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....


Daniel Goldman said...

You have made this analysis specific to the Modern or Dati Leumi communities. This phenomenon is not restricted to them and can be seen today in many Charedi communitites where the power of Da'at Tora is being undermined, perhaps for different underlying reasons in some cases, but nevertheless for part of the same shift.

In a post-modern era we are faced with a fierce market place for ideas, where previous automatic authority no longer is a given.

Sadly the Rabbinic leaders across the board have not managed to keep pace with this change, and indeed as parents we are also struggling with this as we try to maintain a traditional parent-child relationship of authority, when it is no longer a given.

The first act is to recognise the reality, both for layman (or ba'al habatim), but more crucially for the Rabbis.

As a layman I am less and less bothered by what this or that Rabbi proclaims, or what is written in every pashkaville. This is precisely because I know that their authority is being undermined (predominantly by themselves).

There is good news and bad news here - the good news is that I have to take greater personal responsibility for my actions as I cannot outsource it to Rabbis. The bad news is the we are leading into a somewhat anarchic moral era - איש הישר בעיניו יעשה.

Rabbis MUST wake up to this. The last time this happended (During the Haskala period and the opening of the ghetto walls) there was a rush for the door - a fairly damning indictment of the Judaism being served up at the time. This could happen again easily. There are those amongst Charedei quarters who quietly admit, that if an inch is given on the question of freedom of choice to serve in the army, then their will be stampede for the door. This is just an example, not THE example.

This debate is not about Charedim, Dati'im or Masorti'im. It is a question of who can EARN respect and trust as a moral leader.

As believing Jews we MUST be able to bring this moral leadership from our texts, heritage and culture. If not, then there is a problem with our faith.

However in order for this to happen our leadership must be free of corruption and the desire to constantly be closed off from wider Jewish society. Again, this is not a Charedi or Dati question, I know that there are post-modern Rabbis and leaders in all camps, although they are very much in the minority.

Anonymous said...

How can Jews call thselves Orthodox if they don't listen to a Rabbi?

Yoni K. said...

I don't think you can underestimate the significance of a college liberal arts education on this phenomenon. After all, one of the primary goals of the system is to try to teach kids to think for themselves.
In day schools throughout American, there is a constant unspoken skirmish going on between Judaic and secular teachers on this point. We try to teach them to be committed to the Mesorah and our tradition, while the English or History teacher in the next room is trying to undermine this and have each child think for themselves.
As a firm believer in personal autonomy and liberal arts education, yet involved in Chinuch this is an issue I've personnely grappled with numerous times.

Daniel Goldman said...

Is it a contradiction in terms for the Judaic subject teachers and Rabbis to develop this independent thinking within the religious framework?

Not only is it the smart thing to do, I believe that it is the Jewish thing to do.

This is not remove the role of Rabbinic authority, but to highten the sense of responsibility we must have in developing our identity within the religious framework.

Anonymous said...

What you describe may or may not be true with respect to the religious zionist community, a community with which I am familiar, but not intimately so. However, I can tell you I see no such trend among the yeshivah/chassidish/charedi community, with which I am very familiar. I wish it were otherwise, because I agree the kashrus things is totally out of control. Upwards of 85-90% of products in a grocery are perfectly kosher, but so many are afraid to eat them simply because the comapny has not paid for an official hechsher, or, in the case of resetrautns, doesnt want to deal with it. But despite some blogs here and there that may give the impression otherwise, the reality is that the above communities still largely follow what their rabbis tell them about what foods and resteraunts are acceptable, and do not use their own education or common sense.

[I am not limiting this comment to the state of kashrus, and not anything else you mentioned.]

nettie feldman said...

The problem is that no "known" religious leader is willing to step up the plate. And of course, who says the rabbis know any better? Look how many restrict, rather than find a lenient workaround. And regarding women: we need some serious overhaul, halachically.

dlaloum said...

Rabbi's today are the descendents of the scribes...

During the Greek culture dominant second temple period, the educated laymen (scribes) - started teaching groups/classes - this grew into the pharisaic movement - which led directly to Rabbinic Judaism.

The scribes were empowered by their literacy... which over time led to the shift in religious power from the temple / Cohen / Levites to the Scribes/Rabbi's....

This was by no means alien to our culture as we had previously been led by "Judges" - effectively a professional class.... While religious aspects were run by the cohens/levites. (early seperation of church and state?)

Later we had the emergence of printing - which led to another huge shit - the local Rabbi no longer had a monopoly on the halachah - the wide availability of texts considered definitive took power away from the Rabbi... and started the competition down ugly slide of strictness. (I am more Jewish than you as I am "stricter")

Now we are experiencing a huge paradigm shift, as information becomes generally available and easily accessible (the power of a search engine!) - combined with a generation that is familiar and comfortable with using this.

My question is whether the Rabbinic structure of the last 1000 or so years is of relevance going forward?

Does the Rabbinate effectively return to its original meaning - and become an association of teachers and lecturers, a resource for those learning, rather than an "authority" with direct power.

