Monday, May 4, 2009

Kitniyot and the State of the Jewish Nation:An Afterthought

Two years ago, May 3, 2007 I essayed a piece “Springtime for Liberation”. In that essay I introduced Rabbi David Bar Hayim’s (Shilo Institute) ruling which lifted the ban on kitniyot (legumes on Passover for the Ashkenazi community) among Ashkenazi Israelis. At the time his p’sak didn’t attract a lot of takers, but since then his popularity has grown. Many modern orthodox Ashkenazi Israelis who previously complied with the kitniyot ban no longer comply with the anachronistic ruling.

Rabbi Bar Hayim’s p’sak underscores the growing chasm between the hareidi community and the modern orthodox. The hareidi community has become even more stringent in recent years, more products being labeled kitniyot than ever before. Cotton seed oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil and hemp are kitniyot, even though they are only derivatives. Sweet corn and soybean didn’t exist in medieval Europe yet our rabbis chose to label them kitniyot. Juxtaposed to them is this new brand of modern orthodox following of Rabbi Bar Hayim who is applying 21st century reasoning and sensitivity to a world that is no longer clearly divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardim.

Rather than follow blindly medievalists in the 21st century these vanguards are applying reasoning and logic to a rapidly changing Jewish world that no longer reflects the world from which most of our halachic rulings were formulated. Thus it isn’t difficult for them to make the distinction between kitniyot and kitniyot derivatives. But this progressive approach doesn’t stop there.

For many Ashkenazim in Israel the entire notion of kitniyot (while perhaps appropriately instituted in the Diaspora) no longer has relevance and for two reasons: Demographics and the halachic consideration stated in Shulchan Aruch that clearly highlights that when moving to a new place one should adapt to the customs of the new community.

The ban on kitniyot was a European chumra which never received wide acceptance in Israel or by Sephardim. When Diaspora Jews emigrated to Israel they should have, according to Rabbi Bar Hayim accepted the practice in Israel of eating kitniyot. The imposition of the Ashkenazi Diaspora standard of kitniyot created a wedge within the community; precisely what the halacha above referenced sought to avoid. Perhaps this had been the intention of the Askenazi rabbinic leadership.

The Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide in Israel existing since the State’s inception and before conveniently lent itself to the perpetuation of kitniyot among the Ashkenazim in Israel. In fact, the Ashkenazi rabbinic leadership has been masterful over the centuries of perpetuating the divide between the Ashkenazi and Sepharadi traditions. However as the edges of the divide have begun to blur, bleeding into each other blunting the differences between the two communities it seems logical that rather than maintain customs which perpetuate division there ought to be a coming together of cultures, traditions and people.

What could be more beautiful than people of different traditions coming together at the same seder table eating and drinking together, celebrating freedom and life. We Jews however have an uncanny talent of creating division – points of friction where they ought not exist. Because of this masochistic, self-destruct tendency; we haven’t ever been able to come up with one universal standard of kashrut acceptable to all Jews. Practically every Ashkenazi community has their own acceptable boutique standard thus creating flashpoints of polarity propagating division and insularity. Kitniyot, a seemingly harmless and benign ban has become so draconian that it has split the growing number of families which have blended marriages between Ashkenazim and Sepharadim.

Had the kitniyot ban been relegated to kitniyot proper and not its derivatives perhaps the ban would have remained a fairly innocuous issue. But the hareidi community knows no bounds, operating as conservative medievalists without a clue as to the demographics and 21st century realities. By lacking the necessary sensitivity required for communal/spiritual leadership they are driving a wedge deeper into the community; the same community that is seeking commonality rather than division and enmity.