Remembering the Meaning of Passover:
Why I Reject the Conservative Movement’s Permission to Eat Kitniyot
This past November, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued a ruling permitting Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot on Passover.
In doing so, they gave permission for Conservative Jews of Eastern European descent (that is to say, most of us) to break from an eight-hundred-year-old tradition of avoiding on Passover the eating of rice, buckwheat/kasha, millet, beans, lentils, peas, sesame seeds, mustard, corn, green beans, snow peas, sugar-snap peas, chickpeas, soybeans, sunflower and poppy seeds.
At the bottom of the first page of its ruling, the Committee embedded a footnote that is true of all its rulings: “The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly provides guidance in matters of halakhah (Jewish law) for the Conservative movement. The individual rabbi, however, is the authority for the interpretation and application of all matters of halakhah.”
I am taking my prerogative, then, to invoke the footnote: it is my halakhic opinion that the prohibition against eating kitniyot should continue.
It is true that the Torah permits the possession, benefit from, and consumption of foods in the kitniyot category. The Torah itself prohibits the possession, benefit from, and consumption of chametz: narrowly defined as any food made from or that has come into contact with wheat, barley, oat, spelt and rye that may also have been exposed to water for more than eighteen minutes.
The actual reason that Ashkenazi Jews began prohibiting the eating of kitniyot, while still permitting the possession of and benefit from those foods, has been lost to history. The Mishnah Berurah (a Jewish legal compendium composed by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Poland in the 19th century) cites three reasons for the minhag (custom, not law):
Kitniyot are harvested and processed in the same manner as chametz;
Kitniyot may be ground into flour and baked just like chametz [so people may mistakenly believe that if they can eat kitniyot, they can also eat chametz]; and
Kitniyot may have chametz grains mixed into it [so people who eat kitniyot may inadvertently be eating chametz].
In 21st century America, an era in which food production is well-monitored and food packages well-labeled, most of those reasons for avoiding kitniyot no longer hold validity. Rather, like the reason we still maintain Yom Tov Sheni (the extra days of holidays like Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot) as well as a variety of other customs, we are committed to maintaining minhagei avoteinu (the customs of our ancestors) unless there is a compelling reason to veer from those customs.
What is a compelling reason? Leading Conservative scholar Rabbi David Golinkin defines the Conservative justifications for change as:
Changes are not made for their own sake;
A lenient ruling is preferable to a strict one;
Subjects are studied in a historic-scientific fashion;
The Shulchan Arukh is not viewed as the ultimate authority;
A commitment to halakhic pluralism is maintained;
Significant emphasis is placed on the moral component of Judaism and of Jewish Law.
The authors of the Conservative teshuvah (legal ruling), then, base their decision to end the prohibition against eating kitniyot by citing the preference for leniency over strictness and by calling out what they define is a moral imperative to permit the consumption.
The Conservative teshuvah explains that the leniency is justified because the Torah permits the eating of kitniyot; because the original rabbinic reason for its prohibition has been lost; and because the prevailing rabbinic opinion for its continuation is no longer valid.
In addition, from a moral perspective, the teshuvah’s authors argue that the sheer cost of kosher-for-Passover food is exorbitant. The more permitted food there is to eat the less we have to spend on the holiday.
Finally, and again from a moral as well as a health perspective, the teshuvah’s authors explain that many people in our day and age are reducing their consumption of meat. By permitting kitniyot, the lenient ruling expands the alternative protein options available on Passover.
Nevertheless, I mostly disagree with the Conservative ruling. In the Torah, Deuteronomy 16:3, we read, “You shall not eat chametz with it (the Paschal offering); seven days you shall eat with it unleavened bread, the bread of affliction (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), so that you may remember all the days of your life the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.”
That is to say, we deprive ourselves of certain foods on Passover in order to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt. As such, we are obligated (a) to care for all those who are in need and who suffer and (b) to take note that God set us free in order to worship Him.
During the eight days of Passover, we intentionally deprive ourselves in order to remember our obligations to God and to our fellow man.
At the same time, the Torah tells us (Numbers 10:10), v’samachta b’chagecha: you shall rejoice on your festivals. Though we deprive ourselves of certain foods as a reminder of our obligations, we still celebrate life, family and the blessings of being Jews in a free country.
Thank God, most members of Congregation Shaarey Zedek can afford the additional costs that come from the eight days of Passover observance – including the prohibitions against eating kitniyot.
Thank God, most members of Congregation Shaarey Zedek – even the vegetarians among us –consume enough protein during Passover to maintain their health even without the consumption of kitniyot (like beans and other alternative protein sources).
And thank God, for the meat-eaters among us, we can find kosher meat that is also free-range, antibiotic free, grass-fed and generally a truly healthy source of protein.
What we at Shaarey Zedek do need, however, is the spiritual inspiration that comes from observing customs that our ancestors observed generation after generation. There is power and meaning that comes from continuing minhagei avoteinu, the customs of our ancestors.
And what we at Shaarey Zedek need as well is the reminder that God expects us to care for those in need – to help the stranger, the poor, the widow, and the orphan – and we need the reminder that God wants us to serve Him with prayer and Torah study.
Thank God, most of us do not truly suffer on Passover, though we do go without some of the foods that make life easier for us. We rejoice with family, friends, and community, and we remember every day how blessed we truly are … that so many others go without far more than what we give up for a mere eight days.
And if continuing the prohibition against consuming kitniyot forces us to suffer just a little bit more, and thus to commit ourselves even more to fulfilling our sacred obligations, then the prohibition is well worth maintaining.
Of course, if finances are truly an issue for an individual or a family, and that without the consumption of kitniyot one might actually go without a meal or put one’s health at-risk, then I fully support and permit that individual or that family’s consumption of kitniyot.
But unless an individual or family is truly at risk, it is my halakhic opinion that the prohibition against the consumption of kitniyot should remain in place.
This Passover, may God bless you and your family with health and joy in fulfillment of the obligation v’samachta b’chagecha: you should rejoice on your festivals.
This Passover, may God bless you and your family, with the opportunity to remember that we were once slaves: that God commands us to care for those who are in need and to continually deepen our relationship with our Creator.
This Passover, may God help us, Israel, and all of the world to truly experience z’man cheiruteinu: a season of freedom, a season of plenty, a season of peace, and a season of celebration.
Rebecca, Caleb and Ayal join me in wishing you Shabbat shalom and a chag kasher v’sameach: happy Passover.