Rabbi, what is the story with the kitniyot prohibitiondo I really HAVE to refrain from eating any kind of legumes on Pesach, or is there room for leniency? — a question from a congregant at my shul, a liberal Modern Orthodox congregation in Prospects Heights, Brooklyn

Me: I would have entertained the possibility of ruling leniently if the question came from one of our chareidi neighbors here in Brooklyn. You, however, HAVE to embrace the kitniyot restrictions.

Congregant: Really, Rabbi, why is the halakha different for me as a liberal Orthodox Jew than it would have been for someone who identifies as chareidi?

Me: Here is why:

Retaining a stringent attitude towards the kitniyot question is a chumra (an extra-legal stringency), not a primary prohibition (as I will explain below). Fidelity to this prohibition is therefore contingent on one’s general attitude towards chumra. I personally am a fan of chumrot — when applied reasonably.

I believe chumrot are essential to the well-being of the halakhic system. They are halakha’s antibodies, helping her fend off external historical and intellectual attacks. The necessity of adding the kitniyot stringency to one’s religious arsenal, therefore, depends on the community’s religious affiliation. If you identify as Modern Orthodox, you need to refrain from eating them on Pesach. But, if you identify as ultra-Orthodox, there is room for flexibility on the kitniyot question. Because a healthy society requires religious equilibrium, it should not be to too stringent but it also cannot be too lax.  Our community tends to rule leniently on socio-halakhic issues. We, therefore, could only retain our halakhic equilibrium, preventing us from tilting too heavily on the permissive side, by being stringent about ritual matters. Chareidim, on the other hand, tend to be strict on socio-halakhic issues, thereby satisfying their chumra quotient. They could, consequently, afford to take some liberties on the kitniyot issue. They do not need that stringency to maintain their religious balance.

The Chareidim, in fact, are chumra saturated. For them to maintain a healthy religious balance, they would have to abolish some chumrot. We Modern Jews, however, are chumra deficient and, therefore, whenever reasonable, need to embrace them.

I additionally like chumrot because of their contribution towards perpetuating a vibrant Judaism. It helps keep tradition intact, allowing us to pass on to the next generation a Judaism which has otherwise not been blemished or perhaps even diminished by our robust encounter with modernity.

Our community’s relationship to Judaism is a tad precarious. We Modern Jews live on the border which separates observance from non-observance, close to the non-observant edge. Therefore, if we slip even a little bit, we could potentially find ourselves outside the confines of classical yiddishkeitChumrot help put us several steps removed from the edge, minimizing the chances that the next generation will slip too far.

Here again, for the chareidim this is less of a concern. Unlike us, they do not require the same amount of extra precautions, barriers which will help them preserve the younger generation’s fidelity to yiddishkeit. Their insularity takes care of that. It keeps them inside even without chumrot. When you live an insular life, you are already surrounded by virtual fences, adding additional barriers are therefore less essential.

For us that is not the case. Chumrot, are a boon for modern Jewry — as long as it is deployed reasonably.

Chumra, when done properly, indeed adds a spiritual magnetism to our religious lives. But, as my dad Z”l taught me, you employ chumra when possible, and kulah when necessary. Our religious journey indeed requires passion but it also demands sanity. Chumra should never undermine a person’s ability to earn a living, support their family and live comfortably and with dignity.

Therefore, my dear congregant, as I said at the outset, I cannot, in clear conscience entertain flexibility in regards to the kitniyot prohibition. Optimal adherence to all its strictures contributes significantly to our community’s spiritual well-being. The cost is relatively low and the spiritual gains is quite high. 

Wishing you a meaningful and joyous chag,

R. Katz

* * *

To contextualize kitniyot, let me add two observations, one halakhic, and one sociological.

Halakhic

Refraining from eating legumes during Pesach is not a mere custom, it is a form of diligence, a chumra, Orthodox Ashkenazim took upon themselves.

Chumra de’chametz is the historical basis for the kitniyot prohibition.

  1. As is well known, the Rishonim offer several explanations for the prohibition: they look like grains; there might be some actual grains mixed in with the legumes; or other reasons. The common denominator in all the explanations is that because chumra de’chametz (the harsh consequences of transgressing the chametz prohibition even when done inadvertently) Ashkenazi communities took upon themselves the practice of not eating kitniyot. In other words, it was a minhag to be machmir because of heightened concern about the possibility of ingesting chametz.
  2. Also, minhag is a sub-category of chumra. Both are extra-halakhic behaviors that have semi-authoritative status. The purpose of both is to buttress observance.                                     
  3. The question today is whether it still makes sense to continue the kitniyot prohibition after it has been deconstructed in academia. To me that is a meikil/machmir issue. Meaning, a meikil approach would be amenable to abolishing a minhag whose provenance has expired or proven misguided. A machmir approach, on the other hand, would be suspicious of the academic deconstruction, ignoring their critiques, saying instead that we need to be stringent in our observance of minhagim, challenges to its contemporary validity notwithstanding. 

Accordingly, it is appropriate to explore the contemporary status of kitniyot through the kulah/chumra paradigm.

Sociological:

It is important to dispel a misconception. The chareidi tendency to be hyper-machmir is not a mystical/Chassidic influence. The opposite, Chassidic theology orients one towards leniency. The source for chareidi tendency to be overly stringent comes from the litvaks and non-Chasidic Hungarians. Their predilection for hyper-stringency is a consequence of two anti-innovation movements: the Gra and his students in the 18th century, and the Chasam Sofer in the 19th. Both, the Gra and Chassam Sofer, lived in a time of change and tumultuous upheaval, observance was under severe attack. They reacted by batting down the hatches and self-imposing extreme stringencies to fortify their community’s proverbial immune system.

This machmir orientation was then expanded upon by their adherents, the Litvaks in Lithuania, and the Hungarians in Eastern Europe.

Chassidim and mystics, on the other hand, were never particularly stringent. Their belief in immanence, combined with the nitzotzot trope actually led them in the opposite direction. They tended, for the most part, to look for reasons to be lenient because it afforded them additional opportunities to encounter divinity.

Since in the American ultra-Orthodox scene the Litvaks have become the dominant voice, drowning out the more moderate Chasidic voice, contemporary orthodoxy has, as a result, developed what seems like a fetishistic dependence on chumrah.