Seder tables in Conservative Jewish homes may look different this Passover, and it’s not because of a new popular cookbook or changes to the haggadah.
It’s because the Conservative movement has officially decided that kitniyot — which include common foods such as rice, corn and beans — are now permitted for Ashkenazi Jews on Passover, overruling about seven centuries of Ashkenazi custom that banned those foods. The Passover prohibition persisted even though all Jewish legal authorities agree that kitniyot are not chametz, which is why so many other Jews, including Reform and Israeli Conservative Jews, as well as Orthodox Sephardic Jews, eat them during the eight days of Passover.
The technicalities of the new ruling can be a bit confusing, but they’re laid out by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) in a legal document titled “A Teshuvah Permitting Ashkenazim to Eat Kitniyot on Pesach” published in November. It removes all restrictions on kitniyot for Conservative Jews — restrictions that Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews will continue to follow.
The opinion, written by Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner of Baltimore and Rabbi Amy Levin of Bridgeport, Conn., was approved by the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly by a vote of 19-1. Its argument centers around three key points: First, that the custom of Ashkenazi Jews to not eat kitniyot on Passover is lacking in strong rational justification. Second, access to inexpensive foods like rice and beans reduces the high cost of observing a kosher Passover for American Jews. And third, for the increasing number of people who maintain vegan or gluten-free diets, rice, beans and other grains are important sources of nutrition.
A similar responsum written in Israel by Rabbi David Golinkin allows Ashkenazim to eat kitniyot on Passover; it was approved in 1989 by Israel’s Conservative movement. The Israeli responsa has now been translated to English and was voted on by the CJLS in December, passing 15-3. The Israeli responsa draws a similar conclusion, albeit through different reasoning.
Prohibitions against kitniyot are not based on Torah law or rabbinic law, but rather on Ashkenazi custom. About 700 years ago, rabbis in France began referring to a custom of some Jewish communities to avoid kitniyot, a label derived from the word katan (little), which includes rice, millet and legumes broadly, and beans, corn, peas, lentils and soybeans, more specifically. Everyone agrees that chametz — leaven derived from wheat, oats, spelt, rye and barley — is strictly prohibited on Passover. The custom to avoid kitniyot derived from two precautions: First, because kitniyot are sometimes grown in close vicinity to the five chametz grains, rabbinic authorities worried that chametz might mix with and accidentally contaminate otherwise kosher-for-Passover food. Rabbinic authorities also were concerned that Jews might confuse chametz with kitniyot, as they share some resemblance.
Today, according to Orthodox law, the custom to avoid kitniyot on Passover is binding on Jews of Ashkenazi descent, regardless of where they live. But Sephardic Jews, whatever their denominations, do not follow this custom and enjoy the full range of kitniyot products throughout Passover, making Passover’s shopping experience and diet easier and more enjoyable.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of philosophy at American Jewish University and chairman of the CJLS, who eats fish but not meat, said that despite the ruling, his wife plans to continue to observe the custom, so there will be no kitniyot in their home during Passover. Dorff stressed that the Conservative movement’s change “should not be the occasion for looking down your nose, either at the people who do eat kitniyot or people who do not.”
One issue the teshuvah touches on, and which Dorff mentioned in the context of eating at other people’s homes on Passover, is that even under halachah, there is no issue with using kosher-for-Passover utensils that have come in contact with kitniyot, which is not true of Passover-kosher utensils that have come in contact with chametz.
“Kitniyot cannot become chametz,” the teshuvah says.
Additionally, derivatives of kitniyot — such as rice oil — remain fully acceptable for Ashkenazim who continue to hold by the custom.
The teshuvah guides the reader through the historical rabbinic debate on the topic, highlighting those who believed in the custom, those who thought it stringent but nevertheless thought it should remain, and those who thought it was a mistake.
Rabbeinu Peretz, for example, wrote in the 13th century that there’s no doubt kitniyot is not chametz, but added, “Were we to permit kitniyot, [people] might come to substitute and permit [grain-based] porridge.” And while Peretz noted the Talmud allows rice on Passover, “This was specifically in their day, when all were fluent in the laws of prohibition and permission.”
But Jacob Emden, an 18th-century German-Jewish scholar known as Ya’avetz, wrote that his father, Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, would “rant” against the custom of avoiding kitniyot, largely on the basis that they are “available cheaply and easily,” and that their exclusion forces Ashkenazi Jews to bake and consume more and more matzo, increasing the chance that they’ll inadvertently consume chametz. (In those days many families baked their own matzo, which requires sharp precision.)
