Putting Pesach back on track
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Putting Pesach back on track

Around The Jewish Standard’s office, my pre-Pesach column is affectionately (I hope) referred to as my “annual rant.” Even I refer to it that way, so I was surprised to discover that I have not so ranted in the last three years (at least not in print).

Why was I surprised? It is because there is little that upsets me more than how Jewish law and basic Jewish principles are so abused at Pesach time – not by the laity, but by the rabbinic authorities who are supposed to guide them.

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day For example, in issuing their rulings, rabbis are supposed to take into consideration the cost factor. To paraphrase Rabbi Akiva, rabbinic authorities must not “waste the money of Israel” by imposing unnecessary stringencies (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Chullin 56a). Rabbis also are supposed to consider whether a ruling is more likely to be flouted than observed, because “we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure” (see BT Bava Batra 60b).

There also is the principle of Marit Ayin, which forbids doing things “even in one’s most private rooms” that might be misconstrued, such as eating a bowl of what appears to be Cheerios on Pesach. (See BT Shabbat 64b and elsewhere.)

Rather than celebrating our freedom (Pesach, after all, is the Festival of Freedom), we have become slaves to a rabbinic proclivity to ignore with conscious abandon the Torah’s repeated injunctions neither to stray off of God’s path to the right or to the left nor to add to His law or subtract from it. To live a halachic lifestyle in any form – Orthodox, Conservative, chasidic, haredi – means living behind fences surrounded by fences surrounded by myriad other fences that obscure yet other fences.

Hypocrisy and zealotry are the order of the Pesach day. Take, for example, our desire to get around the myriad stringencies relating to what foods may be eaten on Pesach. Over time, the definition of “chametz” has expanded beyond any rational limits. This has led, among other things, to the creation of a faux chametz world for eight days a year that makes a mockery of Pesach, of God’s Torah and commandments, and of halacha.

The process of cleaning the home and getting the various appliances, cookware, and the like ready for Pesach is a daunting one, to be sure. It is also a necessary one. Pesach is different. Freedom comes with a price. Does it have to be so daunting, however? And must those who are poor be forced to go to great expense to accommodate manmade stringencies?

A look at the different ways Ashkenazic and Sephardi authorities approach this area of Pesach law is instructive.

According to Ashkenazic authorities, including the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism (this is not an anti-Orthodox rant), the smooth surfaces of many electric ranges are not eligible for kashering for Pesach, which makes them unusable. Yet, according to decisions by several prominent Sephardi rabbis, glass tops need only a thorough scrubbing, while porcelain tops can be made usable by pouring boiling water on them.

Again, according to Ashkenazic authorities, including Conservative ones, there is no way to kasher metal baking utensils. Sephardi guidelines say otherwise. Sephardi authorities also allow the kashering of Teflon-coated frying pans and the like; Ashkenazic authorities do not.

There are Sephardi rulings that allow the kashering of wood, plastic, and rubber items; the methods for kashering vary based on the uses made of the utensils.

I am not saying that Sephardi rabbis are correct and Ashkenazic rabbis are not, or that Sephardi authorities do not add their own stringencies (they do). I also am not suggesting in any way that Sephardi authorities are any less diligent or devoted to halacha or that their interpretations are in any way flawed. This is a hubristic view that Ashkenazic authorities have held since the early days of Ashkenaz, but it is not rooted in any reality.

Both the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi rabbis start with the same basic halacha. Their rulings differ because they approach the law differently. Sephardi rabbis were more concerned with the principles mentioned earlier; Ashkenazic authorities were more concerned with imposing tests on our commitment to Judaism as they interpreted it.

Let us return to the faux chametz issue, which violates both Marit Ayin and “the money of Israel” principles, among other laws.

The existence of such foods was made possible in part by the severe restrictions imposed by Ashkenazic rabbinic authorities over the last 1,000 years, but probably not much before that. (We have the Talmud’s own word for it that in its day, “none [paid] heed” to a ban on the use of rice on Pesach, which the Gemara actually lists as one of the dishes that should be offered at the seder; see BT Pesachim 114b.) Today, rice is included in the Ashkenazic ban on the use of kitniyot, meaning legumes, suspected legumes, wannabe legumes, legumes that are not legumes, and the derivatives of each.

Then there are the misconstrued foods. “Corn” is a forbidden food on Pesach, even though we know it is not the “corn” of the Bible. Our corn is a wholly American original that only made it across the pond when Christopher Columbus sailed back to Europe.

The kitniyot ban is primarily responsible for the high cost of Pesach living. It is also a factor weighing heavily on the lack of kashrut observance on Pesach and generally.

It is hard to convince people that keeping kosher is important and as valid today as it ever was when, say, they look at a bottle of reformulated kosher for Pesach Coca-Cola, compare the price to a regular bottle, ask what the difference is and are told that it is the corn syrup – a product derived from a food that no Jew had ever seen before the dawn of the 16th century.

We are losing people because they believe Judaism is filled with fairy tales and foolishness. The Pesach fences only prove their point, not ours.

The fences need to come down. We need to get back to concentrating on the true meaning of Pesach, not on accreted minutiae that distort that meaning and that make a mockery of Torah in all senses of the term.

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