THE PASSOVER TEMPEST IS ROILING AGAIN THIS YEAR: Do we or do we not eat “kitniyot” (legumes, rice, and related starchy veggies) on Pesach? For centuries, the simple answer has been Sephardim “Yes,” and Ashkenazim, “No.”
Kehillot Ashkenaz apparently were more inclined to mill dried kitniyot into flour and bake them to resemble forbidden Pesachdik bread, etc. Hence, the Ashkenazic prohibition, which Sephardim do not share.
But, the maelstrom erupted a few years back when a p’sak was issued by the Conservative rabbinate entirely lifting the prohibition of kitniyot, even for Ashkenazim. In brief, the rationale was that the practice had become irrelevant, because it is now uncommon even in Ashkenazic communities to use kitniyot in their heretofore manner.
Expectedly, the p’sak was condemned by Orthodox (and some Conservative) Jews, but was largely celebrated by Conservative adherents. To read the huge body of commentary, vitriol, and rant in the social media, one would think that either Messiah had come or that he had been waylaid by theRomans
I am not sufficiently competent to debate the mind-spinning Halakhic intricacies of the kitniyot issue. Nor do I want to. I simply wish to interject a word besides “mutar” or “assur” that we have rarely heard invoked in the controversy especially in a compelling way. It is “sentiment.”
Sentiment plays a huge role in Jewish observance, especially when we come to appreciate that Judaism is not merely a cut-and-dry, toe-the-line creed. It is a peoplehood (or the clichéd “lifestyle”). It embraces not only do’s-and-don’ts, but practices, folkways, regional minhagim, and mores. They awaken sentiments that bypass rationality as they streak nonstop to the neshamah. Some of them are not momentary emotions; they often endure for generations, even if their relevance gets lost or not even remembered.
Sentiments touch warm places inside, ones that spark fond remembrance of times, celebrations, comfort foods, relatives and loved one who have passed on, and simply “the way things used to be.” When we’re touched, we savor the sentiment, perhaps we laugh, occasionally we cry.
Kitniyot for some of us might be one of those sentimental tugs. I am an Ashkenazi and was raised with practices and traditions that have become uniquely beloved to our “tribe.” I connect with ages and places past – Grodno, Bialystok, Suvalk – with wonderment of which generations in antiquity did as Zayde-gone-by had first chanted the melody of “Ki Lo,” that we still lustily sing at our Seder.
And then, sentiment lives on in the things that “we have always just done that way” – which vegetable for karpas, the family recipe for charoset, hide-and-seek with the matzah, you know. If we do them “wrong” we don’t just miss them; we are short-circuited.
Perhaps the Conservative rabbis were right about kitniyot, but were also wrong about them. Sentiment is often stronger than the letter of the Law. Thus we eat our peas at the peril of depriving ourselves of yet another sentimental journey, just because it is no longer legalistically relevant.
My Bubbe would never have served green beans on Pesach, and my Zayde would have never tolerated a rice kugel. They likely did not even know what role kitniyos played in the bigger picture of Passover observance. But, it was integral to their Passover. Now, for me and my family, it makes a statement of where, and from whom, we came. We do not serve kitniyot and our kids don’t either. Doubtful that we ever will. Case closed.
It may be the minuscule issue of kitniyot or something more august.
Rabbis and laity: Please do not strip our practices of their potential for evoking sentiment. Stop calling them “Halakhically irrelevant.” Create a new/old paradigm in which the things we have come to venerate are still a source of sentimental celebration, rationally relevant or not. Loved when they are here. Missed when they are gone.
Where is the impetus, anywhere and everywhere, to inject beloved Jewish sentiment into a body that would otherwise be merely inert skin and bones?
Unless more of us step up, I fear that one day we will miss them dearly when they are gone.
WILUDI, Rabbi Marc Wilson, is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC.