Sunday, March 27, 2016

Tradition Matters

Law Professor and Author, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall
Kitniyos. How many Jews know what that word means?  I believe that most Orthodox Jew know what it means. But how many Conservative Jews and other heterodox Jews know what it means or even care to know?

So what is Kitniyos? It is the Hebrew word used in the Gemarah for legumes (How many people know what that means?).  Legumes or Kitniyos are basically beans. A food item that has a controversial status on Pesach (Passover) because of its similarity to actual Chametz. Depending on whether your heritage as a Jew is Ashekenzi (European) or Sephardi (Middle Eastern) it will be either Halachicly forbidden (Ashkenaz) or permitted (Sephard) for consumption on that holiday. Most Jews in America are Ashkenazi and therefore forbidden from using Kitniyos on Pesach.

In yet another bizarre Halachic ruling, the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee (i.e. their ‘Poskim’), has now removed the prohibition on Kitniyos on Pesach. I say ‘bizarre’ for the following reason. This is a movement in turmoil. As most people know by now, a Pew report has shown that they are a movement in decline. They are losing massive numbers to assimilation. And as has been pointed out here numerous times, they are scrambling to find ways to become more relevant to their membership in a bid to stop the hemorrhaging.  

And this is what they have come up with?! Maybe I’m wrong, but it would not surprise me that you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of Conservative Jews that care about Kitniyos on Pesach.

Just to be clear. It’s not as if this Halacha is the most vital one in Judaism. There were serious and highly respected Asheknazi Poskim in the past (e.g the Chacham Zvi and his son, R’ Yaakov Emden) that had proclaimed that if they had in their power they would eliminate this stricture from the body of Jewish law. That the Conservative movement has now done this is not the end of the world. Their permit to drive to Shul on Shabbos was a far more grievous ‘Psak’. One than they now regret making. I am going to go out on a limb and say that this new ‘Psak’ will not persuade a single wavering Conservative  Jew to stay in the movement.

The Conservative Movement will surely counter by saying that that was not the reason they came out with this new “Psak’. They were just acting in their capacity as Poskim. Indeed their stated reason was likely based on the Halachic principle of ‘being chas al mamon Yisroel’ caring about the money of the Jewish people. Since Pesach is so expensive they have made it more affordable for a Jew to observe it. (I find that a bit of a stretch. But I digress.)

What makes this even more bizarre is the fact that one of their brighter lights, Rabbi Neil Gilman, 10 years ago suggested that his movement would do well to stop calling themselves Halachic, since the Conservative movement has made moves that ‘some have seen as contravening traditional rabbinic Jewish law’. Not to mention the fact that very few of its members actually observe even their version of Halacha.

Maybe this is exactly why they have come out with this ‘Psak’. To prove to the Neil Gilmans of the world that the Conservative Movement is still Halachic.

Author and DePaul University Law professor, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, (who is not Orthodox) has weighed in on this new decision calling it a misstep. This is not the first time she has criticized the movement. And it probably won’t be the last. Here in part is what she says: 
This decision goes against the movement’s mantra of “conserving” the tradition and discards a long-standing custom for no good reason.
Further, for traditionally observant Jews who remain affiliated with Conservative Judaism, this decision increases existing concerns about the movement’s perceived creep to the left. 
The Jewish tradition reflects a blend of both what the rabbis declare as the law and the grass-roots practices of the people. Therefore, the role of minhag, or custom, has a special significance in the development of halakhah, Jewish law…
 “(T)radition” connotes positive associations and the desire for transmission.
 When seen in this light, the law committee’s decision to permit kitniyot for Ashkenazic Jews has far more significance than allowing previously forbidden foods during Pesach.  It represents an erosion of long-standing tradition, which is a very dangerous step for a movement to take when it claims to care about conserving tradition and even maintaining halakhah. 
Professor Kwall makes the same argument against the Conservative Movement that many of OO’s (Open Orthodox) critics have been making about them and their own abandonment of tradition (Mesorah).

Even if one were to grant that OO has not crossed any Halachic lines, are these moves really wise? Is abandoning tradition a virtue? Or is it a liability? Professor Kwall has argued that it is a liability. For every Jew applauding the abandonment of tradition in favor of embracing the winds of cultural change - there may be just as many that will be put off by it. Not to mention the fact that one or more these changes have been thoroughly rejected by virtually all mainstream Orthodox rabbinic institutions. (e.g. the Rabbinical Council of America, Agudath Israel, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, and the Conference of European Rabbis.)

If I were a rabbinic leader in this movement, I would take a serious look at what Professor Kwall has to say.