

    This was recently discussed on the ajnwatch blog.

    A key point they mentioned was the fact that not only did Rab Gutnick attack KVY’s hashgacha but they also snacthed away that soft matzah company from KVY and are now the certifiers.

    Can our rabbis get any lower than that?

  • Michael says:

    If Dell computers warned us not to buy Apple products, without offering objective evidence of faulty product or verifiable operating specifications (system overheats, hard drive is 20% slower than ours etc) – why should I listen to them?

    The core issue forgotten in considering KVY and the debate surrounding it is that it has a lot to do with money. It’s a turf war. And the demand in this case for unbiased, reliable sources on KVY practices would allow us, halakhically, to listen to KA (syd and Melb). I’m talking chafetz Chayim and the laws of speaking about competitor products.

    Until we have objective evidence, we may not be allowed to heed biased, prima facie baseless warnings. There are vested interests here that do not exist in the medical world between doctors.

    By the way- yes, KVY allows leniencies that the other organisations do not. In my opinion, in a country that has less kosher establishments in total, than the number I had just on my block at Yeshiva University in New York- you take those leniencies. Many modern youth today are taking chances with vegan or, more problematically, vegetarian, etc. Hechshers are handy in a broadly uninformed community (I agree, most people aren’t experts, but then many issues are not as complex as they are portrayed, as one rabbi stated: ‘the more you know, the more you can eat’ – not less), and therefore the primary goal of any kashrut org – I would have thought – would be to reduce the onerous nature of keeping kosher so that more people keep it.

    But in any case- KA Syd did not warn that KVY’s standards are less stringent. That would have been fine and understandable. Instead they questioned the reliability of it, without giving us anything to go on. A surgeon could point to an X-ray to show why such and such needs to be removed. Uninformed does not mean dumb. And real Judaism does not see its members yield their discerning ability to anyone, at the end of the day. We consult, yes, but we make the decisions.

  • Interested Reader says:

    The bottom line is that both parties are out there to make money for themselves.
    To call out that KA (Syd) took a client from KVY is a furphy as KVY has in the past taken a client off KA(Melb) & KA(Melb) has in the past taken from KA(Syd). Adass & KA (Melb) have caterers & restaurants that have gone back and forth and then of course you have OU/ OK/ Star K & Eidah Charedis fly here to work with Australian companies for the kosher market.
    Non – rabbi: please confirm whether KA(Syd) will be offering soft style matzos this Pesach from said baking company. I think you will find that they won’t – in alignment with every other Rabbi in Australia (excluding KVY)
    Perhaps you will find that this baking company like several other caterers/ restaurants who have in the past been under the banner of KVY moved across to an alternate Kashrus authority once they learn that the vast bulk of the kosher market do NOT accept KVY as an acceptable kashrus in Melbourne.
    David is 100% correct regarding the complexities of modern food processing & manufacturing is astounding. Therefore, when selecting a competent Kashrus body that offers its Hechsher to a wide array of products across a range of manufacturing processing and industrial chemistry applications that we are aware that there exist in house capabilities and specialists for the kashrus body to cope.

  • AusIsr says:

    As someone who commented on the previous posting on this subject, as well as on the AJN Watch site discussion on the issue, let me say that I am impressed by David Werdiger’s article!

    His sage and sensible approach to the issue leads me to think that he would be an excellent shtadlan on behalf of the community and could do well for himself (though he has already done so) in the mediation business!

    His comparison of rabbis to doctors is an apt one. Two doctors can often reach differing conclusions on treatment, even though their goal is the same. Rabbis Rabi and Moshe Gutnick, as well as the rabbis of Kosher Australia and Adass Kashrus, are all dedicated to promoting kashrus among the Jewish consumer. However, each interpret the kashrus requirements in slightly different ways, and it is up to the consumer to decide which rabbi to follow.

    Unfortunately, some of the comments above have sought, yet again, to muck rake, casting aspersions on particular rabbonim and their institutions. Rabbosai – please take a page out of David’s book and learn the art of compromise, diplomacy and dignity!

    AusIsr

  • Agreed says:

    I don’t think this is an issue of a turf war.

    Nor is it an issue of the spectrum of interpretations of halacha.

    The issue, as I see it is that KVY is willfully negligent of Kosher standards. The RCV and KA of Sydney never denounced any other kashrus organisation working in Australia, but due to this circumstance they felt that it was important as people were eating things they thought were kosher, but in fact were not.

    The statements denouncing the KVY both clearly point out that there was evidence of serious kosher infractions. This was not an issue of heresay or rumours. It happened after KA melbourne and KA sydney took over an establishment which was under KVY and it became evident just how wilfully negligent the standards actually were.

  • frosh says:

    David,

    One of the problems with anonymous people making severe accusations is that people are not made aware of the accuser has a major conflict of interest.

    For example, take the case of severe accusations (without any evidence of course) from “Agreed” above. The commenter could just be another interested reader, but they could also be one of the principals of KA for all the readers know.

