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of kitniyot rests on several key ideas: in addition to finding that the issue of mixing hametz and kitniyot is no longer applicable, it also mentions bringing down the cost of making Pesach, supporting those who follow a vegetarian diet, and presenting a more “accessible Judaism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.
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.