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Leadership, Arrogance, Dairy Vodka and Tomato Sauce‏

February 26, 2013 – 12:19 pm129 Comments
Penn & Teller

Penn & teller, creators of the video linked to in this article.

By Rabbi Meir Rabi
We are driven and commanded, as practising Jews, to constantly answer the question asked by Moses: What is it that Gd asks of you? [Devarim 10:12] The Gemara is puzzled, the question makes it appear as though it is but a small thing that Gd is asking of us.

Is Gd asking us to trust, to blindly trust, our spiritual and Jewish community leaders and thus declare our allegiance to Gd? Is it a case of when being told to jump, we simply ask, “How high?”

Modern life has subdivided and sub-subdivided into numerous arenas of expertise. Be it medicine, accounting, law or fishing, cycling or mountain-climbing; expertise appears to be progressing endlessly and at ever faster rate. From my perspective, I am inclined to observe that there is no end to Gd’s greatness and we are only beginning to appreciate this.

Jewish Law is following the same trend. When I celebrated my BarMitzvah it was common to receive, amongst all the other presents, a set of Mishnah Berurah. This is a 6 volume set of the Laws of Daily Life compiled by the Chafets Chayim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan. We never saw this as a set that we will “conquer”, that was something that only the experts managed. We saw it as a mountain that was un-scalable by ordinary mortals. Today that same set is expanded to at least double the size, 12 volumes. It is easier to learn, with re-typeset un-smudged print, vocalisation is printed [the dots], pictures and diagrams illustrate and explain, and charts display the flow chart for Halachic decision-making. This should bring Halacha closer to the ordinary person in the street. This is driven to a great extent by the advent of ArtScrol, Talmud and the rest, which brings Torah to our door and even right into our home.

But there is an opposite re-action which is quite possibly not equal but even greater, whose purpose is to ensure that we do not consider that we now have the tools or information that enables us to make sound accurate Halachic decisions. And so the new Mishnah Berurah also includes notes from many later Halachic experts which in fact make up the bulk of these new editions. These notes cloud the issues and create confusion and uncertainty: engineering the stupendous feat of persuading that we must always consult our “local orthodox rabbi”, a catch-phrase now so common in its usage that it is compressed to, consult your LOR and one must assume will soon be CYLOR.

Every English Halacha Sefer that I have seen carries with it the dire warning that it is not to be used to make Halachic decisions. So the purpose of these books is not to educate but to drive us into believing that we require expert assistance: in other words to inform us of the bewildering complexity of Halacha and rob us of our independence and more dramatically to rob us of our relationship with Gd. Because Gd wants us to engage in the Halachic process. Gd does not want us to go to obedience school to become brainbusted. How well I remember the sermon that included the story about an inventor who developed a machine for giving automated haircuts. He dismissed a colleague’s warning that people’s heads were different shapes and sizes; “That’s only a problem the first time.”

Kashrus is also swayed by similar considerations. We are bombarded with warnings about how difficult and complicated kashrus can be. We are warned that without expertise, it is impossible to keep Kosher. And we are terrified by irresponsible announcements that declare in no uncertain terms (without suggesting that others disagree) that Tomato Sauce brand X is Dairy, Vodka brand Y is Dairy.

But those who make these declarations, perhaps with the most noble of intentions, are either driving people away from Kashrus because the claims are just ridiculous, or driving people to think, “Wow, we must be so grateful for our experts. Who ever would have thought that Tomato Sauce could be Dairy.” This can be seen as a plan to perpetuate the existence of those providing the advice, a rather baleful perspective, I admit. But here is the problem; every other field of expertise that I mentioned earlier is empiric by definition. Either the mountain climber scales the mountain or he falls off; either the doctor heals people or not; either the investment advisor profits or loses etc etc.

However, in the arena of Kashrus, in spite of many suggesting that rabbis are spiritual doctors, tending to our spiritual needs, nothing of what they define, describe and rule is subject to any empiric evaluation. In fact it is not subject to any external independent evaluation. The Kosher world is replete with “stories”, things that have been heard by so and so who is very close to a certain rabbi, the rabbi’s sexton. Perhaps it is more accurate to compare rabbis providing Kashrus guidance to alternative medical practitioners.

