Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Halakhic Spring - Jews Are Doin' It For Themselves

There was an interesting article in Haaretz this weekend about kosher restaurants that are abandoning their Kashrut licences due to their opposition to stringent rabbinic-authority standards, their high fees or simply kashrut inspectors who aren't qualified to do their jobs. These places remain loyal to kashrut but not to the rabbinic certification. Let me quote a few lines:

The Jerusalem Rabbinate requires restaurants that want a kashrut certificate to use only hydroponic produce, commonly known as "Gush Katif," because it's bug-free.
"You can't work with this lettuce," said restaurant owner Shai Gini. "It's not tasty, and you need three or four Gush Katif lettuces for every ordinary head of lettuce I'd buy in the [open-air] market." 

I have written in the past about the high price of increasingly stringent kashrut standards by which "kosher food is now more kosher than ever, and being eaten by fewer Jews!" One of the interesting observations in the article pointed out that ultimately, real kashrut in a restaurant relies on trust. Without the sense that the proprietor is genuinely committed to enforcing kashruth in his restaurant, anyone can betray the system when the supervisors back is turned!

Carousela's Vadai, who is Haredi, said he was disgusted that he was paying for supervision, but "no one ever came to check" his cafe. Many restaurant owners have said the same for years: A kashrut certificate is no guarantee that the restaurant is actually kosher, since at best, inspectors usually make only brief daily visits. Just last week, the Makor Rishon newspaper published a report detailing numerous cases in which the rabbinate declined to take away a restaurant's kashrut certificate - which, after all, provides it with income - even after blatantly nonkosher food was found...."Before there were certificates, kashrut was based on trust," said Topolino's Gini. "But the [rabbinate] system, like any bureaucratic system, always needs to invent more and more rules to strengthen its control over its community. There's a competition over who is stricter, and the customers lose."

Now, I do have worries about the kashrut in these eateries, beacuse, after all, vegetables do need to be properly checked and kashruth supervision does provide a certain impetus. But if we can move beyond the specific restaurant and kashruth issue, it was this paragraph that really caught my eye:

People familiar with the phenomenon say it is part of a more general trend: Israelis who care about observing Jewish law, including kashrut, but want nothing to do with the official rabbinate. Other aspects of this trend include weddings, funerals and even conversions in which the rabbinate is uninvolved.

This is quite a fascinating trend of a growing empowerment within the younger religious-zionist population in Israel, and around the world. It is happening in non-orthodox circles as well. Examples of this are independent minyanim, amongst them the Shira Chadasha movement, self-proclaimed as Orthodox, but unrecognised by most Orthodox rabbis! One finds non-rabbinic Jews making halakhic decisions for themselves without consulting with Rabbis - about birth control, hair covering and personal standards of dress, but also about communal issues that would have been under the purview of a Rabbi. Recently I have observed growing numbers of visitors to Israel for the chagim (holidays) confidently making their own decision of how many days yomtov to keep (1, 2, 1 and half) and many making their choice independently rather than under direct instruction of their Rabbi. We are talking about halakhic practices that are emerging from committed, educated young observant Jews. Journalist, Yair Ettinger wrote a series last summer about how religious Israelis are sidestepping the Rabbinate on marriage, divorce and burial, and any number of modern-orthodox weddings that I have attended recently  have included creative elements, especially as regards inclusion of women. 

I sense that this is a growing movement, and I think we can point to a few roots of this phenomenon. To start, today many young Jews find themselves highly educated and textually proficient. Today's generation are far more knowledgeable than in the past. In Israel many have spent five years or more in post high-school Yeshivot and Judaic university programs. From the US and UK, many have spent significant time in text learning environments. These people understand how the texts work and are confident that they can reach independent conclusions on the basis of those sacred texts. At times, their feeling is that mainstream halakhic practice fails to reflect their own values, and in search of greater authenticity, they decide, quite autonomously, to act independently.

In addition, this is reflective of a shift in the modern zeitgeist at large to a more empowered environment. I say this in regards to the Facebook, or social media revolution which has given greater leverage to rank and file individuals, from the "cottage-cheese protest" here in Israel last summer, to the Arab Spring.. The sense is that in today's world, the average citizen should exercise his or her voice. Furthermore, with the rise of the internet, expert information is merely a click away. In previous eras, expertise was rare, guarded, and out of reach. Nowadays, every person feels that they can become something of an expert, reading up on the topic at hand. This allows individuals to feel more informed and more capable of independent decision making.

But it goes deeper than that. Let me illustrate with a story. Some years ago, my son went to visit a lung specialist for a mild asthma problem. The doctor asked him a series of questions, like, "If you play football, are you short of breath?" or , "How many times a month do you need to take your inhaler?" At the end, he posed the question: "Well, do you think that you need to be taking your inhaler daily then?" And my son, hesitantly and rather bemused, responded, "um ... um ... that's what we've come to ask you?!"

I find that this pattern repeats itself in many fields. A generation ago, the investment manager would decide for his client which fund to invest in. Now he gives you a menu of options with the upside and downside of each , and you decide.

The school doesn't instruct a child what to matriculate in. They discuss the options, and expect the student together with his parents to make the final decision.

Expertise doesn't have the same authoritative veneer as it once did, and many questions are thrown back to the individual. Whether we have lost faith in a single correct answer in a post-modernist world, or whether the experts are simply afraid of getting it wrong, the average person makes his or her own life decisions.

And similarly in the religious sphere. The Israeli Religious-Zionist world, once a homogeneous identity, has refracted into a huge number of sub-groups, each with their particular nuance and emphasis, dress, songs and venerated leaders. Whether you are described as Rav Kook, Carlebach, a settler, an academic, whether your prime goal is professional success, if you are dati-lite, feminist, left-wing, gay, Breslev, and what have you, all these and more constitute the myriad strands that build what is now an individualized identity. Most Religious-Zionist people don't vote for religious parties today. People are defining themselves in new combinations, constructing their own unique identities, unafraid to practise an individualised lifestyle, and that includes all aspects of their Judaism. Let me stress, these people are not lax or disengaged from their Jewish observance; they are highly engaged, but precisely this new confidence means that frequently they are not looking for rabbinic supervision or approval. This is as true in Hampstead and on the Upper-West-Side as in Katamon and Baka.

And so we are facing a new reality. Rabbis wake up! This is where the people are. Do we know how to provide a Judaism that will be attractive to this generation? Is this a blessing, an opportunity, or a danger to Judaism? Where will this lead us?

Comments are welcome below....