Ya’avetz wrote that his father, also known as the Chacham Tzvi, awaited the day when scholars would abolish the custom but did not support doing so “without the agreement of the majority.”
But even with a majority agreement, the teshuvah notes, rabbinic authorities cited the opinion of Maimonides, perhaps the greatest rabbinic scholar in Jewish history, that “only a greater court than the originators” has the authority to reverse not just law, but custom, too.
In justifying its ruling, the Conservative responsa begins by casting doubt on the possibility of mixing chametz with kitniyot “in the present age when we purchase our flours, rice and beans in discrete packages, well-marked as to their content, under governmental supervision.” A footnote, though, does caution against buying in bulk on Passover from any grocers that dispense food from bins, such as in some natural food stores.
While acknowledging the importance of maintaining customs, the teshuvah’s authors note that while some Jewish communities “insist upon dressing as did the Jews of Poland several centuries ago, in our community that has been allowed to change.”
The ultimate rationale behind the Conservative committee’s ruling comes down to the practicalities of economics and nutrition, and their belief that “resistance to change is the sole reason not to consider a change” in this custom.
With the growth in vegetarianism, the authors argue, beans, for example, “serve in the absence of meat as a significant source of protein.”
“It’s about time!” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple wrote in an email to the Journal when asked about his thoughts on the ruling. He said he understands “the force of custom,” but, as a vegetarian, he has been eating kitniyot over Passover for years.
“It was based on a misunderstanding and lack of information, so to my fellow kitniyot consumers, welcome to a Pesach no less kosher and much more nourishing,” Wolpe said.
“We now have many more people who are vegans, and we also have people who are known to have gluten allergies,” Dorff notes. “For them, what is permissible on Passover is much more restrictive than it is for the rest of us. Especially for vegans, there was really nothing to eat on Passover. There was really very little, if you do not allow kitniyot.”
“The positive mitzvah of joy on the holiday will not be well expressed on the depleted table of those who do not eat fish or meat, or even cheese and eggs,” responsa authors Reisner and Levin write, adding that the halachic aphorism that the Torah wants to protect the Jewish people’s money is relevant in increasing access to relatively inexpensive foods, like beans and rice, and thereby alleviating the financial pressures many Jews feel when shopping for expensive Passover products.
Rabbi Micah Peltz of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J., the lone holdout on the otherwise unanimous committee, said he doesn’t believe the decision to lift the restriction on kitniyot is justified by the teshuvah’s reasoning. Peltz said law and custom are changeable, but only when done to “address an ethical dissonance between halakha and the prevailing values of our generation,” which he believes is not the case here. He wrote this with four other rabbis in a January op-ed for the South Jersey Jewish Voice.
In an interview with the Journal on April 11, Peltz said he thinks the economic benefits of allowing kitniyot are limited, as they won’t replace the most expensive Passover food items and because many kitniyot products still require a special kosher-for-Passover certification. He said he could also foresee the ruling creating a division among Ashkenazi Jews, even as it may help bridge a divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
“Kitniyot is not law. It is tradition, and I think that’s something that’s very powerful for people, and I think by throwing off the tradition for everyone en masse, by making that statement, I think it does more harm than good,” Peltz said.
The Reform movement has never prohibited kitniyot. Rabbi Leora Kaye, program director for the Union for Reform Judaism, said the reasoning is simple: “Kitniyot is not chametz, and therefore there is no prohibition against eating kitniyot.” Like Dorff, though, she understands that avoiding kitniyot is an “integral piece” of how some Jews observe Passover.
Kosher-for-Passover-certified kitniyot products have become increasingly available in the United States over the past few years, particularly since the Orthodox Union announced in early 2013 that it would certify products with kitniyot that are kosher for Passover. In Los Angeles, some kosher grocers, such as Glatt Mart, Elat Market and Cambridge Farms, sell kitniyot products on Passover, while others, such as Western Kosher, do not.
Dorff said that, based on the preponderance of Passover kitniyot products available in stores in Israel, he expects they will become more and more common in the U.S., as well.
“If Israel is at all a model for us, my guess is that not only this year but in [future] years, there will be more and more of those things,” Dorff said.