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How the outdated, nonsensical Passover rules taught me what Judaism is really about

Off and on growing up, I attempted to keep "kosher for Passover" — something my purely secular Jewish family didn't do. In a neighborhood where my claims to being Jewish were inherently suspect because I didn't attend a synagogue anyone recognized or go to youth group conventions and summer camps, it was something Jewish that I could actually do on my own.

Or so I thought.

All I knew of Passover was what I picked up from the Seder dinner we'd go to on one of the first nights of the eight-day holiday, and in attempting to deepen my observance I simply tried to logic my way out from there. Matzah is part of Passover because, in the Passover story, the Hebrew slaves fleeing Egypt didn't have time to let bread rise; so keeping kosher for Passover meant no leavened bread (or baked goods generally), I figured. I did not know the half of it.

Some rules simply cannot be logicked. You cannot logic your way into the rules of kitniyot.

As I gradually figured out, somehow, over the course of several abashed rounds of Googling over several years, the actual rules for keeping kosher for Passover aren't about leavening (yeast). They restrict any use of the "five grains" — wheat, spelt (whatever spelt is), barley, oats and rye — that start to "rise" (i.e., ferment) on their own when put in contact with water. The chemistry, and logic, are beside the point.

For Ashkenazi Jews — the Jews of Eastern Europe, the heritage of my father and that of many American Jews — the rules have historically gone further. Ashkenazi Jews have traditionally had to avoid corn, rice, peas, beans, peanuts, soybeans, chickpeas — all categorized under the catchall term of kitniyot.

But the rules of kitniyot are falling out of fashion. In 2015, the Conservative Movement — the institution regulating the second-most-observant of Judaism's three main branches — issued a ruling to conservative Jews saying they could eat kitniyot during Passover if they wanted to. This Passover, many of them will — not to mention less-observant Ashkenazi Jews who didn't need a group of conservative rabbis to tell them not to follow rules that didn't make sense to them.

I'm not exactly in the habit of listening to the Conservative Movement's rabbis myself. My Jewish practice is eclectic. Keeping kosher for Passover — no grains, and yes, no kitniyot either — is the most Jewish thing I do.

Judaism is a religion of commandments. There are, famously, 613 commandments in the Torah alone (at least as counted by one of the authors of the Talmud, one of the major books of Jewish law).

In Hebrew, these are the mitzvotthe plural of mitzvah, which is one of those Hebrew words that's crossed into English via Yiddish. In English-via-Yiddish, a mitzvah sounds like a favor: "It would be a mitzvah if you did the dishes after Seder." That's because Yiddish is an irony-heavy language and American Jews are masters of the guilt trip. A mitzvah is really a commandment, just like tzedakahoften translated as "charity" — is really an obligation to give.

My father, an atheist who taught Torah to third-graders in Sunday school, was in the habit of explaining the commandments within the context of the civilization where they'd been developed: the Fertile Crescent of thousands of years ago.

Kosher dietary restrictions — the year-round kind, not the Passover kind — forbid the eating of shellfish? Think about it — shellfish can often make you sick in hot climates, especially at certain times of the year, and it was probably safer to avoid them. Judaism forbids graven images? Think about it — the earliest Jews lived among polytheistic tribes with idols for everything; worshiping only one god, a god too powerful to have a face, was certainly one way to set themselves apart.

Later, as an anthropology student in college, I'd learn that this sort of thinking was called structural functionalism — the determination to see a culture as an organism, evolving in response to its environment to keep its members alive and its community cohesive — and that there were other ways to make meaning out of society. But it worked as far as it went.

The problem is that some rules simply cannot be logicked. You cannot logic your way into the rules of kitniyot.

Judaism is also a religion of jurisprudence. Often, that's a fancy word for arguing — one of the stories in the Haggadah, the script for the Passover Seder, ends with the so-called "punchline" of four rabbis being interrupted in a heated discussion by their students telling them the sun has risen and it's time for breakfast. (The real punchline is that subsequent Jewish scholars have tried to explain away the unfunniness of this joke by dissecting its symbolism in the margins of the Haggadah.)

Remember, though, that the default state of Jews is diaspora: the dispersion of Jewish peoples throughout the world, and the term used for any Jew living outside of Israel (which described every Jew until the modern Israeli state was created in the late 1940s, and describes most of us today). Diaspora gave rise to the Askhenazi tradition of Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Sephardi tradition of the Mediterranean — distinctions of culture that nonetheless gave rise to certain differences of interpretation.

Among Conservative Jews (and those of us less observant still), the question is simply how many of the rules we ignore

In diaspora, jurisprudence is a crucial tool: a way for rabbis to try to make sense of new experiences and edge cases that the five books of Torah didn't cover or anticipate.

