Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Travel Reflections. (Part 1): "Special Kosher" meals.

If I have been rather unprolific over the past week or two, it is because I was away in the U.S. as a scholar-in-residence and preparing rather intensely in the days leading up to the trip. I am now back in Artzeinu Hakedosha. And of course, travel brings with it new perspectives and thoughts. This post will concern Kashruth on El Al.

El Al has been in the news recently. Due to the strike last week, a plane flew out late on Friday causing chillul Shabbat. In addition, one flight served non-Kosher food. Now the charedi community are up in arms which is an interesting phenomenon in itself – Why do they feel so, so sensitive about the activities of El Al? But Charedim and El Al will might well be the topic of a future post.

Back to the food issue. Food on El Al is Kosher. It is all Kosher. But some people order "Special Kosher" meals. Why? Because these meals are Mehadrin[1], Cholov Yisrael[2], Pat Akum[3] etc. For a number of years now I have made a point of NOT ordering these "Special Kosher" meals and going for the standard El Al food.


Well, one of the reasons is simply that the Special Kosher food is diabolical. It was so unpleasant the last time I received it that I simply didn't eat the whole flight.

But there is a more serious reason. You see El Al is a Jewish airline, That is why they make all the food Kosher. Now if every religious traveler orders "Special Kosher," then what is the incentive for El Al to stay Kosher? (That is also the reason that the Charedi protest against non-Kosher food is so bewildering … they never eat the standard food!)

Moreover, if I always order "Special Kosher," then the secular person next to me gets the impression that his/her food is a little "less than Kosher"! I, personally, am happy to slightly adjust my personal Halakhic standards[4] in order to avoid that impression. I want the irreligious person next to me to feel that we are brothers, that we can share the same food as it conforms to a recognised kashrut standard. Now, part of this feeling is simply because air travel means that everyone is in such close quarters. But also, I remember that whenever I traveled British Airways to Israel I was impressed that many secular  Israelis ate the non-Kosher British Airways food. As a religious person, it saddened me. Of course I recognise they are not personally committed to Kashrut. However on El Al everyone eats Kosher. It is a wonderful Jewish environmnet. The very least I can do is to eat the same food and  boost El Al's decision, and celebrate the reality that El Al is kosher; rather than reinforcing the "holier than thou" separate community thing.

Now I do realise that some people may fail to understand this attitude. And that is because in today's world it is out of vogue. Let me illustrate what I mean.

The Rabbanut (Chief Rabbinate of Israel – responsible for Kashruth supervision nationwide) of the 1950's and '60's had a klal Yisrael approach to Kashruth. They had an agenda. They wanted to make it easy and cost-efficient and accessible to keep kashruth. To this end they adopted certain leniencies that would allow kashruth to be easy and to gain wide appeal despite the halakhically non-observant majority. For example they allowed a restaurant in which the mashgiach (supervisor) visited occasionally rather than a full-time pair of eyes. If a small felafel joint would have to pay the extra salary of the mashgiach it's food would be much more expensive that the non-kosher felafel place next door, and hence the mashgiach visited once a week and covered 30 restaurants and the felafel cost the same everywhere. Was this a more lenient approach? – yes! Is it supported by recognized Halakhic sources? Yes!

The Rabbanut of the '50's allowed Gelatin even from animal sources and this according to the Responsa of Rav Chayim Ozer Grodzinski. This allowed hotels to make all sorts of cream pies and tarts and Elite to make better toffees. Was it a more lenient approach? – Yes! But it was supported by authoritative opinion and most importantly it allowed Am Yisrael to keep Kosher and to eat – to "have your (Halakhic) cake and eat it" if you will excuse the expression!

And this relates to Heter Mechira and Bassar Kafou, and other leniencies that facilitated a nation-wide kashruth system that has proven itself, such that in 1980 there was virtually no foodstuff produced in Israel without the Rabbanut Hechsher.

Enter the Badatz! Suddenly along came a more learned public as the Yeshiva movement grew. Along came the Charedi Badatz and said: How can we rely on these leniencies? Would you eat this way in your kitchen? And gradually, mehadrin standards became more common in the marketplace, and the economic clout of the strictly Orthodox community is clear. They have many kids, and have many many mouths to feed.

Now on first glance this is a good thing. Halakhic Kashruth standards rose significantly. Who can complain?

But, the feeling "on the street" especially amongst secular circles was that the religious don't rely on the Rabbanut standard anymore. So, once again, if all the religious go to the Mehadrin – Badatz – felafel kiosk, then why bother paying the Rabbanut for a license at all? Just declare yourself non-Kosher, now you can open on Shabbat , and serve shrimps too!

And that is what has happened. The Rabbanut has lost its hold on the public arena. Now, the "klal Yisrael" severely eclipsed.

Kosher food is now more kosher than ever, and being eaten by fewer Jews!

Now I do know that there are many factors here: consumerism, individualism, Shas, the westernization of Israel and many other factors. And yet, I believe that the basic approach of the '50's Rabbanut is a recipe for Am Yisrael that takes responsibility for all Jews, and is uninterested in religious one-upmanship.
And so, on El Al, especially in the environment of a plane, in the context of our national Jewish airline, where we are all at such close quarters, I would like to eat together with my fellow Jews just like them, together with them and thereby to reinforce just how easy and pleasant it can be when we can all eat the same Kosher food.

[1] Meat that conforms to more stringent Halakha standards.
[2] Milk whose milking is supervised by a Jew.
[3] Bread baked at a Jewish Bakery
[4] The El Al standards are lower than that which I observe personally and in my home.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Asking why the secular Israeli couldn't have "just ordered Kosher food" reeks of complete insensitivity to the whole religious-secular issue. Just like it's not a question for the religious to eat kosher, its not a question for the secular to eat non-kosher. It's not about the ease of ticking off another box on the meal selection request, but rather a lifestyle choice. Clearly, you and this ba passenger come from two completely different angles and if they don't believe/practice halachic judaism, that is their choice. Leave the judgment to the almighty...