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Kitniyot, Kishkes, and Judaism

I heard this story once from a rabbi once, while I was studying in Jerusalem… Rabbi Michael Satz – April 23, 2016.

First Day Pesach 2016

Mr. Goldberg always led the Shabbat afternoon service in his shul. One day when it was time to begin, he said, “I can’t start because I don’t have my reading glasses.” Everybody started looking for the glasses. Time was running out before sundown. “Why doesn’t someone else lead?” “No, no. It’s always Mr. Goldberg who leads.” Finally, someone found the glasses and gave them to Mr. Goldberg. He took them in his left hand, and began the service: “Ashrei yoshvei veitecha . . .” (Note to reader: It’s funnier if you would have seen me with my glasses in my hand and not on my face.)

Second story: Rabbi Elliot Dorff is an important scholar of Jewish law and ethics in Los Angeles. I once heard him tell this story about his first Pesach as a newlywed.

Before Pesach, Rabbi Dorff saw his taking all of the Pesach dishes and soaking them in the bathtub. Interesting, he thought, I have never heard of this custom. Being a young scholar, he searched through his volumes of Jewish law and customs, but he could not find anywhere a reference to soaking Pesach dishes in the tub. When he gently told this to his wife she said, “What are you talking about. This is how my mom does it, and how her mom did it, and how her mom did it. Get out of here before you make my dishes treif.”

Big news in the Jewish world. In December, the Conservative Movement issued a ruling permitting kitniyot for Ashkenazi Jews. We all know that the Torah forbids chametz, leavened food, and the ancient Rabbis say that it is only food made from five grains (unless they have been made into matzah first): wheat, oats, barley, spelt, and rye.

In the middle ages, traditions in the Ashkenazi world started to develop that forbade other kinds of grain-like foods, kitniyot in Hebrew, like beans, rice, corn, green beans, peanuts—the list kept growing. According the Rabbi Mark Washofsky in “Jewish Living”: “This custom has various explanations. For example, these foodstuffs are said to be prohibited because the rice and legumes sold in the marketplace inevitable contained small amounts of grain. Other authorities write that cooked dishes made with permitted substances closely resemble those containing chametz, thereby leading to the possiblitiy that the people may permit themselves to eat chametz mixtures as well. Still others worried that, despite the Talmud’s assertions, rice and legumes do indeed ferment when soaked in water. Whatever its origins, the custom never spread into Sephardic and other Jewish communities.” And, some Ashkenazi scholars have tried to fight this custom as going too far throughout the years. The Reform Movement has long held (as early as 1810 in Germany) that one does not need to follow the prohibition of kitniyot, but I bet a lot of you do. More on that in a minute.

Here is the conclusion of the Conservative Movement’s decision: “In order to bring down the cost of making Pesah and support the healthier diet that is now becoming more common, and given the inapplicability today of the primary concerns that seem to have led to the custom of prohibiting kitniyot, and further, given our inclination in our day to present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions, more easily able to participate in the culture that surrounds us, we are prepared to rely on the fundamental observance recorded in the Talmud and codes and permit the eating of kitniyot on Pesah.”

These are all logical reasons to permit the eating of kitniyot. But, the thing is, religion ain’t always logical. Think of the stories I opened with. Someone else could have been the service leader, but it wouldn’t be Mincha without Mr. Goldberg. Goldberg could have led without his glasses, but actually he couldn’t. And in the case of the Pesach dishes, who cares what the Rabbis say, this is how you prepare for Pesach according to Bubbe. Many of us here are not eating kitniyot because what would Bubbe say if there was rice at the seder? Judaism, religion, is about more than the mind, it is also about the kishkes—the gut. Emotion, memory, stories are just as important as logic, consistency, and rational thought.

I love studying the words of the founders of the Reform Movement. From the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885: “We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason.” A statement like this has brought important things to the Jewish world: egalitarianism, science, openness to general society. But at the same time it pushed away beloved ritual and many Hebrew prayers, among other things.

If we Jews are only ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason, where is the place for our kishkes? Does dear old Bubbe’s long gone voice still speak to us about rice at the seder or any other ritual that is not rational? In fact, if it is only about reason, why eat matzah at all? Can’t we just have a philosophical discussion at Pesach about freedom?

Pesach is a great example of mixing our minds and our kishkes. The seder is filled with philosophical discussions in the guise of storytelling and it has smells and tastes and time travel. Time travel? There are many examples. Like, at the beginning of the seder when you say “Ha Lachma Anya—This is the bread of affliction.” We don’t say, “This is like the bread of affliction,” turning the matzah into a symbol for slavery, rather we attempt to time travel back to Egyptian slavery, while we are sitting here in the present, but at the same time we call the matzah the bread of freedom, but that freedom is always a look into the future of not yet. We are not yet totally free. There is always next year in Jerusalem—we are always waiting for Elijah. In the seder we are living in eternity, the past, present, and future all at once. That’s the mind and the kishkes together. I feel my grandparents and glimpses of their parents and grandparents all the way back to Egypt as I look into my future with my two sons singing the four questions. As Rabbi Ira Stone writes, “. . . the radical assertion of Jewish experience, perhaps the most radical, is that aspects of eternity can indeed be experienced within the striation of this-worldly time. Time itself can be interrupted by eternity and timelessness can carve a space for itself in the midst of time.”

For this sense of eternity, ritual, food, memory, stories—the stuff that touch our emotions, our kishkes are what is important in religion, in Judaism. This does not mean that our mind is not important. God forbid. It’s a balance. My mind tells me that there is no concrete evidence that there was a man named Moshe that lead a slave rebellion after a serious of plagues and a miraculous splitting of the sea. My kishkes tells me every year at Pesach, or when I study it in Torah, that I was/am there—and my mind and kishkes together shape my future.

Many of you might be wanting to know what I think of kitniyot. Do I eat them? Yes, a few years ago my wife and I decided to to go for it. It was a rational decision based on study and the idea that our festivals should not be a burden. Should you eat kitniyot? I’m not going to give you an answer. Sometimes we answer questions like this with our mind, and sometimes with our kishkes, or sometimes Bubbe answers them for us.

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