Sunday, April 09, 2017

Very Veggie Pesach 2017: Conservative Movement Changes the Rules

This actually happened last year, but I didn't get around to writing it up then. This year, the Reconstructionist rabbi at my Conservative synagogue mentioned it at services, so I thought it was worth bringing up. It is particularly relevant to vegetarians because it affects the permissibility of some foods that are a common, core part of a vegetarian diet.

Traditionally, Ashkenazic Jews (Jews whose ancestors come from Eastern Europe) have refrained from eating rice, corn, peanuts and legumes (beans), called kitniyot, during Passover. In November 2015, the Conservative movement in America ruled that kitniyot are no longer forbidden during Passover. Of course, this change affects only Conservative Jews, not Orthodox; there may be many Conservative Jews who are not accepting this leniency; and this leniency doesn't mean you can run out to the store and buy Skippy Peanut Butter for the kids at your seder. For more details, read on...




For hundreds of years, Ashkenazic Jews (Jews whose ancestors come from Eastern Europe, including Germany and parts east of that) have had an extra Passover rule that prohibits eating rice, corn, peanuts and legumes (beans). These things are grown or processed near forbidden grains, and there is a risk of confusion or cross-contamination. These additional things that are forbidden on Passover are called kitniyot (usually pronounced as in Yiddish, KIT-nee-yohs). This restriction never applied to Sephardic Jews (Jews whose ancestors came from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East), and in fact their Passover traditional foods include a lot of rice and other kitniyot.

When I was in college 30 years ago, an Orthodox friend of mine suggested that the kitniyot rule would go away eventually, largely because of the situation in Israel: most Israelis are Sephardic, but a lot are Ashkenazic with increasing intermarriage between those groups. How can you have two different sets of rules for a husband and wife? I also questioned the risk of confusion or cross-contamination in the world we live in, where everything is clearly labelled and we rely on certifications to guarantee lack of cross-contamination. But this continued to be the rule for Ashkenazim. Until 1989 ...

In 1989, the Conservative movement in Israel wrote a responsum that eliminated the custom of kitniyot, referring to it repeatedly as a "foolish custom" or a "mistaken custom." The responsum applied only to Conservative Jews in Israel, where Sephardic/Ashkenazic intermarriage is much more common and where kitniyot are widely included in products marked kosher for Passover. In November 2015, the Conservative movement wrote a teshvah allowing American Jews to eat kitniyot on Passover, approved almost unanimously. It referenced the 1989 responsum, but its conclusion largely focused on the cost of Passover observance, the popularity of healthy diets that include kitniyot and the desire to avoid uneeded prohibitions and participate in the culture around us. Of course, none of this applies to Orthodox Jews, who do not follow Conservative rulings.

This new rule doesn't mean that Conservative Jews can run out to the grocery store and buy Skippy peanut butter for the kids at your seder. There are still things you cannot eat during Passover, and there are still risks of cross-contamination. The Conservative teshuvah spells out their rules at the end, similar to the traditional rules for vegetables:

  • Fresh corn, peas or beans are permissible like any other fresh vegetable.
  • Dried beans, rice or corn (probably popcorn) can be purchased in bags or boxes without special certification and inspected before Passover. They cannot be purchased from bulk bins at the store because of risk of cross-contamination.
  • Frozen kitniyot (e.g., corn, peas, probably excluding those with flavorings) can be purchased and inspected before Passover.
  • Canned kitniyot or processed kitniyot (e.g., tofu or peanut butter) would require Passover certification because of the risk of contamination in processing. You may be able to find such things with certification, particularly Israeli products. I had some tahini (sesame paste) that had Israeli Kosher for Passover certification, and for many years my college Hillel used to buy Joyva Sesame Crunch for Passover, which was marked Kosher for Passover but was 100% kitniyot: sesame seeds and corn syrup.
Of course, many people will not accept this rule change. People who have spent their entire lives avoiding kitniyot during Passover may not be comfortable eating it at that time. And of course, the Orthodox movement does not accept this rule change at all. 

Which now raises the uncomfortable question, can I eat at my Conservative synagogue during Passover? I honestly don't know.

To read more about it: