Thursday, May 3, 2007

Springtime for Liberation

While Passover is the holiday and celebration of freedom it also welcomes in the spring season. Springtime is a favorite for most, because it contrasts to the grey, long, cold winter season. Springtime is bursting with color and life, the great thaw, after the seemingly colorless long freeze, with life in hibernation. Springtime is a season that holds out promise for regeneration, hope and there is a prevailing sense of liberation. This past Passover was indeed a watershed festival because it was the first time ever that I ever sensed the winds of change and progress within the orthodox rabbinic establishment. It was an exhilarating feeling, filled with the hope that maybe at last we will be able to liberate ourselves from the dreary pre-holocaust Ashkenazi stranglehold on Jewish custom and tradition.

As a side bar to a lecture Professor Eliezer Berkovits gave while still his student, he lamented and lambasted the rabbinic establishment in Israel in particular the Chief Rabbinate, for lacking spiritual leadership and intellectual integrity. Professor Berkovits’ concern was that with the establishment of the new state, Jewish religious practice and ritual could no longer be business as usual. Medinat Yisrael, a politically independent Jewish state needed to address the pressing halachic/ethical issues which hitherto hadn’t been addressed appropriately in light of the newly founded independent Jewish state such as Agunah, medical transplants, autopsies and conversion issues.

The rabbinic establishment shied away from these issues not in small part because of the gestalt of the haredi community who seemed to have a firm stranglehold on the religious establishment and set the tone and agenda regarding religious practice. Their position was that pre-holocaust, eastern European Jewish values and culture must be preserved.

The Jewish demographics in Israel today doesn’t reflect those sentiments espoused in the 1950’s-1960’s. Then, most immigrants were of Ashkenazi descent with a smaller, less educated and leaderless fractured Sephardic community which tended to be deferential to the dominating Ashkenazi culture. Today Israel is a country with a smaller Ashkenazi community and a polyglot of heterogeneous Sephardic Jews as well as other ethnic groups who define themselves by their traditions and countries of origins. There are Indian Jews of Cochine or Bene Israel descent, Ethiopians, Yemenite and Jews from Arab lands who don’t necessarily define themselves within the broader definition of Sephardic. Clearly then we are not uniform or homogenous, nor do we have one singular cultural/halachic narrative. To insist therefore on maintaining our halachic system based upon pre-holocaust eastern European Jewish tradition lacks relevance and does not speak to the Jews of the 21st century in Israel or the Diaspora.

That is why it is so refreshing to read of the efforts of Rabbi David Ben Hayim, head of the Shilo Institute. He together with four other rabbis had the temerity and vision to issue a halachic opinion that would permit Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot (legumes). According to Ben Hayim, the custom of the land of Israel (where eating kitniyot is permissible on Passover) should take precedence over any other custom so as to unify the different communities.

What really is at stake here, is not whether Ashkenzim will be eating rice and humus on Passover but whether or not we will be successful in redefining who we are as Jews in light of the fact that we are an independent nation living on its own land. To cling to the customs of the Diaspora might be quaint and charming, but it ought not to be the light by which we define ourselves. Ben Hayim’s attempt at creating this cultural/halachic redefinition is a first step in sculpting the Jewish people into a cohesive community by the use of religious language where are tradition merges with relevance.

It would seem that Ashkenazi Jews might be given the alternative choices. Those who wish to honor the tradition of pre-holocaust eastern European Jewry should certainly do so. But those who wish to look forward to the bright and promising future in building a coherent community with a common language of tradition and culture ought to be able to do so without feelings of guilt or recrimination

Passover is a wonderful holiday for another reason. It is part of a season which culminates in the holiday of Shavuot when we celebrate the giving of the Law. The beauty of the Passover of the exodus generation, the “dor hamidbar” was that the Hebrews accepted the Torah unconditionally without the bias of history – they were truly liberated, a new generation who grew out of the wilderness. We too, ought to approach this season in the same spirit, without the bias of history, liberated and open to embrace God’s Law.