May
20
2010

Sharia Law, Halacha, Parliament, and a Supermarket Near You

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Kosher Scandal

Hi all.

Due to offline work commitments, Yaron and I have been scarce around here, but an extremely serious matter has brought us out of hibernation.

It even prompted Yaron to write to his Federal Member of Parliament, Kelly O’Dwyer. Below is an edited version of that letter:

“As a member of the Jewish community, it was with considerable angst that I read in this week’s Australian Jewish News that the Federal government is considering creating a centralised authority that will determine the status of what constitutes kosher food.

The AJN writes “the submission… calls for one body… to be given the legal right to endorse individual kashrut authorities, setting the guidelines they must adhere to.”

This seems to imply that the act of labelling a product as kosher without first attaining the approval of the central authority would become illegal. Halal foods are in the same position.

While this may ostensibly seem like yet another example of government over-regulation, the consequences of such an initiative are potentially grave for the following reasons:

1) As an ordained Orthodox Rabbi I feel that such an authority is simply untenable.

Jewish law deals as a matter of religious course in disputes in a multiplicity of areas. Judaism, like Islam is inherently decentralised and for government to centralise power in either religion is anathema. That a government certified authority could pronounce on these disputes for all Australian Jews and Muslims flies in the face of the nature of our religions.

2) The members of any Western democracy are wary of giving secular authority to religious bodies. This proposed legislation hands a select group, with no actual or verifiable mandate, the status of the conveners of ‘official Judaism’ or ‘official Islam’. They will then be able to legally accept or reject a product as definitively kosher or Halal, despite the wishes of other, significant sectors in their community.

This breaking down of the walls between religion and state also worries the broader electorate because they rightly view liberal democracy as a bulwark against sectarianism.

3) This is not a health issue.

While government labelling standards are an obvious necessity when it comes to matters such as health, extending their reach to religious issues simply makes no sense.

In Israel there are numerous kosher authorities, all legal, each with their level of religious observance. It is up to the consumer to check the kosher certificate before sitting for their meal or buying the product.

4) Whom will this legislation penalise?

I am Orthodox and philosophically disagree with other streams of Judaism; however, I accept their right to practice according to their conscience and defend their right to do so.

If a non-Orthodox Rabbi wishes to give his or her authorisation to a restaurant the proposed legislation would simply not allow for this.

It would seem that this legislation has been proposed to bolster the leadership of various communities rather than the very members of those communities. Ordinary families will suffer due to a restriction of choice and the free market that our society has been built on will suffer.

I feel that any move to introduce legislation such as this could open the door to similar legislation that would impact the Australian greater good for the sake of a narrow set of interests.

Yours Sincerely,
Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb”

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May
24
2010

Copyrighting Kosher

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Kosher Scandal

The proposal to legally hand over the rights to the word ‘kosher’ to the Jewish establishment is even more troubling than it initially appeared from the article in this week’s AJN.
Thankfully some in the blogosphere have stood up and spoken up against this proposal.
The AJN, on the other hand, only wrote about the need for people to submit their views on the proposed legislation after the May 14 deadline for submissions had long passed!
Of course, I have not seen the ECAJ/ORA submission to the relevant authorities, since it has not been posted on the submission page of the website. We have no way of knowing if this is due to a request not to make it public or because the government website is a bit slow.
The essential point in all of this is that we don’t even know the exact role of our leadership in this process. None of us even knew there was anything to know until last Thursday, when the AJN came out.
It was not on the ECAJ website. How would the average citizen who was not, “connected,” concerned know to look for something like this in the first place?
If the leaders wish to represent us, at the very least they should be letting us know what we need to know and what will impact our lives before it is a fait accompli.
I am not denying the right of these two organisations, or others like them, from making submissions to the government or representing themselves as Jewish voices. But by keeping this information to themselves they were preventing dissenting views from being expressed.
The next worry is why kosher food was part of this review in the first place.
In the mass of information about food labels, question 17 states:
“Is there a need to establish agreed definitions of terms such as ‘natural’, ‘lite’, ‘organic’, ‘free range’, ‘virgin’ (as regards olive oil), ‘kosher’ or ‘halal’? If so, should these definitions be included or referenced in the Food Standards Code? ”
What is kosher (or halal for that matter) doing here? Who slipped this into the review and what does it have to do with the terms that surround it? Will the government become halachic authorities, sitting down to argue disputes between Rashi and the Rambam or will this be going back to the rabbis who run the big kosher authorities?
We can only assume that if the words kosher and halal were in such a review that is otherwise so far removed from issues of religion, that there must have been encouragement on the matter from some source.
It can only be the Jews, Muslims, or both who are responsible for this.
Which leads us to the most troubling part of this affair.
What is ECAJ’s role in all of this?
Why is a roof body which is not religious attempting to gain control over the word kosher?
As Sir Humphrey would have said in Yes, Minister, the success of a minister or a civil servant can be measured by the departments he has control of and the size of his budget.
It would seem that there is an effort to centralise as much power as possible under the one banner. One danger among many is that private initiative will be restricted.
We are lead to believe that our welfare is taken care of and we have no need to take any action. But such a mentality always leads to stagnation.
Therefore, with the submissions formally closed, I encourage everyone to write to their MPs to have this proposal rejected.
The alternative is to have another piece of our Jewish lives centralise and closed to competition with the added insult of it all being subject to Government regulation..

