2016-04-13 / Editorial

Should Ashkenazi Jews eat Kitniyot this Passover?

Temple Beth Sholom

The Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) recently passed two teshuvot, legal opinions, that permit the eating of kitniyot (rice, beans, corn, etc.) on Passover for Ashkenazi Jews. I was the only rabbi of this 25-member committee who voted against both of these opinions, preferring to keep in force this 700-year-old custom of not eating kitniyot on Passover. Why would I not want to abolish this burdensome and halakhically questionable custom? Let me explain.

Kitniyot is the name of a category of plant foods that Sephardim have traditionally eaten on Passover and Ashkenazim have not. While concerns were expressed about eating kitniyot since the Talmud, the first mention of the Ashkenazi custom of avoiding kitniyot on Passover came in 13th century France. There have been many reasons cited for this custom, most prominently that hametz products could be mixed with kitniyot. Since the 13th century, the custom of not eating kitniyot on Passover became codified for all European Jews. And since many of our ancestors came from Europe, this custom became widespread in America as well.

Almost 30 years ago, Rabbi David Golinkin, a prominent Conservative/Masorti Rabbi in Israel, wrote a teshuvah, a legal opinion, permitting Asheknazi Jews who lived in Israel to eat kitniyot on Passover. In addition to arguing that this was a misguided custom to begin with, he also felt that since Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews were so mixed in Israel, the custom should be given up for practical reasons. Namely, it became difficult to get non-kitniyot products and it was causing conflict in families with Jews from both traditions. A few months ago, Rabbi Golinkin updated his teshuva to apply to Jews around the world. Rabbi Amy Levin and Rabbi Avram Reisner, two other members of the CJLS, submitted a second teshuvah to the committee also permitting kitniyot, but for slightly different reasons. I cannot go into all of the nuances here, but the bottom line is that both of these teshuvot permitted kitniyot to Ashkenazim for four main reasons: It is a logically and historically weak custom to begin with, it detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods, it causes exorbitant prices, and it causes unnecessary divisions between Jewish ethic groups.

All fair arguments, but, in my opinion, none of them are strong enough to overturn a long-standing custom. I expressed this in a dissenting opinion I co-wrote for CJLS with Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, which three other rabbis from the committee signed on to as well. What follows is a summary of what we wrote:

First, the main reason to consider a change of any law or custom is to address an ethical dissonance, or a conflict between law and the prevailing values of our generation. Permitting kitniyot on Passover is not an ethical issue. It is a matter of convenience. Second, the joy of the holiday can be enhanced in ways beyond food. Families can take trips, decorate homes, spend time together, and do other activities that add to the joy of the holiday. Third, I do not believe that permitting kitniyot would bring down Passover prices whatsoever. Eating rice and beans may replace a side dish or other vegetable, but it will not replace expensive meat, desserts, jams, wines and other usual items at a meal. Additionally, both teshuvot affirm that kosher certification will still be needed for kitniyot items to make sure they are not mixed with hametz, so the need, and therefore the cost, of supervision will not be reduced. Fourth, though erasing this custom might bridge the gap between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, it will widen other divisions in the Jewish world, such as between Orthodox and Conservative Jews and within the Conservative/Liberal Jewish community as well. This decision will simply shift the division, not create a unified practice.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is the power of emotional attachment to custom, even when the reasoning is not necessarily sound. I have heard Rabbi Golinkin remark that, when he wrote that kitniyot should be permitted almost 30 years ago, his wife still wouldn’t allow them in their kitchen! Customs endure because religion is not always rational; visceral, emotional attachments to practice are an important part of the religious experience. The custom to avoiding kitniyot on Passover may indeed have suspect origins, but it has been part of Passover observance for Ashkenazi Jews for centuries. It allows them to identify in the smallest measure with the Hebrew slaves, connects them to their ancestors, and makes Passover very different from all other times of year. Without a compelling ethical reason to change it, I believe that this practice should continue.

All this being said, I have consistently counseled vegans and vegetarians who feel they do not have enough to eat on Passover to eat kitniyot. Kitniyot are not hametz, nor do they make one’s Passover dishes hametz. There is nothing wrong with cooking rice, for example, in a Passover pot and serving it at a Passover meal for someone who needs to include it in their Passover diet, or whose custom is to eat kitniyot on Passover. However, for those of us without dietary restrictions, and who have the tradition of not eating kitniyot on Passover, I do not see a compelling reason to change this custom. Plus—it’s only eight days!

You can find the full versions of the teshuvot by Rabbi Golinkin and by Rabbis Levin & Reisner, as well as the dissenting opinion I co-wrote, at www.tbsonline.org/passover. I am curious to hear your opinion— will these decisions by the CJLS affect your practice? Will you eat kitniyot this Passover? Please email me your thoughts at ravmicah@tbsonline.org

Hag Pesah Samaeh! .

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