For most of Israel’s history, the chief rabbinate has held a government-enforced monopoly on certifying that restaurants and other places where food is produced are kosher. But, largely in response to allegations of corruption and favoritism on the part of the chief rabbinate and its approved supervisors, a number of rabbis have begun granting kashrut certification outside the official system. Now Tzohar—an Orthodox organization founded to challenge the chief rabbinate’s positions on marriage and divorce—has joined in this effort.
Eliezer Melamed, an influential rabbi and no one’s idea of a religious liberal, defends Tzohar’s efforts by appealing to traditional texts to argue that halakhah admits, and in fact encourages, a sort of federalism. Thus the council of elders Moses convenes in Numbers 11—traditionally understood as the precursor to the Sanhedrin, or supreme rabbinic council—is a representative body, with elders drawn from each tribe. And just as, in ancient Israel, different tribes were autonomous units that operated their own rabbinic courts, so, too, Melamed argues, different segments of Israeli society—the modern equivalent of tribes—should be allowed their own rabbinic authorities. He explains:
“Appoint yourselves judges and officers for your tribes in all your settlements that God your Lord is giving you, and make sure that they administer honest judgment for the people,” [commands] Deuteronomy 16:18. The sages say in [both] the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, “It is a mitzvah for every tribe to judge its own tribe” (Makkot 1:8 and Sanhedrin 16b, respectively). According to the reading of Moses Naḥmanides (ca. 1194-1270), it’s possible there may even have been a commandment to appoint a high court or Sanhedrin for each and every tribe with certain powers over members of that tribe. . . .
Today, the [Jewish] nation is divided into ethnic groups [e.g., Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizraḥim, etc.] and circles united by ideology [e.g., secular Jews, religious Zionists, Ḥasidim, etc.]. . . . Torah scholars of one sector or group must not disqualify the scholars of another, so long as they are loyal to the Torah and its commandments. And even if a sector’s halakhic opinion is unacceptable to the majority, it is forbidden to disqualify their position regarding what they rule in their own communities, . . . and their opinions must be considered [in discussions of jurisprudence]. . . .
[W]hen groups and institutions try to impose their opinion on members of another circle, and attempt to deny the authority of their rabbis and prevent them from serving as rabbinical judges or in other positions controlled by chief rabbinate, [as has happened in several instances], we are no longer speaking of a situation where the rabbis of Tzohar may establish a kashrut organization, but rather a situation in which it is almost obligatory for them to establish one . . . in order to give . . . expression to their portion in the Torah.