Minister for Health: Nicola.Roxon.MP@aph.gov.au
The local MPs can be found at http://www.aph.gov.au/whoswho/index.htm under ‘contact list of members’
Please note:  the comments on this article will be forwarded to people who are involved in this review.

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Jul
26
2010

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Kosher Scandal

In an unprecedented move the Council of Orthodox Synagogues of Victoria (COSV) has come out against the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, demanding transparency in the Rabbi Meir Rabi kashrut debate.
The Galus Australis blog provides a copy of the COSV letter here.
Rabbi Rabi, a Melbourne rabbi, has started his own authority to certify products as kosher and has met with opposition and sometime open hostility from various members of the community.
The Rabbinical Council of Victoria (RCV) released a public statement alleging the standards that Rabbi Rabi had set were not sufficient in their eyes and that their congregants should not eat food prepared under his supervision.
This statement was highly problematic on a number of levels.
The RCV felt there was no need to articulate the actual problems with rabbi Rabi’s procedures. Instead, the RCV preferred to issue general and vague warnings that were intended to strip Rabbi Rabi’s authority of any legitimacy.
Such opaque behaviour only fanned the flames of speculation that powerful elements with the RCV who have their own certification authorities were defaming Rabi in order to protect their own turf from competition.
The president of the COSV, Paul Korbl was sufficiently disturbed by these events to write the unprecedented letter of rebuke to the RCV Rabbis. For this, he should be commended.
As disturbing as the RCV’s possible defamation in order to protect their own interests, is their refusal to provide concrete religious arguments for their campaign.
Such a refusal is entirely out of step with the role and expected behaviour of rabbis in Jewish life.
In Judaism, every rabbi is expected to provide answers to questions that include the logic and the process that they have used to reach the conclusion.
Even the greatest rabbis of each generation will give the reasons for his answers to the most simple of questioners. No question is off limits to the lay person and Judaism does not operate on the basis of blind trust.
Yet there are members of the RCV who have openly stated that they are not willing to publicise their logic. Their reasons are that there are many people who are not well versed in Jewish law and the rabbis therefore do not want such ignoramuses to dismiss the complex rabbinic reasoning because of misunderstanding, and subsequently eat Rabbi Rabi’s food.
Is the RCV proposing the end of the great Jewish traditions of debate, logic and transparency?
The Jews throughout history have lionised the educated layman. The rabbi is not supreme in the religion.
There is nothing from a religious standpoint that a rabbi can do that an educated layperson cannot.
This is our goal as a nation, to know what we must do and how to do it.
It is inevitable that people will make mistakes when given the responsibility of gathering the knowledge themselves instead of relying on the rabbis; but this is preferable to Jews’  mindless acceptance of unreasoned spoon feeding. The latter may ensure the average person keeps the laws in the short term, but it weakens the nation in the long term.
To be absolutely clear – the RCV’s missive was not a Jewish response, and their answer is not sufficient.
The ‘just because’ response has never been good enough in Judaism and it still isn’t. Until some concrete reasons are given for their pronouncement I will consider the RCV statement irrelevant.
Any proper RCV response must be public and transparent. Coming and explaining to me or someone else privately is not enough. What makes one person so much more important than others that that individual deserves a private consultation, while the rest of the community is asked to remain ignorant?
And if the food is really not at an acceptable level of kosher let the sins of those who eat it rest on RCV heads, because they have sat on information and refused to share it with the public.
So to the RCV, release your reasoning and let us see why you feel that Rabbi Rabi’s authority is not acceptable. If it stands up to scrutiny I will follow you. But at the moment you are failing the most basic of Jewish principles: that open debate will lead to the best outcomes.

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