Opinion Articles

Who’s In Favor of the Kashrut Reform? Those Who Don’t Much Care About Kashrut

Good or bad, Kahana’s reform hasn’t won over its primary target audience; its supporters are actually those who don’t observe the kashrut laws.

Let’s start by expressing a measure of suspicion. Not regarding one party, but rather two: The Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Religious Services claim that the kashrut reform plan presented to the Knesset by Minister Matan Kahana will save 500 million a year. Save for whom? A good question.

The reform process will advance and develop; we still don’t know what its outcomes will be. We’ll shortly explain way. Since the outcomes are unknown, the future savings aren’t altogether clear. What if it turns out that large numbers of manufacturers will actually have to make their kashrut more expensive, to keep the religious consumers from abandoning them? What if the alternative kashrut – which has yet to be born – turns out to cost more than expected?

The other side, backed by position papers, argues that the reform will make kashrut more expensive. Maybe yes, maybe no. They can’t predict the future, either. Take Knesset Member Bezalel Smotrich. His criticism of the Finance Ministry’s claims has a legitimate basis. He reminds us that savings for the state don’t necessarily translate into savings for the citizen who wants to keep kosher. On the other hand, Smotrich doesn’t take all sorts of possibilities into account. Such as, for instance, the possibility that a large majority of kashrut observers will turn out to be fine with the privatized kashrut after a brief adjustment process, and willing to rely on the new, cheaper, kashrut without too much quibbling.

That’s not the case at present, it has to be said. Currently there appears to be a substantial overlap between kashrut observance and opposition to the reform. Which is to say that the more an Israeli wants kashrut, the more likely he or she is to oppose the reform. Essentially, the kashrut reform’s most prominent supporters are those Israelis who don’t keep kosher at all. As far as they’re concerned, the present initiative is as desirable as any other reform that erodes the power of the Chief Rabbinate and of the Orthodox establishment.

By contrast, those to whom kashrut is most important have not been persuaded that the reform is good for them. Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana has convinced those who don’t really care about kashrut – but failed to win over those who hold kashrut most dear. This failure to persuade can, of course, be traced to political causes. The Haredi and Dati party hacks are mercilessly bashing the initiative, and their constituencies are buying into the opprobrium without necessarily subjecting it to close examination. Nevertheless, the launch of a reform undesired by its main target population is a development that demands our attention. Imagine a public transportation reform that pleases only those who rarely use public transportation. Or a radio broadcasting reform that only those who never listen to the radio approve of. There’s a problem there.

Now let’s look at the basis for the conclusions noted above. Last week there were some media reports on a survey conducted on behalf of the Institute for the Study of Judaism and Zionism. Most of the headlines were variations on “A Majority of the Public Supports the Reform.” And that’s true. The question is that of which reform. And the other question is that of whether, in kashrut matters, it is the majority that should decide, or a majority of kashrut-observers, or what.

The Institute’s founder, Daniel Goldman, and pollster Menachem Lazar were kind enough to send me the full survey findings. Let’s start with what’s missing: the survey participants weren’t asked whether they do or don’t observe kashrut. This makes it impossible to know with any certainty who supports what – one can only speculate based on earlier findings. Luckily there are a great many earlier findings, such that even mere speculation can provide reasonable answers about what we really need to know.

Let’s start with the fact that a third of Israeli Jews eat only kosher food bearing kashrut certification. At home, outside the home, in Israel, and abroad. That’s it. One third. It’s true that there are other numbers floating around to the effect that around two-thirds of Israeli Jews keep kosher. But honesty demands we acknowledge that those two-thirds include people who eat kosher only at home, or only in Israel, or who eat kosher but without being concerned with kashrut certification, and all sorts of other possibilities. That is – the two-thirds are really one-third who are meticulous in their observance, and another third who “try.” And that, of course, isn’t exactly the same thing. Who are the strictly-observant with regard to kashrut? It’s easy to identify them, as was done, for example, in a survey conducted by the Jewish People Policy Institute in 2019. Those who self-define as Haredi, Torani-Dati, or Dati are the ones who meticulously observe the laws. Those who identify as Liberal-Dati, Masorti, or secular with Masorti leanings, are the ones who “try.” The vast majority of those who self-define as completely secular (a third of the population) don’t keep kosher.

Now let’s connect these figures with those of Goldman and Lazar. What we get is clear: Those for whom kashrut is a more meaningful issue are both more aware of Kahana’s reform than are others, and much more strongly oppose the reform than do others. Basically, among those who have both heard about the plan and have an opinion about it, the situation is as follows: secular Jews (most of whom don’t keep kosher) enthusiastically support the initiative, but as one rises on the kashrut-observance scale, support plummets.

You can say: Okay, but what about all the people who simply hadn’t heard about the plan? First of all, there are a lot of those. With all due respect to the kashrut reform currently under discussion in the Knesset, the topic isn’t exactly something that inflames the Jewish masses. In fact, over half the public (52%) is entirely unaware that a plan exists whose aim is to transform the kashrut system. You can say: Great – if that’s the situation, then Minister Kahana still has a chance to make his case and ensure that his plan wins even greater support. This is true, but with a major reservation. Kahana might still convince a great many Israelis who aren’t overly concerned with kashrut – because they really haven’t heard about the plan yet. However, he would be likely to win over fewer Israelis for whom kashrut is very important – as such Israelis have already heard about it (and generally oppose it).

In other words: the way things look right now, and in terms of future potential, the Minister of Religious Services is about to pass a kashrut reform plan whose supporters consist mainly of those who are not strict about kashrut, or who do not keep kosher at all. This might be okay. It’s possible that the reform will prove itself in all sorts of ways, and be good for everyone. Perhaps it will rely on the possibility that with time – and it will take time – even those who are stringent about kashrut will realize that the reform is good for them.
But in the meantime, whether the reform is good or bad (full disclosure: I think it’s a step in the right direction), the truth should be told about its status. As with a public transportation reform supported by those who don’t ride the buses, or who ride them only infrequently; as with a reform in the Histadrut supported by non-members of the Histadrut; as with a reform in the religious education system supported mainly by those whose children study in the general (non-religious) system.