Note: Kashrut has always been a charged issue that brings out a lot of emotions. This post will discuss the efficacy of the kashrut system, not which hechsher is best. I know there are different chumrot, histories and halachot but that is not the topic here. Personally, I rely on any hechsher; if a Rabbi says it’s kosher, I trust her.
On February 11, Ira Glass, host of This American Life on NPR, shocked fans of carbonated beverage by revealing that the recipe for Coca Cola was recorded in a newspaper in 1979. But while most paid little attention, Muslims were in an uproar. Islamic law expressly prohibits alcohol and by hiding this ingredient, Coca Cola had inadvertently caused millions of Muslims to violate their sacred dietary laws. Within a short span of time, an Israeli Muslim filed a class action suit against Coca Cola for ₪ 1.2 billion, or ₪ 1,000 for each of Israel’s 1.2 million Muslims.
This got me thinking about kashrut and the things we take for granted in our complicated kashrut industry. What really works in the kashrut industry? Is it better to have a centralized kashrut agency like the Rabanut or a decentralized system like the one in the USA? What about products that Orthodox Jews consume without any certification, such as beer and liquor? What is the best way to make sure a Jew can remain within the confines of halacha while getting a little verschnickered?
People trust experts for one of two general reasons (1) they truly believe that the expert wants them to know the truth and/or (2) they think that the expert has a lot to lose by lying to them. In any scenario of trust, people balance these two emotions, sometimes relying on one reason, sometimes relying on both. For example, if Sara asks Jill, her best friend, how a shirt looks on her, Sara trusts Jill’s opinion because she thinks Jill would not want her to go out dressed like a fool. On the other hand, when Sara buys the shirt on amazon.com, she trusts amazon not to abuse her credit card information because she knows that if they mess up with her money, their reputation will be at stake as well.
Kosher certification exists when people believe (1) that the Rabbis enforcing the kashrut want to sure make everything is kosher because they care about their fellow Jews and/or (2) that the Rabbis are enforcing the kashrut out of fear, be it God or a rival hashgacha (kashrut agency.)
Centralized kashrut relies on the first reason while decentralized kashrut relies on the latter. Unfortunately in a world of growing skepticism and news agencies designed to feed paranoia, most Jews simply will not rely on centralized kashrut; most Jews feel that competition, not piety, will ensure that their food is kosher.
And it’s not like kashrut agencies are really helping. In the US, hashgachot spread all kinds of rumors in order to destroy their competition. I used to hear all these ridiculous stories about how the triangle K is trying to feed people treif and how OK and OU were selling their certifications to the highest bidder without checking if anything was actually kosher. And while none of these stories were true, most of them fed into the collective paranoia.
At the same time, the little centralization there was in kashrut never failed to disappoint. Only a few years ago, a kosher butcher in Monsey, NY was found to be selling trief chickens under a Satmar Hashgacha. The Satmar Mashgiach assured the public that Satmar had already removed their certification from the butcher and the butcher was acting alone. Further claims included that the chickens were from a stolen truck and that the butcher was able to buy these stolen black market chickens with no one noticing. It was all nonsense; when an agency removes certification from a well known client, it is supposed to be publicized. Furthermore, if the truck was stolen, the Hasidim could have found out if there was a record of a stolen chicken truck, and when it may have happened. If the story were found to be a lie, then an investigation should go into seeing where the chickens came from and who knew about it. But rather than look into the case and see whose hands took what money, the whole thing was just blamed on the butcher (who I am sure is to blame just as I am certain could not have acted alone) and everything went back to the way it was. Had this been one of regular kashrut agencies, like the OU, then such a scandal would have been its demise. Buyers would vow never to eat OU again and suppliers would switch to Star K. But because this hashgacha belonged to a Hasidic sect and held a monopoly among its followers, people had no choice but to trust it, and it was able to weather the storm without so much as a gust of wind.
There is more than just the fear of a rival hashgacha that drives kashrut; there is also the fear of the law. A Rabbi of mine explained to me how fear can help Jews learn if liquor is Kosher. “Before I buy liquor I am unsure about” he explained, “I e-mail the company and ask if the liquor contains any grape products. I state explicitly in the e-mail that I am highly allergic and if there is any grape product in the liquor, I will end up in the hospital and possibly die.” Such a threat forces the company to check if there are indeed any grape products. His use of e-mail is especially important because since e-mails are kept for posterity, the company is less likely to lie (as an aside, in 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman, discusses experiments that prove people are much less likely to lie in an e-mail for this very reason).
If a Muslim had asked Coca Cola if there had been any alcohol and Coca Cola had lied, then the upcoming case would be a slam dunk. But because the question was not asked (as far as we know now), the issue will become if Coca Cola has to volunteer such information or not.
Getting back to kashrut, does our lack of trust mean the end of all centralized kashrut, including the Rabanut here in Israel? Not exactly. Because other options for kashrut exist within Israel from Haredim, as well as an increasing amount of imported products with a plethora of hashgachot, the centralized kashrut is really just one among many options. In addition, the Rabanut is trying to enforce a decentralized system within itself. A few years ago different cities held different stringencies for shmita until the courts demanded that the Rabanut put forth one national opinion and stick to it. Ironically, the reason that a centralized hashgacha works in Israel is not because of the centralized system it established for itself, but because it is just part of a greater decentralized system.