Friday, March 27, 2015

Wild rice & green beans for Pesach

Kitniyot Minimization Project ™ update:

Last year we added raw peanuts and KFP for sephardim peanut butter. The 2 additions to our household this year will be:

  1. Wild rice, the North American variety, unknown in Europe at the time of the introduction of the minhag. The commonly sold variety is Northern Wild Rice (zizania palustris), native to the Great Lakes region of North America. It's unrelated to other rice, and is not really a "rice" at all. The only slight similarity is the shape. Early French explorers called it Folles Avoines (crazy oats). Other explorers called it a rice, not only because of the shape, but because they saw the plants rising above waters of the great lakes region, reminding them of rice paddies.
  2. Green (string) beans. While they may be called "beans", and are, indeed, in the legume family, no one considered them kitniyot until the mid-20th century. While there are some unclear sources that go back further, there are none before the start of the 20th century. Green beans are a perfect example of something that crept into the minhag only recently through a combination of misunderstanding, a confusion over the name, and dubious sources.

Disclaimer: I am not a posek. This is for informational purposes only, and to explain my own decisions.

Some links:
Some history & details about wild rice
Discussion - what is the earliest source for green beans as kitniyot?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why is Obama stooping to Bibi's level?

I'm hesitant to write this, because it'll invite my right-wing friends to pour their scorn of Obama on this thread. But I've been surprised by his behavior the last few days and feel the need to write this out.
I've never had cause to complain about Obama's treatment of Israel. His administration always had Israel's back, diplomatically, and with military aid.

And I appreciated the fact that the childish behavior and tantrums of Netanyahu have always been met by the patience of the adult in the room, Obama.

However, while I can certainly understand Obama's frustration with Netanyahu's antics, (which I share), for the first time, it feels like Obama's abandoned that role as the adult.

Yes, Netanyahu's said some stupid things. But he's also backtracked since the election. Why this peculiar insistence by the White House that "Nuh, uh! You said it! Can't take it back now!".

Politics has always consisted of posturing and half-truths. Policy can be whatever it's presented to be. Diplomacy is accepting that another party is saying the right things at the moment, whether or not you think they're sincere. Sincerity is irrelevant in politics. The relationship between Israel and the US isn't a romantic one, and one party saying something hurtful isn't the basis for a breakup.

I would expect Obama to do what he has, until now, excelled at doing. Which is to ignore Netanyahu's nonsense as best as possible, rebuke him for what deservedly needs to be rebuked, privately AND publicly, but then move on. While I have no sympathy for Netanyahu, he's saying some of the right things now. Why pretend that what he said during the final days of a tight campaign, as reprehensible as they were, seal any door against diplomatic repair?

Don't get me wrong. The chill in the relationship between the White House and the Prime Minister's office can be blamed overwhelmingly on Netanyahu. But the icicles in the last few days are, in my opinion, a result of an uncharacteristic immaturity in the White House's response.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Bibi and the presidents

The president hated Bibi so much he interfered with the Israeli election and all but campaigned openly for the Labor candidate. He sent advisors to Israel to help Labor's campaign.

Yup, it was 1999, and relations with Netanyahu and the Clinton administration were at a low point. Clinton made his distaste for Bibi clear and wanted him out of office.

A couple of differences between then and now.

  1. Clinton succeeded, and Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu.
  2. Clinton actually interefered. Obama in 2015 did very little compared to Clinton's efforts in 1999.

What's the common thread? Bibi. So do you still think Obama "hates Israel" and is an "anti-Semite"? In that case, you have to say the same about Clinton.

Or maybe, just maybe, the problem lies with Bibi, the guy who seems to go out of his way to antagonize multiple US presidents.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Kitniyot Minimization Project ™

I's almost Pesach time, and as usual there's been a lot of ink spilled on whether keeping the minhag of kitniyot still makes any sense.

I have no objection to anyone giving up the prohibition of kitniyot. But my personal approach is that Halacha is an evolving system, and within that approach, the prohibition of kitniyot on Pesach is meaningful to me the same way all halacha is meaningful to me. Once you get beyond d'orayta, is there really such a difference between rules that were created 1,700 years ago and rules, like kitniyot, that are "only" around 700 years old?

That's old enough for it to have become embedded deeply into Ashkenazi Jewish life, and to become something kept by generations of my ancestors, alongside shabbat, kashrut, etc. So I'm not ready to just jettison it.

Here's the caveat, though. My stomach isn't nearly as hardy as it was when I was younger. I had a hard time last Pesach. As much as I keep telling myself I'll eat more vegetables and less matzah, without my usual rice-and-legume heavy diet, I end up hungry the entire time and eating way too much matzah and matzah derived products. Or potatoes and potato derived. Not great for my digestive system.

But I'm not ready to just start eating kitnoyot wholesale. As an Ashkenazi Jew with many generations of Ashkenazi ancestors who all refrained from eating kitniyot on Pesach, it means something to me.

So here's my (semi-serious) plan: I'm starting the Kitniyot Minimization Project ™!

The goal?

1) Formulate a definition for the prohibition of kitniyot that has some internal consistency, something like; any seed, legume, or non-wheatlike grain that was prohibited during the period when the kitniyot prohibition was based on a real rationale, should still be prohibited.

Anything else, such as things that only became popular AFTER the rationale lost its basis, should be permitted.

2) Create a list of items that are permitted or not permitted based on the above definition. North American wild rice, which is not actually rice? Was it known and prohibited? Or is it a more recent addition to the "kitniyot list"? What about green beans? I think I remember hearing that they never used to be considered kitniyot. Last year, my wife and I already started on this path by buying raw peanuts, and kosher l'pesach l'Sephardim peanut butter.

The goal is to make kitniyot a more manageable and sane minhag without abandoning it entirely.

Who's with me?

The Khazars and the nature of myth

I was reading a few articles on the Khazar hypothesis and had a couple of thoughts:

It's interesting how the popularity of myths wax and wane depending on their contemporary ramifications.

When I was a kid, the idea that there was an early medieval kingdom that converted entirely to Judaism was something that was embraced by the Orthodox Jewish community. It was empowering, exciting, and something to be proud of.

However, that's changed in recent years. Given that Shlomo Sand and others have used the legend as the basis of their theories that most of Ashkenazic Jewry is descended from the Khazars, and not of ancient Judeans, it's become highly politicized. Now it's become much more fashionable in the Orthodox Jewish community to reject the conversion as a myth, to avoid giving ammunition to those who would undermine the Jewish claim to Israel.

I suspect that the myth would have stayed that way, a myth, along with many other medieval myths, had R Yehuda Halevi not used it as the backdrop to his fictional philosophical dialogue in the Kuzari.