  • Agreed says:

    frosh,

    First off, I’m not … but regardless, please explain why a Kashrus Organisation and an unrelated Rabbinical council would both issue official letters stating that another Kashrus organisation is not kosher.

    Its a very strong escalation for a simple turf war.

  • Interested Reader says:

    @Agreed: You may not be giving KVY the benefit of the doubt. R’ Rabi has interperted halochos in a manner which suites his approach. This is a far stretch to suggesting that he is willfully putting non-kosher products into our mouths

    @Auslsr: I think you have negated the crux of the matter. Every single Pulpit Rabbi in Victoria has come out against KVY and even those in non- RCV affiliated shules willing tell their congregants NOT to eat KVY endorsed products.

    You use the words ‘slightly different way’in describing interpretation of Halachah. In this you are correct, there are minor differences that seperate all the kashrut bodies world wide and based on both your personal Hashkafot and instruction from your pulpit Rabbi decisions on which Hechsher is acceptable to you, can be made.

    In this case, it is singularly unique to have every orthodox Rabbi come out against KVY based on discussions with the likes of OU & London Beis Din. They too differ slightly on their interpretation of Halachot regarding their activities and services, yet when it came to assessing the interpretation of Halachot by KVY kashrut a significant difference seems to have been noted.

  • frosh says:

    @Agreed,

    “why a Kashrus Organisation and an unrelated Rabbinical council”

    As has been pointed out numerous times on related articles, these bodies are FAR FROM “unrelated”
    —–
    @Interested Reader
    “Every single Pulpit Rabbi in Victoria has come out against KVY”
    This is a complete lie – they have not. You do realise there are many more rabbonim than Telsner, Sprung, and Glasman…

    “based on discussions with the likes of OU & London Beis Din”
    This is also a lie. These organisation completely deny any knowledge of this!

    I strongly suggest any further accusations be accompanied by evidence!

  • Conflictofinterests says:

    Frosh,
    I understand you. I just worry for your blood pressure!

    I know good rabbis up in Sydney that caution against KVY – but none have been able to provide their sources in public, or their sources’ sources.

    I think their intentions are pure in wanting to protect their congregations. But I also think that a rabbi that has a whole community to take care of – with marriages, barmitzvahs, couples counselling, divorces, intermarriage, fights with boards, etc etc – simply don’t have time or mental space to devote to worrying about kashrus.
    Perhaps they would like things to be better, no doubt they would prefer more kosher restaurants, but they’re comfortable taking their cue from the major kashrus orgs. To remedy this, we really need more leaders in our communities.

    My problem is, as I see with Michael’s comments which in the main have not been addressed, that there is that conflict of interest.

    Another analogy: if Mitsubishi issued a statement warning the public not to buy Fords because they’re not safe, well look – Mitsubishi unquestionably has the background and technical expertise to know what could go wrong with car manufacturing today, but without giving verifiable sources, a whistleblower (though… why would they go to Ford’s competition?), or a fact that can be objectively confirmed, there’s a clear conflict of interest.

    Does anyone imagine for a second that such a statement would stand in the corporate world? Mitsubishi would be forced to retract.

    One other side point. Whoever’s right or wrong here – for those of us ready to jump up and champion our leaders and consider it their duty, they in turn might like to consider that the Torah requires a korban/sacrifice be brought by a court that makes a mistake. Meaning Moshe and Aharon could be wrong (and they in fact did make mistakes), so why not great people today? And they are highly capable of standing up for themselves. I think that’s partially why Frosh’s gall is so very much got, re: anonymity. When a statement is made without clear basis or sources, the onus is on the statement makers to – pardon the cliche – bring home the bacon and provide evidence to their claims – ideally within the original statement. Those who refuse to admit the possibility that the leaders they hold dear could be wrong, deny the Torah they presume to keep. Harsh – but true.

    I, for one, will not impugn the character of communal figures such as R’ Gutnick, or anyone in KA (melb). They may be 100% right about KVY. And honestly wish to inform the public. But unfortunately and totally beyond their control, as I see it, they can’t get away from the conflict of interest. So the second thing is, but who then should issue warnings or recommendations? Who has the expertise on modern manufacturing processes today and their bearing on kashrut that is not working for a kashrut organisation, or, like the RCV, closely connected to people that are?
    The government and community provide independent bodies to verify or negate claims. In food – there are health safety standards, certifications, health inspectors and the like. Maybe something like that would put the communities’ confidence back?

    Otherwise we’re left with the same awful suspicions and community pressure games, factions and infighting that historian Rabbi Berel Wein acknowledges plagued European Jewry just a short few hundred years ago. How horrible!

  • Agreed says:

    @frosh, I dont mean unrelated in every way, I mean monitarily and operationally. They aren’t known to fight each other battles, and definitely over turf control.

