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Full of beans: Kitniyot OK for Conservatives
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Full of beans: Kitniyot OK for Conservatives

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

What makes this Passover different from all other Passovers? This year, Conservative Jews around the world can eat kitniyot.

For thousands of years, Jews of Ashkenazi descent have followed the tradition of not eating kitniyot (legumes) on Passover. (The custom was not adopted by most Sephardi Jews.)

However, in December, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, its halachic body, issued a ruling allowing the consumption of kitniyot during Pesach.

Kitniyot is a category of food that is neither hametz nor, previously, kosher for Passover, but somewhere in between. It includes beans, corn, rice, millet, peas, soybeans, peanuts, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, mustard, and sometimes garlic. 

Although no one knows exactly why the prohibition began, it was first mentioned in France in the 13th century and spread across Europe after that. Various attempts to explain the custom developed. These have included the fact that the appearance of some kitniyot could easily be confused with hametz, causing people to accidentally eat hametz; that because kitniyot and hametz crops are often grown and/or stored near each other, some hametz could be mixed in with kitniyot and inadvertently eaten; and that it provides an extra precaution so that uneducated communities do not make a mistake. 

The practice has continued, essentially, for the sake of tradition. “The original motivation for avoiding kitniyot is no longer relevant,” state Rabbis Yaakov Luban and Eli Gersten in “Curious about Kitniyot?,” which appeared in the March 4, 2015, issue of the Orthodox Union magazine Jewish Action. They explain that Jews uphold the custom anyway because “it reflects the values that are dear to the Jewish people,” because “a minhag [custom] is our link to Jewish history,” and because “a family that abandons its traditions severs its connections to the past.” 

The CJLS ruling takes a different approach. Its decision to allow the consumption of kitniyot rests on several key ideas: in addition to finding that the issue of mixing hametz and kitniyot is no longer applicable, it also mentions bringing down the cost of making Pesach, supporting those who follow a vegetarian diet, and presenting a more “accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions.” 

The ruling considers the overturned practice on unnecessary stringency similar to those from bygone eras — similar to those wearing the garb of 16th-century Poland, a practice that continues among some hasidim — that are no longer followed by Conservative communities. In that way the CJLS distances Conservative Judaism from denominations that do not embrace change. 

It also lays out its philosophy regarding change, as it relates to this decision. “We have called ourselves a movement of tradition and change. Understanding when to pursue one and when the other is our great challenge. If resistance to change is the sole reason not to consider a change in custom, as it seems to be here, and all else points to the permissibility and desirability of change — then we need not be as concerned…about being labeled a ‘lenient court.’” 

The CJLS ruling comes 27 years after the 1989 ruling by the Law Committee of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel that kitniyot could be consumed by Ashkenazi Jews living in Israel. 

‘Strange eating’

For some people, the decision is long overdue; for others, it violates the principles of tradition. And for a group in between, the ruling may be OK for others, but not for themselves — or vice versa.

Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg of Congregation Beth El of Bucks County in Yardley, Pa., called it a “welcome adjustment of what amounted to an archaic geographical tradition.” Although he called the kitniyot prohibition a “silly injunction that we took way too long to abolish,” he won’t serve it in his home or allow it in the synagogue because he knows there are those (“like my mother”) who won’t abide by the change. 

However, Gruenberg added, “I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that I was openly pining for an invite to a family from our community who are Sephardi. I would eat kitniyot at their house in an open and public fashion.” 

Rabbi Benjamin Adler of Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville acknowledged that he has already eaten kitniyot on Passover, beginning 11 years ago while he was living in Israel, where he was “blown away” by the Passover kitniyot offerings. “I couldn’t resist kosher l’Pesach Doritos!” he said. Although he never serves kitniyot at a seder, he said, “We have made rice and beans, which I have to admit can feel strange eating on Pesach.”

Adler applauded the ruling, particularly for its focus on accessibility, in a piece he addressed to his community. It reads in part, “In our day when we struggle to infuse ritual observance in a community that is increasingly uninterested in Jewish practice, I think it is wise to shed restrictive hardships when we can. Observing Pesach should not be a burden, but a joy, and if that involves a delicious dish of beans and rice, so be it.” 

