The Kitnityot Dilemma Redux
Many of you have seen, and many discussed, an article by Rabbi David Golinkin, Coservative Rabbi of Jerusalem (with roots right here in Columbia, MD) which purported to be a precis of his responsum permitting the eating of kitniyot (legumes and other non-chametz grain-like items that are traditionally not eaten by Ashkenazim, though they are eaten by many Sepharadim, such as rice, corn and beans). You have probably not seen a response posted to the CJ Voices website by Rabbi Paul Plotnik of Boca Raton, FL objecting to that halakhic position.
A word or two or more of contextualization is warranted.
Rabbi Golinkin published his responsum permitting Ashkenazim in Israel to eat kitniyot many years ago, in 1989. It was understood at the time, which explains the fact that it has not surfaced lo these many years, as a ruling made in Israel for Israel. Specifically, the question posed to the Israel region of the Rabbinical Assembly from the Conservative rabbi in Ashkelon, our sister city, Rabbi Matthew Futterman, was “Is it permitted to recommend a change in the customs of Pesach to the Israeli public in the name of unifying the Jewish people?” The bulk of the responsum is dedicated to Rabbi Golinkin’s learned analysis of the basics of chametz, which do not include kitniyot, and his showing that there is indeed precedent for abandoning mistaken custom. It should be noted, though, that at that point he had demonstrated only that it was possible to overturn such a custom, not that it was desirable to do so.
What did he have to say about that? In his opening paragraph he states his case: that it is desirable to permit kitniyot because a) refraining from using them limits the joy of the festival, b) it causes a rise in the prices of kosher l’pesach goods, c) it causes undue emphasis on a tangential matter (kitniyot) to the detriment of focus on the real issue (chametz), d) if one observance is seen to be baseless, all will be abandoned, e) it causes separation between the different ethnic groups, as pointed out by the questioner. Against these he can find just one reason to maintain the custom -- faithfulness to the customs of our ancestors. (How compelling you find those arguments is for you to determine. As Rabbi Shulman pointed out in a sermon about this article given at Chizuk Amuno two shabbatot ago, the counter-argument is no mean argument, for from the first we have been a people which honors its ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah -- and we should likewise honor our more immediate ancestors if we are able.)
But in his closing paragraph, after detailing his halakhic analysis, Rabbi Golinkin returns only to his final point. As the questioner asked, he writes, is it desirable to eliminate the factors that separate the different communities in Israel? He argues that it is.
I do not know what particular considerations led to the choice to revive Rabbi Golinkin’s ruling this year, but whereas the editors included this note: EDITOR’S NOTE: For Ashkenazim living in North America, it’s important to know that this teshuvah, or rabbinic responsum, was issued by the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, meaning it technically applies only there, the responsum was edited in such a way that the Israel oriented flavor in which it has historically been read was absent. And what reading public did they imagine other than “Ashkenazim living in North America?” That was part of Rabbi Plotkin’s objection.
There is also, I must admit, an institutional back-story that has some bearing on the dispute. There is in the Rabbinical Assembly a single, overarching Committee of Jewish Law. In the mid 1980s the Israel region of the Rabbinical Assembly sought to empanel its own breakaway Committee of Jewish Law, and there was institutional pushback. A compromise was reached whereby the Israel region would maintain a law committee to deal with Israel-specific legal issues, but would not presume to rule for the world Conservative community. I do not need to reflect on this any further.
So where do we stand as a matter of law and practice? The ruling of the Israel Law Committee has been in place well over a decade. In this country a ruling permitting the use of foods processed with kitniyot -- for that is a bigger issue by far than the use of raw kitniyot, save for rice -- would have had no effect, for there was not and is still not any American hekhsher that permits items that use kitniyot. In Israel, a majority Sephardic country, many if not most products are manufactured as “Kosher for Pesach for those who eat kitniyot” such that Ashkenazim must carefully read labels even of products marked Kosher for Pesach. In this country in the late eighties and nineties, it was virtually impossible to find a product with a KP label that was using kitniyot. All that has changed, however, with the expansion of the importation of Israeli products. Today it is easy to find, and possibly to be mislead by, products that announce in big letters that they are Kosher for Passover, and include only in the fine print that they are, in fact, only for those who permit kitniyot.
What to do? As of this year, 5773, the CJLS has not yet issued a permission to eat kitniyot a la that of Rabbi Golinkin, although his responsum is out there for those who wish to rely on it, for instance, to use rice and soy -- but not processed products save Israeli products with a proper Pesach hekhsher. There is an indication that the matter will be reconsidered, but I’ve no idea whether that will be in this coming year or will wait several more. Already I hear tell of those who permit basic kitniyot, but only upon a finding of need, as for vegans who do not consume other forms of protein. If any of the American hashgachot would begin to issue a “Kosher for Pesach with Kitniyot” label, that would make a determination that the custom of our ancestors has flagged more palatable.
I lay this out for you to see the process of halakhic change moving dynamically as we probe our way forward. There is a certain logic behind Rabbi Futterman’s question. Would it not be better to unify all the world’s Jews, not just those in Israel? But that logic leads to homogenization and the loss of all Jewish local custom. Is that where we think we should go? It seems to me that would be a terrible loss. But when, then, is the need to find one right way the overriding need, and when is custom quaint and desirable? Not surprisingly, there is no right answer there. Which is why customs -- including the custom of kitniyot -- remain and continue to roil the waters.
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The musings of Rabbi Reisner.