Philip Goldwasser
Philip Goldwasser

The Kitniyot Dilema

In December, 2015, The Law committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative Movement, adopted two different teshuvot (decision in Jewish law) on the topic of kitniyot on Passover. Both teshuvot permit the eating of kitniyot on Passover by Ashkenazi Jews (Ashkenaz literally means German, but Ashkenazi generally refers to Jews of Eastern European descent). The specifics of the teshuvot are not very relevant to what I want to say, but I want to give a short explanation about kitniyot so readers can understand.

First off, as most people know, on Passover, we are forbidden to eat hametz. Hametz is any product that contains any amount of any of the following: wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt. Matza itself, is the exception to this rule, in that matza can only be made from these five species. Flour from these grains are meticulously watched over to make sure they do not come into contact with any water in order for them to be used to make kosher for Passover matza.

But most Ashkenazi Jews also refrain from eating what we call kitniyot on Passover.  The word kitniyot comes from the word katan, or small. It refers to small seeds, beans and other grains that might, in some way, seem like hametz. I won’t get into major details, but some items that have been considered kitniyot are: rice, beans, mustard seed and other grains. The list has been expanded over the years, to include things such as peas, corn, green beans, and many others. Sephardic Jews, those who are descended from Spanish Jews do not have this custom.

Personally, I am very happy with this decision, but my purpose here is not to discuss Passover, Jewish law or kitniyot in specific. The other day, I posed about this on my Facebook page, and one comment really made me think. My friend suggested that leniencies like this by the Conservative Movement make things worse by adding more divisiveness between the Conservative Movement and the Orthodox world.  I understand what my friend is suggesting.  Many of us in the observant Conservative world have close ties to many people in the Orthodox community, especially in Modern Orthodoxy or the  more current Open Orthodoxy. Our basic observance is not all that different. By allowing things like this, we risk building a wall between us where today there may be only a nice shrub that one can still walk though.  If I start eating kitniyot in my house on Passover, this argument goes, then some of my Orthodox friends might not want to eat in my house anymore.  The point is well taken, but I discount it for numerous reasons.

  1. I do not believe that the Conservative Movement is in the business of making leniencies. I am sure I will get some flak for that statement, but let me explain. In the modern Conservative movement, I do not believe that those rabbis who are writing teshuvot are doing so solely to come up with leniencies. If you take the time to read through the many teshuvot of the Law Committee, you will find numerous teshuvot that are stringencies, not leniencies.  I believe that our rabbis who are writing teshuvot are doing so with an open mind, while learning from the sources, and their response is not preconceived.
  2. In this specific issue, there should be no confusion about eating in someone’s home. Not one rabbinic source suggests that you may not eat off of dishes on Passover that had once held kitniyot.  In fact the opposite is true! The rabbis who forbade kitniyot agree that you can still eat off of dishes that were used for kitniyot on Passover.  I have learned recently that in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, it is becoming common practice for people to just not eat in others homes during Passover. The idea is that if one makes a blanket statement of not eating in others homes at all, on does not offend anyone. Personally, I find this plenty divisive!
  3. One final argument that someone said against this is that if you permit this practice here in the US, people might make mistakes because how will they be able to know if a product that contains kitniyot is permissible for Passover?  The good news here is that the OU is giving out a Kosher for Passover with Kitniyot symbol for products!  So it is quite easy for any of us to start eating kitniyot and not worry about anything else in the food.

The bigger picture questions here, of course, are about the place and purpose of the Conservative Movement.  Is there a place for the Movement today and will it exist in the future?  I hope to discuss these topics and more in future blog posts here.  I also want to point out, that I am not a rabbi, and anything I say about Jewish law are, unless quoted, my own opinion.

About the Author
Phil Goldwasser served on the board of directors of his synagogue, The Highland Park Conservative Temple - Congregation Anshe Emeth in Highland Park NJ, and chairs the youth committee. He holds a masters degree from JTS. For close to 20 years he was involved with USY as a USYer and staff member. Having conquered being a parent of USYers, he and his wife Marsha have returned to staffing USY.
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