Kitniyot is one of these diasporic improvisations. It's a catchall term for other foods that are prohibited during Passover according to Ashkenazi custom. This includes grains that hadn't been native to the Jews of Egypt or their descendants, like corn and rice (though quinoa, a more recent discovery, may or may not count), and any products derived from those.

It also includes legumes — beans, peas, soy, peanuts, chickpeas — and the products made from those as well. (The inappropriateness of eating either peanut butter or hummus on matzah is one of the classic gripes of Passover, and is almost a reason to eat matzah the rest of the year — but not quite.)

There are, in theory, reasons for this. Maybe the rabbis worried that forbidden grains would be mixed into sacks of peas or corn without anyone noticing. Maybe they were confused by the fact that beans swell when water is added to them, even though they're not fermenting. But fundamentally, trying to justify kitniyot is a fool's errand. It makes sense only as a diaspora kludge.

As far as I can tell, there are four basic responses a Jew can have to an arbitrary rule.

We can abide by it unquestioningly, for the simple reason that if it was good enough for our ancestors it is good enough for us. (You might be familiar with the song "Tradition" from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, but you might have forgotten that this too is ironic — "Why do we do these things?" narrator Tevye asks the audience. "Nobody knows.")

We can try to carve out exception upon exception to rule upon rule, using the law against itself. (Faced with the difficulty that multi-story apartment buildings posed to the rules against operating machines on the Sabbath, the rabbis and the engineers devised a solution: Pressing an elevator button was forbidden, but riding in an elevator programmed to stop on every floor would work.)

We can kvetch about it. (Moses hears a voice from the heavens: "Thou shalt not boil the kid in its mother's milk." "Aha," says Moses, "you mean we can't mix milk and meat during meals!" The voice repeats: "Thou shalt not boil the kid in its mother's milk." "Aha," says Moses, "we have to use separate dishes for meat and milk and wait six hours between the two!" Etc. Finally, the voice sighs thunderously: "Fine. Have it your way...")

Or we can simply ignore it.

Among Conservative Jews (and those of us less observant still), the question is simply how many of the rules we ignore.

It can be hard to grasp that the distinctions among various sects of Judaism (not to mention the wide and growing variety of Jewish practices outside established synagogues) aren't about theology but about observance: how many, and which, rules are followed.

The technical term for this is orthopraxy — correct actions, as opposed to orthodoxy (correct thoughts). It's a key distinction between Judaism (and Islam, for that matter) and Christianity.

I grew up in Cincinnati, the home of Reform Judaism — the most relaxed of the three main branches, theologically speaking. If that seems like a welcoming place for a family who identified as Jewish (well, ish — my mother's Episcopalian) but was wholly secular, though, it wasn't quite. Our synagogue was too secular even for the Reform rabbis.

I couldn't join the youth groups my classmates participated in; I didn't know things they considered preschooler-level Judaism. (I didn't know the first line of the most basic Jewish prayer until I was in middle school.)

My Judaism was seen as, at best, suspect, and at worst wholly illegitimate.

It wasn't until I got to college that I met a critical mass of people who identified as "culturally Jewish," and felt free to do so myself without having to prove my bona fides. And it wasn't until after I graduated that I realized I didn't have to keep the "culturally" qualifier in front of it — that I had the power to practice Judaism actively without feeling like a fraud for not having attended the right synagogue or learned the right prayers.

I owe my Judaism, as I practice it today, to a pair of dear friends I met in college. One was my roommate after graduation and lit the candles with me over Hanukkah; the other took me to High Holidays services and helped me follow along with the Hebrew. Between them, I got an adult crash course in much of what I didn't learn at secularist Sunday school. They teased me, lectured me, and always respected my choices and ideas. I love them dearly. I'm not naming them in this essay because I don't want to offend them if I've mischaracterized them in the following anecdote, but the way I remember it is too good to fact-check:

I remember the two of them at a party, side by side, a Jewish two-headed monster. At the end of the day, they explained, one of them probably didn't believe in God. The other one probably did. But of all the differences in their Jewish practice, that was, they agreed, among the least important ones — because the point of their Judaism wasn't what they believed but what they did.

To orthodox Jews, this is monstrous: a sickness of modernity. They can't abide the idea of Jews going through the motions to serve a deity in whom they may not believe; to them, this is precisely how Judaism gets reduced from a religion to a culture.

And to many Jews who grew up being told to follow at least some of the commandments without any way of reconciling those actions with their beliefs — Jews like my father and the parents of the kids he taught at Sunday school, Jews like many of my peers — it's pointless. They find no meaning in the rituals themselves, and "because your ancestors did it" doesn't carry much more weight than "because I said so." To them, this is the religion they abandon, even if they acknowledge at least some of Jewish culture — the food, the kvetching, the Yiddish — as their own.