But, like Gruenberg, he will not force the ruling onto congregants who aren’t ready for it, and kitniyot will not be served in the synagogue building during the holiday.

As far as Cantor Larry Brandspiegel of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor is concerned, tradition is a good enough reason to continue the prohibition. “We must continue to hold onto certain ideas that we have [been] entrusted [with from] prior generations. If we continue to eliminate traditions there may not be any traditions left to speak about or pass down from generation to generation.” 

Phil Freidenreich, who lives in Yardley and attends Congregation Beth El there, is also opposed to the ruling. Friends and family would consider his home “contaminated” if he served kitniyot, he said, including the daughter-in-law who grew up hasidic. And, having observed the prohibition since childhood, he said, “It’s not that difficult to be without kitniyot for those days. Pesach has all kinds of special foods associated with it that we enjoy eating.”

But it turns out that like all Jews, there are certain foods that he excludes from his own kitniyot category, like green beans. “We’ve eaten green beans on Passover for a long time. I don’t think our relatives consider green beans kitniyot,” he said.

Dominic Gennello, a scientist and owner of two technology firms, a resident of East Windsor, and a member of Beth El there, is caught between his own desire to embrace the ruling and his respect for the community. He called the ruling “a reinterpretation of the laws with our modern education and modern knowledge.” He said that as a scientist, that makes sense. “I do not think we can study Torah and interpret the laws in a vacuum.” 

On the other hand, he said, “I want my home to be comfortable for anyone to sit down and join us.” And that would include his wife and her family. “If I put kitniyot on the table, my wife’s family would turn green,” he said. So regardless of his own opinion, he won’t be serving kitniyot in his home this year. 

‘Very inconsistent’

Newcomers are often “a bit shocked” when they come to a seder at the home of Rabbi Mark Mallach of Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield, he said. “We serve Mexican-style rice and beans” in accordance with the 1989 teshuva for Jews in Israel, which he first studied as a rabbinical student. Because he has a daughter who is vegan — which he felt imposed enough restrictions — he allowed kitniyot in his home. And while at first, he said, only his daughter ate it, “over time, that has changed.” He called the recent ruling “long overdue.” 

Rabbi George Nudell of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains acknowledged not only that the decision’s arguments are “solid,” but that “the shunning legumes and rice was a custom not respected from the get-go, and often disparaged by leading rabbis.” 

And yet he will not serve or eat kitniyot during Pesach; his family, Nudell said, “has observed the prohibition for as long as we can remember” and will continue to do so. Moreover, despite being a vegetarian, he has never felt the need for the relaxing of the stricture now provided by CJLS. “Since we live in a society that is well-nourished, I can easily find options for good, nutritious, kosher-for-Passover foods that don’t involve eating soy or kitniyot

“After all, it’s only eight days.” 

Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange called the moment “an ideal opportunity to shift the balance from tradition to change” and is allowing the consumption of kitniyot for his synagogue. “Refraining from eating kitniyot has no basis in law and is founded on a presumption that no longer holds for us,” he said. But “because our children continue to follow” the prohibition, he added, there won’t be kitniyot at the Cooper home during the holiday.

Laura Cohen of Cranford, a member of Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim there, recalls a time years ago when someone brought a pot of soup full of split peas and corn to the family seder. “We were horrified,” she said with a laugh. “Someone made the executive decision not to serve it!” Things have changed for her; she is “pretty sure” she ate kitniyot on a Passover trip to Israel a few years ago, and, she said, “If kitniyot was served in someone’s home, absolutely I would eat it.” 

But Cohen said she is doubtful there will be kitniyot at her seder table this year — not based on principle, she said, but because “it’s not part of my typical repertoire of recipes for Passover. We have other things we like to eat.” 

This year, in honor of the ruling, Ilana Kriegsman of West Orange, a member of Oheb Shalom, “would be inclined to serve some kitniyot [at the seder] to simply mark the occasion — maybe even say the Sheheheyanu,” the blessing traditionally recited when one does something for the first time. 

