Kitniyot and Kishkes
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Having established the shaky logic at its foundation, Reisner and Levin provide a long list of reasons why the prohibition should be reconsidered. Age-old fears of mixing wheat and kitniyot are no longer valid. The inflated pricing of Passover foods would be mitigated by offering a host of other culinary options. For vegetarians, the opportunity to partake in vegetable protein, and for those who are gluten-free, the possibility of eating rice or corn, will undoubtedly enhance the joy of the festival. From a more philosophical angle, they argue that to perpetuate this baseless custom may cause people to scoff at the enterprise of Jewish law as a whole. After all, if Jews are being asked to observe a law empty of logic, then how can they be expected to take any Jewish law seriously? Furthermore, for a people so small that puts such a premium on Jewish unity, why prolong a custom that divides the Jewish people into ethnic enclaves. Perhaps most of all, as a movement of tradition and change, should not the Conservative movement insist on the ongoing development of Jewish law. Summing up their arguments, the paper concludes:
“In order to bring down the cost of making Pesah and support the healthier diet that is now becoming more common, and given the inapplicability today of the primary concerns that seem to have led to the custom of prohibiting kitniyot, and further, given our inclination in our day to present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions, more easily able to participate in the culture that surrounds us, we are prepared to rely on the fundamental observance recorded in the Talmud and codes and permit the eating of kitniyot on Pesah.”
One small step for edamame, one giant leap for the Jewish people. It may not be a papal encyclical, but for those of you who, like me, have lived our whole lives not eating kitniyot, this is big news, opening up a world of new culinary possibilities for our upcoming festival.
Maybe. Because it is at this juncture that we must say hello to our little friend “tradition.” To be clear, there is nothing about this teshuvah that forces you, or any Jew, to change his or her practice; it has merely opened up a possibility that hitherto had not existed. Furthermore, a dissenting opinion submitted by Rabbis Frydman-Kohl, Hoffman, Bickart and PAS’s own former assistant rabbi, Miriam Berkowitz, argues that the Ashkenazi prohibition should continue to stand. These rabbis argue that we have, to use the Hebrew expression, minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu, a tradition of our predecessors in our hands. Nobody disputes the fact that the rationale for the prohibition is very weak. But then again, anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Jewish observance knows that the rationale for a lot of things we do isn’t always strong. Why chicken can’t be eaten with dairy, why one waits between eating meat and milk but not the other way round, why porcelain dishes cannot be kashered – logic has nothing to do with the power of tradition, especially where food is concerned. Were we to do away with all the Jewish laws that don’t make sense, our ritual lives would be rather impoverished.
As Conservative Jews we do believe in legal development. Of course we do. But we do not do so willy-nilly. We do so – or to be more precise, I do so – when I believe that a Jewish law diminishes the humanity or dignity of another person, for example in matters of gender or sexuality. I do so when I believe that the presence of a tradition impedes Jews and would-be Jews from engaging in Jewish life and living. A case in point is our live streaming of services, using musical instruments, or pressing the envelope on outreach to those seeking to enter our faith. I do so, when advances in science prompt us to rethink long-standing beliefs, case in point being the permissibility of organ transplantation, in-vitro fertilization, or for that matter, eating swordfish.
There are many reasons to change Jewish law, and I think anyone who has observed my rabbinate would be safe to put me in the progressive camp of our movement. But as the dissenting opinion states, in the matter of kitniyot, “We do not see such a compelling reason in this case.” Unfounded as it is, this prohibition has taken on the force of law. Whatever schism it creates in the Jewish community, to change it creates a rupture in Jewish history and within the contemporary Ashkenazic community. Yes, if one must eat kitniyot for health or dietary reasons – if you are a vegan and need your soymilk; if you are gluten-free and need an alternative to wheat – by all means, but that is no different than any other leniency when health and well being is concerned. Here on the Upper East Side, it is difficult to conjure up the financial argument, though there too, if it is sincere, I would of course be on the side of leniency. Best that I can tell, the prohibition does not raise any ethical objections, save the hurt feelings of a few legumes. And as to the question of whether this prohibition is an impediment to Jewish vitality, quite frankly, it is difficult for me to argue that “but for this prohibition on legumes, just imagine how much more robust the Jewish world would be.” There have been many far more controversial changes to Jewish law proposed over the years by the Conservative movement and there will be, please God, many more to come. But to change – or, as Mishnah Brachot teaches, to break – Jewish law, is an act that must only be taken in order to serve and preserve the Jewish future. Ultimately, this debate is not about kitniyot, it is about kishkes; and at the end of the day I am my mother’s son. If I must choose between kitniyot and my kishkes, then I choose kishkes any day of the year and twice on Passover.
So where does all this leave us? As a member of a Conservative synagogue, this Passover you, as a private Jew, may eat kitniyot if you so choose. As a practical matter, cooking and serving kitniyot does not compromise the kosher-for-Passover status of one’s kitchenware and dishes. As rabbi of this synagogue, I stipulate that despite the recent ruling of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, the policy of Park Avenue Synagogue remains unchanged: no kitniyot allowed during Pesah. As far as the Cosgrove household goes, to the degree that I have any authority there, there will be no edamame, rice, beans, or other legumes this Passover.
More than any other holiday, Passover calls on us to turn to community, to return to our heritage, to heal the bonds of Jewish identity that have slackened and frayed over time. This is the high season for our yearning for ritual, for religion, for peoplehood and for tradition. This Passover may we see ourselves as threads in the eternal tapestry of our people, and may each and every one of you have a healthy, happy, and kosher Pesah.