September 25, 2018

Spilling the beans: Another misstep for the Conservative movement

Ashkenazic Conservative Jews living in North America will, for the first time, be able to consume beans, rice and other previously prohibited foods known as kitniyot during Passover guilt-free. Or so they’ve been told by the movement’s law committee, which gave the green-light to these foods last December. 

This decision goes against the movement’s mantra of “conserving” the tradition and discards a long-standing custom for no good reason. 

Further, for traditionally observant Jews who remain affiliated with Conservative Judaism, this decision increases existing concerns about the movement’s perceived creep to the left. 

The Jewish tradition reflects a blend of both what the rabbis declare as the law and the grass-roots practices of the people. Therefore, the role of minhag, or custom, has a special significance in the development of halakhah, Jewish law. The prohibition of consuming kitniyot, while not technically mandated by the Talmud, became established minhag among Ashkenazic Jews during the medieval period.  Sephardic Jews did not adopt this custom. 

The line between minhag and halakhah often has blurred in the development of the Jewish tradition. For example, practices that begin as minhag can eventually work their way into the halachic decisions of rabbinic authorities.  The Jewish dietary laws in general provide an excellent example of this process.  

According to Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik, the son of Joseph Soloveitchik, “the traditional Jewish kitchen, transmitted from mother to daughter over the generations, has been immeasurably and unrecognizably amplified beyond all halakhic requirements.” He wrote how shocked he was when he realized this discrepancy between the letter of the law and normative Jewish practice. For example, according to Yoreh De’ah, a Jewish law compilation dating back to the fourteenth century, cold food does not require a separation of dishes.

Yet, no seriously observant Jew would consider eating a salami sandwich on dairy dishes.  Similarly, for observant Askhenazic Jews, Conservative and otherwise, kitniyot are, and will continue to be, off limits.

In practice, I suspect that the law committee’s blessing regarding kitniyot will be largely irrelevant for the majority of Conservative Jews who perceive the concepts of halakhah and tradition very differently. The language of halakhah suggests iron-clad rules and consequences for disobedience that are foreign to all but the most observant Jews. But “tradition” connotes positive associations and the desire for transmission.

When seen in this light, the law committee’s decision to permit kitniyot for Ashkenazic Jews has far more significance than allowing previously forbidden foods during Pesach.  It represents an erosion of long-standing tradition, which is a very dangerous step for a movement to take when it claims to care about conserving tradition and even maintaining halakhah. 

Think back to the ever-popular song Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof.  This song resonated with audiences of many different cultural and religious backgrounds for one simple reason: tradition is generally perceived as a positive value in life. And for cultural minorities such as the Jews, traditions should not be lightly discarded unless there are very compelling justifications in the other direction.

So what were the alleged reasons for the law committee’s decision?  Among the reasons given by the committee are that Passover is expensive and vegetarians need protein.  But allowing Jews to consume beans, rice and other kitniyot does not change the fact that all of the other foods observant Jews need to purchase for Passover still cost money. 

Speaking as someone who does not eat meat, the protein justification also rings hollow. After all, it is highly unlikely that most people will become malnourished in just eight days. Besides, in 2014, the Orthodox Union gave its blessing to the superfood quinoa, an outstanding protein source, for Passover.

In short, changing the deeply ingrained Ashkenazic tradition was unnecessary and even counterproductive to the communal spirit of the holiday. Observant Ashkenazic Jews tend to revel in their Passover eating hardships. These complaints have become a staple of our Passover culture but now the law committee has told us we have no reason to complain!

Speaking of hardships, the committee’s ruling also mandates inspection procedures for insuring that no hametz has contaminated our newly permitted kitniyot.  As if those of us who will be spending the next several weeks endlessly shopping, cooking and cleaning don’t have enough to do without searching for microscopic particles of hametz? 

For those at the top of the rabbinic pyramid who are charged with guarding Jewish tradition for the Conservative movement, the answer is not to change the rules to make them more lenient.  When the law committee ruled in 1950 that Jews are now permitted to drive to synagogue on Shabbat, Conservative Jews did not suddenly become more observant.  On the contrary, this decision ignited a controversy that raged for decades. 

The kitniyot decision will not likely create the same long-lasting buzz in the Conservative movement as the decision to permit driving to synagogue. This ruling involves custom rather than biblical or Talmudic law, it relates to a yearly rather than weekly ritual, and many seriously observant Jews who care about this level of detail have already migrated elsewhere.  But even absent the buzz, the reality remains clear. The law committee did not do Conservative Judaism any favors when it gave it blessing to kitniyot during Passover.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law.  She is the author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition” (Oxford University Press, 2015).