If she finds out that some of her guests continue to observe the minhag, then she will refrain from serving kitniyot, although, she acknowledged, it would be “interesting to see the reaction of others.”

But if kitniyot do find a place on her holiday table, it won’t be strange for her immediate family. They took matters into their own hands about 10 years ago. The elimination of kitniyot on Passover “seemed irrelevant, if not in opposition, to the spirit of the holiday,” she said. “If kitniyot were prohibited because they might be confused with hametz, then why is quinoa [kosher for Passover], or why almond flour, coconut flour, or tapioca flour okay, while garbanzo flour is kitniyot

“This,” said Kriegsman, “seemed very inconsistent.”

‘For God’s sake, eat legumes’

Locally, even Conservative rabbis who tend to be more skeptical about jettisoning tradition have embraced this move.

Rabbi Ari Saks of Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy is looking forward to eating popcorn on Pesach this year. So is his wife, Rachel, who, he said, “sent me the teshuva with a message on top: ‘PLEEEEEASE is this something we can do?’” 

Having grown up in a vegetarian but also traditional Ashkenazi household, he remembers when Passover food was no fun. Still, he acknowledged, “I was circumspect.” The problem for him was, as for the rabbis in previous centuries, that while there may not have been a good reason to follow the minhag, there was, more importantly, no good reason to overturn it — at least for the first five pages. 

“Just saying it doesn’t make sense — that it’s a minhag shtut [foolish custom] — is not enough.” But he ultimately agreed with the reasoning that packaged foods are very expensive, whereas rice and beans are not; and that adding kitniyot increases the joy of the holiday and — a bonus — they are much healthier than adding extra meat to the Pesach menu. “We are not supposed to feel like slaves, depriving ourselves of food,” Saks said. “We are supposed to enjoy the holiday.” 

Now, he said, “I’m excited about it.” Not only will his family eat rice with sautéed veggies during the week — they’re going to eat popcorn as a snack. 

At first, he said, “I think it’s going to be like, Oh my God, we’re having popcorn on Pesach; it just doesn’t feel right! But it fits with the key elements of the teshuva.” 

However, kitniyot will not be on the Sakses’ seder menu. “People often view kitniyot as radioactive on Pesach,” he said, and he doesn’t want to make anyone feel “uncomfortable.” Also, he pointed out, the seder includes “a certain layering of tradition” and is therefore “not a time to make a halachic point.” 

Rabbi Lisa Malik of Temple Beth Ahm of Aberdeen, who acknowledged that she is “not quick to accept religious leniencies,” has been eating and permitting others to eat kitniyot for seven years, she told NJJN, based on the Israeli teshuva

“This one is a long time in coming,” she said. Her acceptance of the change may “have something to do with the fact that my husband is half-Sephardi [or] the fact that great halachic authorities…permitted the eating of kitniyot on Pesach.” Either way, she said, she agrees with those who see it as a “foolish custom.” 

If her Babi Gina, her grandmother and spiritual inspiration, were still alive, she “would have been horrified at the thought of rice, corn, or beans in her home on Passover,” said Malik. “I don’t think I would have permitted kitniyot in my home while she was still alive.” 

This year, Malik will serve rice during the seder and will permit it at the synagogue. But she won’t insist her congregants adapt so quickly. “Rest assured, I will not be force-feeding rice and popcorn to my congregants on Passover.”

Rabbi Michael Pont is all in. In fact, on April 3, he taught a class called, “For God’s Sake, Eat Legumes on Pesach!” There, he said, his mantra was “Kitniyot are not hametz.” He’s been eating kitniyot himself on Passover for two years. The first time, he was eating lunch with Sephardim. “I hesitated,” he recalled, but then considered that he “wasn’t violating Halacha, because rice isn’t hametz. So I thought to myself, ‘Why not?’” And how did he feel eating the previously forbidden food? “It was delicious,” he said. 

While Pont gives people the option of retaining the prohibition, he sees education as “paramount” to understanding this, along with all issues in Jewish life. So if you don’t eat kitniyot? He said, “That’s fine, but again let’s be educated consumers.” In other words, just know that you’re following a foolish custom.

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