If individuals have the knowledge what purpose does the Rabbi serve?

The area of this interesting development that will be most controversial, is that as the authority of the Rabbi is reduced, so will the authority of generations of antecedents and their interpretations.

All of these are therefore open to analysis and reinterpretation from the perspective of today...

Is the Shulchan Aruch directly relecant anymore? Or does todays Jew refer and read the original source (Beth Yosef) and interpret for themselve their own Shulchan Aruch?
(the same applies to Beth Yosef too)

The automatic assumption the Rabbi xxxx (fill in the gap with whichever famous authority takes your fancy) was infallible then goes up in flames.

The consequence will indubitably be an opening up of (observant) Judaism - and just as "Orthodoxy" as it is known today was a reaction to the Reform movement - I expect there will be Haredi reactionary movements.... to each action an equal and opposite reaction.

The world never fails to be interesting!

dlaloum said...

p.s. excuse the typo's my current keyboard occasionally drops characters.... very annoying!

Shmoo Snook said...

Re: Hechsherim. The vast majority of observant Jews rely on the kashrut of those they know and trust. They do it every time they go to friends or family for a Shabbat or Yom Tov meal. Restaurants are different. Patrons mostly know the owner and employees, if at all, only as people to greet with a hello if they run into them on the street. The hechsher is something to which they can point and say, "I am relying on that. If there's anything wrong, I can't be held accountable."

micha berger said...

dlaloum: Rabbis today are the conceptual descendents of the 70 elders and the "leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties and leaders of tens" (Exodus 18:21) of the Exodus generation. Yes, that also makes them descendents of the scribes.

My point being, the system is based on the assumption that one has an elder / scribe / rabbi who is part of the dialog down the generations that we call the Oral Torah. This is what connects us to the halachic tradition.

Like most human issues, the answer lies somewhere between the extremes of anarchic levels of autonomy or totalitarian levels of authority. And where that answer lies is going to differ by person. This is why we have different movements that strike that balance in different places.


Unknown said...

There are some very good points raised in this article, but it would be useful to gain some clarity on where to draw the line.

We all make our own "Home-Made-P'Suk" on various things in our day-to-day lives (eg; which bracha to say on certain more complex foods, or some details of Shabbat observance etc).

Is one expected to seek Rabbinical instruction on each and every occasion? When is it too trivial to bother the Rabbi and when can one be sure enough of what is the correct thing to do, so it is not necessary to ask?

dlaloum said...

We are also in this discussion meandering into another interesting topic - Kashrut and Trust.

There is a basic rule (Shulchan Aruch I believe) that states that when visiting another Jew who keeps Kosher, one should accept their Kashrut as "Kosher".

This is an INCLUSIVE rule, designed to strengthen and encourage the bonds between Jews.

But today we are in the situation where each group has a tendency to develop more and more divisive stringencies - and members are less and less likely to trust Jews from outside their group... (frequently even other members of their own group!).

This effectively creates an artificial form of ostracism - a good way to ensure that two groups do not form bonds, is to ensure that they do not eat together.
This in fact is at the very core of Kashrut - ensuring the separation of the Judaic tribe from others around it both in ancient Judea, and in the diaspora.

But now these same rules are turning around and canibalising the bonds between Jewish groups.

Strength comes from the very bonds that these attitudes to Kashrut work to break/dissolve.

Anywhere where friends cannot reciprocate and invite each other to their homes for dinners with the family, friendships have trouble growing and surviving.
Without those friendships there is no understanding, and without understanding there is antagonism.

Once Jews start fighting each other, we return to an ancient and oft repeated problem... Judea was engaged in a civil war when the Romans were invited in to support one side - the consequences were of course disastrous.
Every time we fight amongst ourselves we set the stage for another Roman invasion - and the situation with Kashrut is very much at the core of some of the divisive issues and more importantly attitudes...

I would suggest that it does not matter whether the individual is sephardi, ashkenazi, chabad, satzmar, modern orthodox, or even reform/liberal.

If that person endeavours to keep Kosher, then according to traditional universal Halacha, their table is considered Kosher by all.

Extreme examples could include the Egyption tradition of cooking poultry in butter/milk... which would make almost all other groups uncomfortable... but also has a long history of being Kosher within that groups minhag.

A less extreme but far more common example is the assumption of non-observance when dealing with reform/liberal Jews - many of which I know keep quite strictly Kosher - but due to their membership of a "suspect" group, almost all "Orthodox" Jews will refuse to eat at a reform/liberal table. (The fact that this applies between Haredi groups is neither here nor there, but a further sign as to how ridiculous, and damaging the situation has become)

If one wanted to "divide and conquer" the Jewish people, all one needs to do is encourage this type of behaviour - we appear to be experts in self destruction. (And our history confirms it!)

bye for now


Noam said...

Do you think that there might be an element of self selection in the Rabbinate? The kind of people who are more likely to split from convention are also less likely to go into the Rabbinate. Perhaps these young adults are reacting against the Rabbinate in response to a deficit of Rabbis who reflect their world view and hashkafa.