Monday, May 09, 2005

Blaming the Rabbis...A Response to Bat Sheva Marcus

The comments I received after my post about Pesach in Hotel led me to re-read Bat Sheva Marcus' article in the New York Jewish Week, which started the whirl of debate. There was much there that I could sign off on, until I reached the following paragraph:

Much of the responsibility for this new trend, it seems to me, has to fall on the shoulders of our rabbis and leadership. If our rabbinic leaders in the last decade had spent their time working out easier, halachically acceptable solutions for the myriad of tasks involved in Passover instead of engaging in the one-upmanship in stringency that has characterized the development of Pesach preparation, we might find ourselves in a very different place. Perhaps if we were told that the spring cleaning was optional, that making something kosher for Passover is not rocket science, and that so much of what we buy and cook can be easily adapted for Passover, maybe we wouldn’t find ourselves a community feeling like it needs to run away for the holiday.

This has got to be one of the most gratuitous swipes at the rabbinate that I have ever encountered. Every first year Semikha student knows the story of the rabbi whose wife threw him out of the house Erev Pesach because if she were to listen to him (i.e. Halakha) the house wouldn't be Pesachdig. Outside of the realm of kashering and products, the rules for pre-Pesach preparation are a matter of folklore and custom. Now, these are integral parts of an ongoing tradition and of the mimetic culture to which I referred in my post. Much of it is critical to the education of the next generation, since sights, smells and sounds are deeply ingrained in the emotional memory of children. However, these cleaning strictures were not foisted on an unsuspecting public by a cabal of reactionary, primitive rabbis. They express deeply held feelings (at least, in the past) about the larger significance of Hametz and non-Hametz.

I will grant Ms. Marcus that ultimately much of this has a distant halakhic basis. Rav Soloveitchik zt'l used to note that the halakhic strictures of Pesakh are due to the fact that even the smallest amount of Hametz renders food unfit for consumption ('assur be-mashehu'). This, in turn, is a result of the fact that consumption of Hametz varries a punishment of 'karet.' Nevertheless, it's a long way from there to spring cleaning. Miles, in fact.

Now, it is a fact that in the area of foodstuffs there are some amazing Humras floating around. In Israel, most of these revolve around kitniyot (In the US it seems that the issue is the Hasidic hijacking of restaurants wherein those of the Misnagdic persuasion can't get a knaidel to save our lives.) These deserve separate treatment. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile noting that recent research by my friend and colleague, Professor Menachem Friedman, has shown that the rise of 'mahmirim' in the religious world was as much predicated upon the search for humras by members of the community as upon their own jurisprudential proclivities (perhaps more so). [I suggest reading this article and this one as well to understand the point.]

In light of this, I have to chalk up this intemperate outburst to misinformation and anti-clerical sentiments that are rooted elsewhere. Certainly they have nothing to do with Pesach.


Oysvurf said...

The Religious Council in My Obiter Dicta's home town - Efrat - supervised by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, puts out an annual flyer for Pesach preparations. Amongst the ridiculous chumrot listed are 1) no peanuts for ashkenazim 2) no kitniyot derivative oils for Ashkenazim and 3) stone counter tops need to be covered.

There is simply no halachic basis for the above strictures whatsoever. They are totally based on madness. The foods are absolutely permitted on Pesach - even to Ashkenazim, and stone countertops need to have boiling hot water poured on them.

Whether the madness is that of the Rabbi or the community - I will leave it to the sociologists to decide as they know better than I do

Jeffrey said...

I mentioned in my post that there are real issues with the Kitniyot Humrot. My favorite is not eating Canola Oil because people don't know what it is. Oh! Wait! There's a better one. People don't buy Cottonseed Oil (Shemen Kutna) because it sounds like kitniyot (if you''re a Polish, Galician Hungarian or Romanian Jew).

I agree about the stone tabletops, and plenty of people in Efrat rely upon the method you suggest. I admit, however, that we cover counters as part of Pesach aesthetic.

Oysvurf said...

I agree with you - and many ashkenazim in your town probably eat some type of kitniyot (or at least the oils) as well. But the fact is that the rabbanut of the town prints the strictest opinions year in and year out.

I agree about covering the counters as an aesthetic (as well as educational) issue. We have the tables covered in plastic - sort of like the section of town that is supposed to be left without an eruv - otherwise stone counters and stainless steel sinks are a pleasure!!

I think that cotton seed oil was the only reasonably priced non "kitniyot" oil available in Israel this year. there was walnut oil, but at the same price or more than olive oil what's the point.

for more on how other oils were developed as an alternative to more expensive olive oil, and how the Badatz threw a monkey wrench into the manufacturers plans to have it kosher for pesach see the article at on the argument between Rav Kook and the Badatz on the issue of Sesame Seed Oil in 1909(!). I posted this on my blog as well in my rant on kitniyot. The Badatz basically admitted to Rav Kook that he was correct halachically but allowing Sesame oil on Pesach would be an opening for Reform Jews..........

Anonymous said...

Let’s keep things in perspective. I find it hard to believe that the decision to spend thousands of dollars to take a family away to a resort is based on not being able to use peanut oil or having to cover one’s stone counters. If chumras are the problem, then the resorts have probably the strictest standards around given that the hotels have to apply the most restrictive criteria to gain the largest possible clientele.

Second, if the Jews were all coming to Jerusalem or Israel in general for the chag, I’m not so sure there would be such hand wringing about how people should stay at home. After all, the whole holiday is predicated around people leaving their homes and going to Jerusalem, presumably staying in some hotel, for the seder.

Lastly, memories and traditions come in all different shapes and sizes. Mostly the holiday is about family and experiencing the holidays as a family. People travel all the time for the holiday. They go to relatives; they go to friends. Why if they go to a beach in Mexico do the alarms ring about the falling morals of society and the threats to future generations?

Anonymous said...

Although the humrot may have very little halakhic basis they certainly do add tp the chag. What is Pesach without the silver foil? Without the gnawing hunger? Without the indigestion from only eating pounds of matzot and fresh fruits?