Wednesday, August 12, 2009

So when is kosher "kosher?"

Oh, my. I don't need Ray Charles to serenade me with "Georgia on My Mind." The American Civil Liberties Union and the Conservative Jewish movement are pushing ahead with a case filed August 7 that is designed to topple the Orthodox Union's monopoly on determining what is "kosher" in that state. As designated by a state law enacted in 1980, the suspect legislation was designed to ensure the public's safety and peace of mind in setting up the standards of Orthodox Judaism (their board is known as the O-U) as being the determining factor by which food is sold as "kosher" in Georgia. Apparently, there was a question of fraud having been perpertrated in the past, so by using the Orthodox Union's high bar of kashrut (dietary laws), there was no question that everyone -- from the most observant Haredi on down to secular Jews -- would feel assured and comfortable with a "kosher" designation. The problem came about when some people began to question whether a Conservative rabbi who might supervise a restaurant or kitchen for a community event would be de facto violating the law. Although Conservative standards are less stringent than the O-U's, their designation of a restaurant, bakery or kitchen as being kosher would be held as valid by members of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism. The problem is by lending its official state sanction to the standards of Orthodoxy, the division between organized religion and the state is blurred. The ACLU named Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta as the plaintiff in its suit in which it specifies that the Georgia law discriminates against other forms of Jewish religious practice by strictly adhering to Orthodox Judaism to determine what is considered "kosher." It is important to point out that the statute in question does impose criminal sanctions for violations, so Rabbi Lewis could have been arrested and prosecuted over the course of his career in Georgia had he been challenged. Lewis admits that he has "technically" been a criminal by merely doing his job as kosher supervisor for his own synagogue and for kosher events held under its auspices. This has triggered an immediate response from the Orthodox movement, who claim that not one non-Orthodox rabbi has ever been prosecuted, despite the fact many have provided kosher supervision information to the state. Some suggest an overturning of the law as unconstitutional might lead to more fraud being perpertrated against the public in the future. As of now, a few cases of probable fraud are handled per month. Orthodox kosher supervisors fear a more relaxed code could result in a spike of such irregularities. All of this seems to go along with the Conservative movement's attempt to become more proactive in the field of kosher supervision. Similar designations of kosher as being determined only by Orthodox standards have been overturned in New York (2003), Baltimore (1995) and New Jersey (1992). Whether Georgia becomes the fourth such state or municipal government to change its standards remains to be seen. I'm sure the rabbis pleading their cases will be very persausive. Perhaps they will need to daven (pray) a bit more devoutly as well.

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