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Pies for Jesus?

Her methods may be kosher, but in Israel baker Pnina Konforti faces a bigger commercial obstacle: She's a Messianic Jew.

Children watch as an ultra-Orthodox Hassidic Jew recites a prayer during the preparation of matza, an unleavened bread, in a bakery in Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, March 30, 2009. Preparations are closely supervised to ensure the matza is unleavened in accordance with ritual law. (Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters)

GAN YAVNEH, Israel — I always thought that by following kosher laws religious Jews only missed out on certain flavors and debatable delicacies. Turns out that by turning their back on “treyf” they also steer clear of Jesus.

At least that’s the verdict of rabbinates in two Israeli towns who’ve been denying a kosher certificate to a local cafe owner for three years — not because she doesn’t conform to the laws of “kashrut,” but because she’s a “Messianic Jew.”

Pnina Konforti, owner of the two branches of Pnina Pie in Gan Yavneh and Ashdod, this month won a decision in Israel’s Supreme Court forcing the rabbinates of the towns to give her a kosher certificate. Just because she believes in Jesus, the judges said, doesn’t mean she can’t keep kosher. Without the kosher certificate, many religious and traditional Jews refused to frequent the cafes and Konforti’s business was failing.

The case looks set to provoke a battle between the more secular organs of the government and the state rabbinate. It’s also a new point of conflict in the long battle between Israel — particularly its ultra-Orthodox community — and the Christian faith.

The rabbis insist they’re the ones who ought to decide about matters of kashrut and they refuse to allow a Messianic Jew (or a “Jew for Jesus” as they tend to be known in the U.S.) to receive a certificate. Though that sounds extreme, the rabbis aren’t entirely wrong (at least in the archaic terms of kosher law). After all, in Israeli wineries, non-Jews are forbidden from touching certain apparatus for fear of making the wine non-kosher — a prohibition going back to the days when a non-Jew might have used wine for idol worship.

Konforti’s point — which the Supreme Court accepted — is that she isn’t a non-Jew. She just happens to have decided during a stay in Ohio that the world’s most famous Jew, Jesus — or as she, an Israeli, calls him, “Yeshu” — is her savior.

The fear of Christian proselytizers or, even worse, Jews for Jesus is a common one among Israelis in general, and it has a long history that reaches back to a Europe where Jews were often persecuted or forced to convert to Christianity.

In that sense the court decision marks a rare gesture of conciliation by the organs of the Israeli state toward those who profess to be Christians.

It hasn’t always been that way.