But few people are introspective enough to know the precise origins of every trait they've inherited from their parents or been raised with in their homes. People can't always judge what, in their upbringing, was Jewish and what was not.

When people slough off orthopraxy as meaningless ritual, they're putting practices and customs in a mental attic, in a box labeled "Judaism" — and leaving it at that. They're cutting off an alternative mode of inquiry: thinking about what they have inherited because of Judaism.

I'm far more Jewish during Passover than I am during any other time of year

The education, deliberation, and questioning inherent in the tradition of Jewish arguing and jurisprudence — these are unquestionably Jewish values. So is the commitment to social justice inherent in the obligation of tzedakah.

No one would argue that these values are unique to Judaism. But their expression within Judaism is a big part of why they're so important in so many Jewish homes — and to many people who grow up in those homes.

I love Pope Francis as much as the next nice Jewish girl. But I get frustrated when people who identify as cultural or secular Jews praise Pope Francis's every ambiguous, possibly-poorly-translated offhand comment to the heavens. I get frustrated when progressives with roots in Judaism spend more time litigating whether attention to poverty is a "Christian value" as important as preserving the 20th-century family than they do considering whether they really want progressive "Christian values," or something else.

I get frustrated when people label the parts of religion they find ill-fitting or antiquated as "religion," and the parts of religion they're comfortable with — the economic moralizing or commitment to family — as "values." I get frustrated when people think of Judaism only as what's in the mental attic, rather than what's in their hearts.

Look, I can't blame the Conservative Movement rabbis. I can't blame my peers who started eating kitniyot years ago, or who stop observing Passover entirely after the Seder ends. I certainly cannot throw stones here; again, I'm far more Jewish during Passover than I am during any other time of year.

The reasons for getting rid of the kitniyot ban are weak. But there is no good reason to keep it. Judaism isn't ancestor-worship: It cannot be justified simply as an act of following in the footsteps of ghosts. And the fearful rush to protect Ashkenazi culture, fixating on the mortal wound it was dealt by the Nazis, runs the risk of treating it as a culture already dead and just finishing the job.

But I can't help it: I worry about making Passover too easy. Maybe it's just that "kvetching about it" is my preferred way of responding to this particular set of illogical rules: I've managed to learn how to follow them, how hard can it be? What I suspect, though, is that I'm worried about maintaining the upside of orthopraxy: the way an action forces your attention to a thought, or a value.

As a child, Passover didn't feel like freedom. It felt difficult, and self-flagellating. Freedom — I was a child — was the freedom to do whatever I liked.

The Seder, of course, anticipates this. There's a point in the Passover legend where the escaped slaves, wandering in the desert, start kvetching about the food: They miss the "fish and cucumbers" they were fed in Egypt. The story kind of straw-mans the Hebrew slaves, but it's also a joke for present-day Jews: Slavery sucked, but it's nothing compared to eating nothing but matzah.

Now I get it, though. The point of matzah isn't that eating it makes you feel free. It's asceticism and privation. It's virtue-feeling and forced humility. It's a pain in the ass; it's also a profoundly spiritual experience.

In the context of the Seder, the attention to current injustice can be hippieish and overwhelming (not to mention hunger-dulled). But while there are only traditionally Seders for two nights, Passover lasts eight whole days. As long as you're keeping kosher for Passover — and inconvenienced enough to notice it — it's impossible to have a meal without being reminded that Passover is still going on.

There are worse things than a thrice-daily reminder to be glad for freedom, and to meditate on where people still haven't been freed.

People do this sort of thing all the time! We get the concept that physical actions can promote particular mental states when it's called yoga or breathing exercises. We appreciate the small reminder to be moral when it's a Fitbit or a policy "nudge." It is hardly as if, in an age of ethical sourcing and carbon impact, there is something alien about connecting food choices to morality.

This sounds like trivializing Judaism, the faith of my ancestors, a culture that has sustained my people for thousands of years. I'd argue that even if it were trivializing, it wouldn't be any worse than simply foregoing the practice entirely and dooming it to die.

But it isn't trivialization. It's orthopraxy.

Judaism roots its values in obligations. You must give tzedakah. You must honor the Sabbath as a day of rest and study. You must be present in the temple on the High Holidays to seek forgiveness for the misdoings of the past year. You must, for eight days, eat matzah — "the bread of affliction" that is also the bread of freedom.

And sure, you can put peanut butter on it. You can spend eight days eating quinoa and rice. As for me, I'd need a better reason to abandon the stricter rules about kitniyot than that following them is hard.

Dara Lind is a Vox staff writer.

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