    @conflictofinterests You make a good point, but you missed a key point. KosherAustralia and KashrutAuthority themselves have the following goals.
    a) Their goal is to the congregants of the synagogues and communities that rely on them to know if something is kosher or not.
    b) Their goal is to be completely apolitical. Their organisaton is an issue of halachic interpretation, manufacturing research, and observation.

    If they took the time from their day to make a “political” sounding statement, which is against their organisational style, they have a good reason for it. Note: Thats why Kosher Australia elected to let the RCV make the statement since they are in the politics game to some extent.

  • frosh says:

    @Agreed.
    You claim that the RCV and KA are “unrelated”, and yet within the same comment you say yourself that KA directed the RCV to make a statement.

    Thank you for making it easier for readers to see just how “unrelated” these bodies are.

  • Agreed says:

    @frosh

    Kashrut Authority = Sydneys Kosher Organisation
    Kosher Australia = Melbourne Kosher Organisation
    RCV = Rabbinical council victoria

    KosherAustralia and RCV do operate to some extent together.

    Kashrut Authority does not

  • dovid segal says:

    my Previous posting was an answer to david’s question:

    <Adass said it was 100% kosher, and KA said it was 100% not. How could this be?<

  • AustIsr says:

    Eds: Please do not post comments under multiple pseudonyms under the same topic. It creates a false impression of consensus. You have been warned before.

    The Kashrut Authority/Sydney Beth Din/Yeshiva Rabbinate have just issued an unequivocal statement to the effect that KvY cannot be relied upon to produce soft matza, with the reasons given. Secondly, the statement reaffirms the Ashkenazi opposition to the use of soft matza. How can anyone now hold that these soft matzas can be eaten?!!!

    WARNING RE: SOFT MATZAH – PESACH 5771

    It has come to our attention that Kosher V’Yosher has purportedly supervised for Pesach soft laffa type Matzot. As we have done in the past, we wish to warn kosher consumers that in our opinion the supervision of Kosher V’Yosher cannot be relied upon and these Matzot may not be used on Pesach.

    Last year, when Kosher V’Yosher supervised these Matzot for Pesach, according to the manufacturer and our visitation of the plant, the following occurred:
    1. Ordinary flour that was not kosher for Pesach was used.
    2. The conveyor belt was sprinkled with maize starch
    3. The process heat was not sufficient for the baking of Matzah

    In other words, the matzot were not permitted to be eaten on Pesach and were likely actual Chametz. It is therefore our opinion that Kosher V’Yosher cannot be relied upon.

    Furthermore Kosher V’Yosher this year on their website have sought to use “approbations” from two renowned experts in Kashrut to bolster their position – Rav Elyashiv Shlit”a and Rav Shachter Shlit”a.

    However the words of these Rabbis have in our opinion been misused by Kosher V’Yosher. Upon hearing of the manner in which their words were being used the two Rabbis issued separately the following statements:

    Rav Elyashiv Shlita:
    אסור לתת הכשר למצות רכות לקהילות אשכנז כי זו פירצה. ביהדות אשכנז אין על זה מסורת ואף פעם לא נהגו לאפשר אכילת מצות רכות.

    Translation: It is forbidden to give a hechsher to soft matzot for Ashkenazi communities as this is a “pirtsah” a breakdown ( in standards). In Ashkenazi Jewry there is no such tradition (for making soft matzot) and at no time was it customary to enable the eating of soft matzot.

    Rav Shachter Shlit”a:

    My note written last month regarding Sfardic matzos was somehow taken as an endorsement of some specific matzah plant in Queens. Others understood that I was obviously referring to some specific matzah plant in Petach Tikvah. Let it be known that I am not familiar with either plant, and my note was not intended to endorse any specific matzah manufacturer in the NY area or in any other location. One must take care to use only such food products made under strict Rabbinic supervision and approved by one’s local Orthodox Rabbi, and especially with respect to Pesach products where the laws of kashrus are much more complicated and much more serious.

    The above statements speak for themselves and in our opinion the lack of credibility of Kosher V’Yosher. Contrary to the Kosher V’Yosher website, Rav Elyashiv clearly forbids the making of such matzot for Ashkenazim and Rav Shachter does not allow his note to be used as an endorsement.

    Kosher V’Yosher can simply not be relied upon and the soft matzot under the supervision of Kosher V’yosher must be considered forbidden for Pesach use.

    The Kashrut Authority
    The Sydney Beth Din
    The Yeshiva Rabbinate

  • Conflictofinterests says:

    Oy vaVOY. Seriously?

    one plus one equals three.
    ONE PLUS ONE EQUALS THREE!

    It’s still unsupported.

    Just because it has been said twice, and this time more emphatically, still without objective evidence in support of their claims, saying it a million times does not make it a warning that can be relied upon.

    I await evidence of misconduct.

    Shabbat Shalom.

  • Emes4 says:

    Eds: Comment removed. Please do not post comments under multiple pseudonyms under the same topic. It creates a false impression of consensus. You have been warned before.

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