This Passover, my family and I enjoyed a new freedom – we liberated ourselves
from the dour, restrictive, absurd Ashkenazi ban on legumes, or
Inspired by our vegan daughter, for whom legumes on Passover
are a nutritional must, we took the plunge into the more fun, expansive,
Torah-true Sephardi tradition, munching popcorn during a family movie outing (to
Oz the Great and Powerful) while eating edamame at home.
because the kitniyot ban was a latecomer to the ancient Passover party, a
medieval superstition that became a modern mishugas (absurdity). We changed
because in Israel, we live in a Sephardi-majority culture and traditionally the
majority in a particular jurisdiction sets the religious law. And we changed to
affirm our family unity as well as Jewish unity by abandoning the usual
Ashkenazi arrogance and embracing a Sephardi tradition.
By contrast, on
Tuesday in Jerusalem, even though Israeli Jews only celebrate one formal
“yontiff” day at the end of Passover, “Orthodox” American Jews once again
streamed in and out of Jerusalem hotels attending synagogue, observing their
galut (exilic) custom.
These people not only refuse to change, they
demean Israel’s holiness by importing their foreign habits to the Holy Land.
Their rigidity – on this ultimately harmless issue and on weightier issues such
as failing to protect women from husbands who will not free them with a proper
get or divorce writ – is why I identify as a Shabbat-observant, kosher-keeping,
non-Orthodox Jew. Even while sending three children to national-religious
schools, I bristle if anyone calls me “Orthodox.”
I love Jewish
tradition’s beauty and respect its power. I understand that some rigidity keeps
continuity – but I prefer the Israeli terms “religious” or “traditional.” In his
delightfully majestic, compellingly insightful memoir, The Prime Ministers –
which is now being made into a documentary and a feature film – the former
Israeli diplomat and speechwriter Yehuda Avner recalls how his colleague Yaakov
Herzog elegantly defused the awkwardness of their eating only salad at a Lyndon
Johnson Texas barbecue. Recalling his McGill University debate with the anti-
Semitic historian Arnold Toynbee, Herzog said that keeping kosher and other
customs proved to Toynbee that Judaism was a “fossil- like anachronism,” while
Herzog celebrated each ritual as “a distinction of our eternal
I luxuriate in our “eternal identity” when we rejoice with
Moses at our deliverance from Egypt 3,300 years ago; when we mourn with Rabbi
Akiva over the deaths of his students 1,900 years ago; when we apply Rashi’s
medieval insights from 900 years ago to the ancient Torah text we read today;
when we dream with Theodor Herzl of creating a Jewish state 120 years ago. And I
revere those rituals that bring our history to life: Passover matza, Shavuot
cheesecake, Succot huts, the prayers of generation upon generation.
historians know our “eternal identity” used to have more wiggle room. Until
Judaism and modernity clashed in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the etz haim,
the Tree of Life, offered the defining metaphor for the Torah and Halacha
(Jewish law) – growing, evolving, slowly, imperceptibly, but
The Reform rebellion against a stultifying tradition that
had no Sanhedrin, no mechanism for change, triggered a counterrevolution against
all change and the rise of, quite literally, Orthodoxy. At the risk of
oversimplifying decades of rich, stimulating ideological debate, while Samson
Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) created a modern Orthodoxy, at least partially
acknowledging the blessings of enlightened modernity, radical reactionary rabbi
the Hatam Sofer (1762- 1839) forbade “every soul in Israel to change even one
detail.” Ironically this obsession with change, this devotion to stopping
change, is itself modern and a break from tradition.
THIS TENSION between
continuity and change is a perennial challenge for all systems humans follow
that seek a lasting legitimacy – and I am sidestepping the question of divine
will here because many Jewish ritual questions, including the kitniyot query,
have nothing to do with God’s will.
This March, many American Supreme
Court justices wondered which American institution should be the engine of
change to legitimize legalizing gay marriage, asking whether state legislatures,
individually, should decide the question popularly, or if the nine unelected,
permanently tenured, but more rights-oriented justices should decide. Even some
proponents of gay marriage, sure of the rightness of their cause, wavered,
knowing how contentious Roe v. Wade’s legalizing abortion by
constitutional fiat in 1973 proved to be. The justices will need Solomonic
wisdom, weighing both gay marriage’s legality and the role their institution’s
interpretation of the Constitution should play in the debate.
That is why
I detest the word “Orthodox” in developing a sophisticated discussion of Judaism
– just as I hate the misleading word “secular” when non-religious Israelis
describe their identities, which are nevertheless so richly, deeply,
“As did our ancestors, we must learn to live with
paradox,” my friend Rabbi Brad Artson teaches in his wise, reassuring,
spiritually- stretching book, Passing Life’s Tests.
Artson notes, for
example, that God first declares Isaac Abraham’s guarantee of continuity, then
abruptly demands Isaac’s sacrifice.
It is as arrogant to ignore the
extraordinary changes today’s miraculous world spawns as it is to repudiate the
profound traditions yesterday’s miracles bequeathed to us. Declaring “I am
Orthodox” or “I am secular” are both copouts. I am not Orthodox, because I need
and respect change; but I am not secular, because I crave and revere
We should delight in continuity and change, balancing the two
judiciously, keeping kosher for Passover but stretching to accept kitniyot,
maintaining Jewish marriage but creating a get-giving prenup. We should not be
so “Orthodox” we stifle growth or so committed to “Reform” we lose ourselves. We
should stay rooted in our Tree of Life, nourishing it to grow slowly,
imperceptibly, impressively, eternally.
The writer is professor of
history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel research
fellow. His latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as
Racism,p was just released by Oxford University Press.