Thursday, March 25, 2010

My approach to Kitniyot

A guest post by Rabba bar bar Chana

When I was younger, especially after I became a vegetarian at the age of 21, I railed against the utter nonsense of the Ashkenazi prohibition of eating kitniyot on Pesach. It seemed like unnecessary torture, especially today when the danger of grains ending up mixed if far less likely. Why couldn’t I have my tofu? Would wheat really end up in my rice, when cereals today are grown as monoculture crops (not near other grains) and sold in packages? It seemed to me to be ridiculous and a burden. The only reason I stuck with it was habit and family.

Over the last decade or so, my approach to Judaism has undergone somewhat of a sea change, and that has impacted how I view the issue of kitniyot. I now view Judaism not as a fixed revelation in time that established the form of Judaism we must follow forever, but as an evolving process, where halachot changed and developed over the past three millenia. The reasons for this have to do with study of history, archaeology, biblical criticism, and a critical analysis of Rabbinical literature. The specific issues are another post, and in any case have been discussed in detail on many, many blogs. This post is just to examine how this approach has changed my attitude to minhagim like kitniyot.

With this approach to Judaism, I don’t keep Torah and mitzvot just because I might feel it was part of a divine revelation in ancient times. I keep it because of the significance of my ancestors, of many different generations and eras, having developed these laws in their attempt to become closer to Hashem. Because the very history of these developments is significant and meaningful to my Judaism. So while the laws of Shabbat are meaningful to me, so are the Rabbinical decrees of the Talmud. And so is cherem Rebbeinu Gershom. And so is the prohibition of kitnoyot, which has been with Ashkenazi Jews for the greater part of a millennium. It’s not meaningful to me because of the minute permutations of the law. It’s meaningful to me because my grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents, kept these halachot.

So with that approach, keeping the prohibition of kitniyot is honoring the evolving nature of halacha within Judaism. It’s acknowledging that, unlike the fundamentalist school’s belief, halacha has changed over time and that’s part of the Judaism I love.

However, for the same reason, recent additions to the list of kitniyot, and added stringencies, have no place in keeping the halacha. It’s honoring my ancestors and my conception of Judaism to avoid eating what they avoided 500, 300, or 100 years ago. It’s not honoring them, and it’s not in the spirit of this view of halacha, to suddenly declare that some new seed or vegetable that my grandparents would have eaten is suddenly prohibited on Pesach. If they could use peanut oil (or even peanuts), why will no hechsher organization give Pesach certification to it today? And certainly, there should be no problem with Quinoa. There is nothing religiously pious about adding chumrot that no one kept 100 years ago.

“Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l (Igros Moshe, O.D. III:63) is of the opinion that peanuts are not Kitniyos. He reasons that Kitniyos is not a Halacha (official law) but a minhag (custom). While Minhagim often have the force of Halacha, Rav Moshe argues that the Minhag cannot be extended beyond what was actually included in the custom.”
(From - Kitniyos in the Modern World by Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech)

It’s interesting to note that my rationalist and critical approach to Judaism (though fundamentalists will call it a skeptical approach) has caused me to be more favorably disposed to minhagim, not less, and to find more meaning in keeping them.

So the bottom line is, I now can enjoy and feel I’m doing something meaningful by avoiding kitniyot on Pesach. Yes, it’s frustrating, but I’ll eat protein-rich vegetables like asparagus (yes, the tips too) and feel good about connecting with a tradition that goes back many, many generations. As long as they don’t try to take away my quinoa!

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