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Comprehending the kitniyot craze

Don't be too quick to divest yourself of the practices that mean 'Judaism' to you -- even if others don't relate

I am not a rabbi. Let me restate this — I am not a rabbi. Yes, I often act like a rabbi, and many of even my closest friends are fooled, and think that I am a rabbi. But I dropped out of rabbinical school after three years, and despite my many years of learning and teaching Torah, I never bothered to go back. This informs the way I approach an issue that seems to have completely taken over social media in the last week or so — should/can Ashkenazi Jews outside of Israel eat kitniyot on Pesah?

I don’t have a strong opinion on this issue. I live in Israel and I have eaten kitniyot derivatives most of my 20-plus years here (thank you Rabbi Golinkin). When hungry and there’s nothing else to eat, which happens every five minutes on Pesah, I will eat kitniyot that I can see as well. So far, Pesah does not feel all that different to me. I still suffer without beer, scotch and bread (in that order). What interests me are the strong feelings people seem to have on this subject. I’m particularly interested in the not insignificant number of Conservative rabbis and other strongly committed Conservative Jews who have vocally opposed allowing Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot. What can we learn from this opposition?

First of all, we should acknowledge that nearly all committed Conservative Jews in North America, including most Conservative rabbis, eat hot dairy foods in non-kosher restaurants. I am not criticizing this, and I fully realize how hard it is to live as an observant Jew outside of Israel. Not eating out at non-kosher restaurants is a significant rejection of integration into American society. I am stating this as a fact, one that numerous rabbis and others who generally observe the laws of kashrut have told me. Unless one is exceedingly careful, dairy food from a non-kosher restaurant is often not kosher.  So the uproar over kitniyot is puzzling — why would so many Conservative rabbis and other Jews have a problem with overturning a custom whose status is clearly beneath that of other laws that they themselves do not scrupulously observe?

The answer seems to me that halakhah, Jewish law as it is written in books, is not at all the issue. The issue is Jewish observance. How do Jews really practice their religion, even if their observance does not logically follow the laws contained in the books. For many Jews, refraining from beans and rice on Pesah is an important part of their Jewish tradition, and for many Jews, Pesah is the time of year in which they are most attentive to their traditions. It is well-known that many Jews who do not in general observe the laws of kashrut, refrain from eating hametz on Pesah. Conservative rabbis are, in my opinion, reluctant to lessen the commitments to which their constituents still adhere.

Paradoxically, it might feel natural for a fully observant, yet liberal Jew living in Israel to eat kitniyot (I know many such people), and yet extremely disruptive for a Jew struggling with observance to give up one of the customs to which she still strongly clings. This is, in my opinion, an important observation of Judasim in general. The power of our customs is not a result of their origins or their technical halakhic status. It flows from the role they play in the lives we actually experience.

In my life, refraining from eating kitniyot played little role in my Pesah observance. Thus eating kitniyot was not a change that felt disruptive to me. But to the many Jews to whom this is an important element of their observance, eating kitniyot could cause a serious deterioration in their overall adherence to halakhah, and indeed in some sense undermine their faith in the entire system. For such Jews, I would agree, the kitniyot prohibition should be maintained.

Second, the entire controversy and the strong opinions it has stirred up point to the power of food and food rituals in Judaism. Pesah in general and the seder in particular draw their power not from the message of freedom that is at the heart of the story of the Exodus. They draw their power from the rich array of rituals that are so lovingly observed together with one’s friends and family. They also draw their power from the very physical acts of removing hametz, cleaning one’s home and buying kosher for Pesah food before the holiday. Pesah is so powerful because it is connected to acts involving food.

This focus on food is something we need to restore to Judaism in general. I see it happening more in synagogues than ever, where the kiddush luncheon has become a norm, and not something reserved only for special occasions. Prayer is difficult, but the kiddush afterwards is fun. We might be tempted to criticize this attention to our earthly desire, and perceive the stomach to be a lower organ than our brain. But this is a mistake and a losing battle. We would do better to transform the kiddush and the meal into a learning and maybe even spiritual opportunity We should stress the rituality of the kiddush, and its integral part of Jewish life. We should appreciate their the visceral power of food and drink to enrich Judaism in general. The ubiquitous “kiddush club” is problematic in my mind when it excludes women and becomes an elitist attempt to exclude others. But rejecting it will not boost shul attendance. Instead, this too should be brought into the overall spiritual and educational framework of Judaism and the synagogue experience.

The kitniyot question and debate is more important than the particular issue at hand. It is a lens through which we can observe what is important about Judaism and how it functions in many people’s lives. It teaches us what works. And hopefully just thinking about the issue will allow us to bring more such opportunities into our lives.

Hag Sameach to all.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Joshua Kulp is the Senior Scholar at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has rabbinic ordination from Hadar and a PhD from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of three books, The Shechter Haggadah, and Reconstructing the Talmud, v. 1 and 2. He lives in Modiin with his wife and four children. When not writing, teaching or studying, he can be found out running, biking or swimming or drinking delicious Hazy IPA's.