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In recent weeks irate members of the Orthodox community have hurled threats and anathemas at Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, head of the Shilo Institute, his only crime apparently being an attempt to make the culinary lives of Ashkenazim living in Israel a little bit easier.
Bar-Hayim, together with four other rabbis, issued a halachic opinion two weeks ago that would permit Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot (legumes.) If Bar-Haim has his way, no longer will foods such as rice, humous, peanut butter and tofu be permissible for Sephardim only. Rather, Jews of European descent would adopt "the custom of the Land of Israel" and partake of kitniyot, as well.
Bar-Hayim's detractors, however, do not want their lives to be made any easier if it means compromising tradition.
"Your place in Gehinom (hell) is assured" and "If you don't clarify your opinion, we will organize a worldwide campaign to blackball you" are just some of threats recorded on Bar-Hayim's answering machine and Internet inbox.
In the haredi Internet chat room Hadrei Haredim, Bar-Haim and his fellow rabbis were attacked as "spiritual midgets who have the audacity to take on the giants."
"I've received three types of responses," said Bar-Hayim, 47, an immigrant from Australia, told The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview.
"The happy ones call to thank me for doing something that should have been done a long time ago, but which no rabbi has had the courage or willingness to do.
"The curious ones call to get a copy of the halachic opinion. Then there are the angry ones." But Bar-Haim, who studied for a decade at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, a bastion of religious Zionist spiritual leadership training, said he was neither surprised nor intimidated by the negative reaction which came "primarily from the haredi community."
His halachic opinion was written for "Torah Jews" who are interested in forging a new identity for themselves in the Land of Israel.
Bar-Haim, who is a researcher at the Jerusalem Talmud Institute, makes it clear that he is not looking for leniencies.
"I'm not a conservadox. I just want to reconstitute the Jewish people in the Land of Israel under a unifying custom. Sometimes, as in the case of legumes, there are leniencies," he explained.
Bar-Hayim and other rabbis at the Shilo Institute believe that the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel marks an historical change that has ramifications on religious practice. The ingathering in Israel of Jewish communities from all over the world, each with its own traditions, has created a cacophony of rites and customs, and sometimes perpetuates factions and splinter groups.
"I look into the future and I think, 'how can a people be so fractured and still manage to succeed as a nation?'" he says. For Bar-Hayim, kitniyot are just a symptom of deep national malaise - that after nearly 60 years with a sovereign state, Orthodox Jews still cling to a mentality of exile. They refuse to redefine themselves in a new image as citizens of the Land of Israel.
Bar-Hayim is reminiscent of early Zionist thinkers such as Yosef Haim Brenner, Judah Leib Gordon, and Mikha Yosef Berdyczewski who rejected exilic culture. But unlike these radically secular thinkers, he does not reject Jewish tradition. He just recommends returning to a pristine "Land of Israel custom," untainted by the long years of Diaspora wanderings.
However, not everyone identifies with Bar-Hayim's unifying message. Bar-Hayim's approach clashes with the haredi philosophy that pre-Holocaust Jewish culture must be preserved against attempts at reform.
Rabbi Benjamin-Salomon Hamburger, a haredi historian who heads the Ashkenaz Tradition Institute, represents the haredi approach that calls to preserve the customs of the exile. Hamburger, who defines himself as "super-conservative," has devoted his professional life to researching and maintaining Ashkenazi customs.
"Jewish customs are imbued with the holiness of those who adhered to them throughout the ages," says Hamburger, quoting from Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, author of the halachic responsa entitled Sridei Eish (Remnants of Fire.)
"Secular Zionists had the tendency of skipping over or ignoring large chunks of Jewish history that did not fit in with their ideology," Hamburger said. He argues that the prohibition against kitniyot cannot simply be annulled, as the vast majority of Ashkenazi rabbis throughout the ages accepted the decree.
Past attempts to revoke the prohibition were aggressively rebuffed, says Hamburger. During the creation of the Kingdom of Westphalia Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, called on the Jews to permit kitniyot consumption. But the rabbis stubbornly resisted.
Hamburger also rejected Bar-Haim's claim that there was a "Land of Israel custom."
Throughout centuries of exile, different rabbis - including students of the Ba'al Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon - arrived in the Land of Israel and continued to adhere to their masters' customs, said Hamburger.
However, even he rejects some of the more exotic traditions adopted over the past few centuries by certain Hassidic sects, certain of whom abstain from fish, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, and even garlic (see box.) But, Hamburger explains, these added prohibitions were products of the times.
"Jews of Galicia lived in horridly squalid living conditions," says Hamburger. "They lacked basic hygiene...Today there is no reason to cling to these stringencies."
What about kitniyot? Today, there is little danger that the same storage bags used for wheat or flour will be used for rice or other legumes, which was the concern of Ashkenazi rabbis 800 years ago.
Hamburger disagrees. "When I buy sunflower seeds at the local market, I often find kernels of other grains mixed in. Besides, the rabbis issued a decree on legumes. But no decree was made about tomatoes."
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