Thursday, March 25, 2010

My approach to Kitniyot

Cross-posted on DovBear

When I was younger, especially after I became a vegetarian at the age of 21, I railed against the utter nonsense of the Ashkenazi prohibition of eating kitniyot on Pesach. It seemed like unnecessary torture, especially today when the danger of grains ending up mixed if far less likely. Why couldn’t I have my tofu? Would wheat really end up in my rice, when cereals today are grown as monoculture crops (not near other grains) and sold in packages? It seemed to me to be ridiculous and a burden. The only reason I stuck with it was habit and family.

Over the last decade or so, my approach to Judaism has undergone somewhat of a sea change, and that has impacted how I view the issue of kitniyot. I now view Judaism not as a fixed revelation in time that established the form of Judaism we must follow forever, but as an evolving process, where halachot changed and developed over the past three millenia. The reasons for this have to do with study of history, archaeology, biblical criticism, and a critical analysis of Rabbinical literature. The specific issues are another post, and in any case have been discussed in detail on many, many blogs. This post is just to examine how this approach has changed my attitude to minhagim like kitniyot.

With this approach to Judaism, I don’t keep Torah and mitzvot just because I might feel it was part of a divine revelation in ancient times. I keep it because of the significance of my ancestors, of many different generations and eras, having developed these laws in their attempt to become closer to Hashem. Because the very history of these developments is significant and meaningful to my Judaism. So while the laws of Shabbat are meaningful to me, so are the Rabbinical decrees of the Talmud. And so is cherem Rebbeinu Gershom. And so is the prohibition of kitnoyot, which has been with Ashkenazi Jews for the greater part of a millennium. Its relevance to me is not because of the minute permutations of the law. It’s meaningful to me because my grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents, kept these halachot.

So with that approach, keeping the prohibition of kitniyot is honoring the evolving nature of halacha within Judaism. It’s acknowledging that, unlike the fundamentalist school’s belief, halacha has changed over time and that’s part of the Judaism I love.

However, for the same reason, recent additions to the list of kitniyot, and added stringencies, have no place in keeping the halacha. It’s honoring my ancestors and my conception of Judaism to avoid eating what they avoided 500, 300, or 100 years ago. It’s not honoring them, and it’s not in the spirit of this view of halacha, to suddenly declare that some new seed or vegetable that my grandparents would have eaten is suddenly prohibited on Pesach. If they could use peanut oil (or even peanuts), why will no hechsher organization give Pesach certification to it today? And certainly, there should be no problem with Quinoa. There is nothing religiously pious about adding chumrot that no one kept 100 years ago.

“Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l (Igros Moshe, O.D. III:63) is of the opinion that peanuts are not Kitniyos. He reasons that Kitniyos is not a Halacha (official law) but a minhag (custom). While Minhagim often have the force of Halacha, Rav Moshe argues that the Minhag cannot be extended beyond what was actually included in the custom.”
(From Kashrut.com - Kitniyos in the Modern World by Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech)

It’s interesting to note that my rationalist and critical approach to Judaism (though fundamentalists will call it a skeptical approach) has caused me to be more favorably disposed to minhagim, not less, and to find more meaning in keeping them.

So the bottom line is, I now can enjoy and feel I’m doing something meaningful by avoiding kitniyot on Pesach. Yes, it’s frustrating, but I’ll eat protein-rich vegetables like asparagus (yes, the tips too) and feel good about connecting with a tradition that goes back many, many generations. As long as they don’t try to take away my quinoa!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Can prayers time travel?

Cross-posted on DovBear

This is a rather esoteric question that doesn’t have a “real” answer, (and the basis of the question itself is a bit unrealistic) but is still something interesting to think about.


The other day, I was cleaning off my desk at home in advance of Pesach. (Yes, I’ve eaten at my desk.) While going through papers, I came across a scribbled note in my handwriting that read “Zalman ben Sara Chana” obviously written to remind myself to say tehillim for the person for a refuah shelema.

I have no idea when I wrote the note, but judging by the pile of mail it was in, it was sometime in past few months. I also have no idea who the person is. Someone must have asked me to say tehillim for this Zalman, or perhaps I saw it in an email. Either way, I obviously intended to say tehillim for him. But did I ever do so? It was lost on my desk, so there’s a fair chance I never did get to daven for his recovery.

For all I know, he may have passed away in the meantime, or, hopefully, had a full recovery. So the tefillot may no longer be needed. But just in case, I decided to say a perek of tehillim anyhow in his name.

Here’s the esoteric part. Since I don’t know what happened to Zalman, and Hashem isn’t bound by time, can my tefillot somehow zoom back in time to when it was needed and help Zalman then? Would my prayers be added to all the others who davened for him several months ago and have an effect in the past? In effect, can tefilla time travel?

Think of it like quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics, a particle’s state isn’t fixed until we observe it. In Erwin Schrödinger’s famous experiment, a cat in a box is neither alive nor dead (based on the poison released in the box depending on a quantum particle’s possible state). According to the weird rules of quantum physics, the cat is only fixed into its state of being alive or dead when we open the box and see it. So in a sense, the past only becomes fixed when we know what happened. Until then, either possibility is real.

So in Zalman’s case, the fact that I don’t know what happened to him can, in effect, make the possibility of his full recovery several months ago a real possibility. His past, at least from my own perspective, is not fixed. And as long as his state of health isn’t fixed, my prayers can still have an effect.

As I wrote above, there’s no real answer, but it’s an interesting way to think about it, and it feels good to daven for someone feeling that my prayers can still make a difference even after the fact.

So what do you think – can tefilla time travel?