One rabbi expert who works for a well known Kosher agency has proclaimed that
“it is mandatory for kosher agencies to have customized software, which includes a database of hundreds of thousands of ingredients and formulas. There is often a full time person maintaining this software as it is not only a major expense but could also take years to develop. Even the most knowledgeable Rabbi in the world would find it impossible to run a Kashrus agency without a sufficient support staff and the proper software.” http://www.crcweb.org/kosher_articles/reliability_of_agencies.php

He also claims, and I have communicated with him about his ridiculous claims,

“But perhaps the primary reason for the blanket dismissal of these agencies is that they simply do not visit their plants on a regular basis. Today, food production facilities can work so quickly that an ingredient can be in and out of the plant in days!”

I asked this rabbi, “in that case how often does your agency inspect the factories that it certifies? Would that be 2 or 3 times every week?”

I will tell you what hurts most, that such rubbish can be published and that people will read it and not Laugh Out Loud. If such nonsense was printed in any respectable publication, it would be thought of a weak April Fool’s day prank. These articles belong to the genre of, “Israel distributes children’s toys that are toxic or explosive.”

And this rabbi also provides us with a vital “eyewitness” story,

“The supervising agent, not from the cRc, assumed that the health drink was produced in a machine that previously had been cleaned and properly kashered from non-kosher beef broth. The cRc Rabbi pointed out that the rest of the machinery was not kashered properly.The agency quickly remedied the situation, but damage had been done. By being unfamiliar with the internal workings of the machinery, the Supervisor was inadvertently putting his agency’s kosher symbol on a drink that was definitely not kosher.”

If anyone even believe this fairy tale, we should still need to hear what the other rabbi/agency says. They may well have considered that those parts of the machine do nor require kashering.

Reb Moshe Feinstein writes in his responsa that the single Rov Kashrus agency is more reliable than the large organisation agencies. He writes, “it is the way of the world that people tend to automatically trust the larger agencies without really checking their operations whereas the individual Rov is constantly queried and investigated.” I guess Reb Moshe forgot to consult with this Kashrus agency before writing his Teshuva. I guess that after he wrote this Teshuva, this rabbi and his Kashrus agency forgot to write to Reb Moshe to correct him about his grave errors.

The tragedy of where this type of Kashrus extremism is taking us is painfully described by Rabbi Moshe Dovid Gutnick, Rabbinic administrator of KAS (Kashrut Authority Sydney) in a published letter,

·   The Torah was given to bring peace to the world – yet kashrus has too often been used to create machloket. Judaism has become a competition – who is frumer than who [sic].

·   Rabbi Twerski explained that he does not keep a popular Chumrah because he doesn’t want to add another brick to the walls of disrespect we’ve built to hurt one another.

·   Frumkeit is now measured by how many homes one doesn’t eat from.

·   Why should I and the KA [KAS Kashrut Authorit Sydney] rule strictly (just to follow KAM [Kosher Australia Melbourne]) – when I can find absolutely no basis in Shulchan Aruch for doing so?

We ought to be asking relentlessly, can a Kosher organisation promote itself as being open and transparent when only selected questions are answered. In many “meet the rabbi” Q&A forums, all questions must be submitted in advance. [We’ve had them here in Melbourne, too]

At the same time we must ask, “What are the guidelines and the particular arrangements employed in order to ensure that substitutions do not occur in Australian eateries which do not have full time Kosher supervision?” This is of particular concern regarding products that can be substituted with far cheaper, indistinguishable non-Kosher varieties, meat and yellow hard cheese for example.
This is a simple question. It was asked in a public forum and elicited the following private response – we are members of organisation X and follow their guidelines. This was not released for public consumption but sent privately via email, a copy of which was forwarded to me. Compare this to http://www.kosherveyosher.com/lotfries.html

And thus Moses asks, “What is it that Gd asks of you? [Devarim 10:12]”

The politics of Kashrus is without question the largest component of people’s decision making: “Will my friends still be my friends if I use THAT Hechsher? Will they look down on me? Will they eat in my home? Will their kids come to the party I make for my children?”

Is this perhaps what Gd wants?

You may wish to view the following video regarding marketing hype and consumer gullibility which applies equally if not more to Kosher – but I must warn that the language is extremely crude.

If some rabbis argue that a particular food is not Kosher, as when KAM ruled that NutriGrain was “100% not Kosher” were those who ate it inflicting spiritual damage upon their soul in spite of other rabbis ruling it “100% Kosher”?

Perhaps, it’s time for kashrus to be more factual and less emotional and it’s time for Yidden and Yiddishkeit to be more respectful and accepting and less pompous and divisive. It’s time to ask, “What is it that Gd wants of us?” and recognise that it is as the Gemara suggests, quite a simple and easy ask.

Rabbi Meir Rabi is the principal of KVY (It’s Kosher) Kashrut Agency.

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