Editor's Notes: Politics, identity and kitniyot

What’s amusing is that kitniyot has got to be one of the most insignificant, marginal and unimportant issues when it comes to Jewish life.

Whole grain kernels (photo credit: MCT)
Whole grain kernels
(photo credit: MCT)
Around this time every year, the questions begin: Do you eat kitniyot? Oh, you do? Who gave you permission? How did you decide? Did you ask a rabbi?
It is as if kitniyot is the most important issue for the Jewish people. Elections? Who cares. A rise in antisemitism? Not our problem. Rockets fired from Gaza? We’ll deal with that after the holiday.
I can understand why. Food is an integral part of Jewish life, and the foods you can and cannot eat are important.
What’s amusing though is that kitniyot has got to be one of the most insignificant, marginal and unimportant issues when it comes to Jewish life. Nevertheless, it is a constant focus of attention and literature.
In Halacha – I am not a rabbi, but this is pretty straightforward – there are five grains that can become hametz: wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats. These are also the only grains that are used to bake matzah. About 700 years ago though, Ashkenazi Jews decided to complicate matters for themselves and banned the consumption of kitniyot, what are commonly referred to in English as legumes. This includes soy beans, corn, rice, mustard seeds, peas, lentils, poppy seeds and more. Want a salami on matzah? No problem, but you’ll have to skip the mustard.
There are two primary reasons why. The first is that kitniyot tend to appear like hametz (how rice looks like bread beats me, but let’s assume it does). The second reason cited in halachic literature is that regularly prohibited grains might accidentally mix with kitniyot, and then someone might inadvertently eat hametz.
In Israel though, this becomes a tricky situation. The reason is that Sephardim – the majority of Israeli Jews – do not follow this tradition and eat all of the above legumes and their kind.
This leads to a strange reality. Approximately 55% of Israelis eat hummus, rice and corn, while a minority – the 45% who are Ashkenazim – do not. And this ignores the many families which are mixed – one parent Ashkenazi, the other Sephardi. What do they do then?
Israelis know this situation well. On foods marked “Kosher for Passover,” there is another line that adds whether it is permitted for “non-kitniyot eaters” or allowed only for “kitniyot eaters.” The difference could be because corn oil was used, or in the case of soy milk, because it comes from kitniyot. Is the soy milk going to accidentally turn into bread? Of course not. Everyone knows it’s not hametz, but hey, there is a 700-year-old tradition to keep.
I can imagine what some readers are thinking: You are not a rabbi and only rabbis should be allowed to voice an opinion on matters relating to kashrut and Jewish law. Moreover, people argue, there are dozens of customs and traditions that observant Jews are required to keep and that kitniyot is no different, so why reject specifically that one?
My friend, Andrew Silow-Carroll, writes that for him, the ban on kitniyot is a piece of the general spiritual experience that we Jews are meant to feel over Passover.
“While the Passover diet is legally prescribed, it is also lived as a profound spiritual act,” he wrote in JTA last week. “The Passover rituals… [are] for the faithful a physical embodiment of the Passover message: a liberation from the self you were, a taste of what your ancestors went through, an act of denial meant to mark the season and your commitment to a higher power.”
While I appreciate the rationale, the reason I care about kitniyot is because for me, it carries with it far more than just religious significance.
Kitniyot is less about Jewish law and more about Jewish identity. While it is true that it is just one custom, it is one of the few that creates a clear divide between different kinds of Jews – Sephardim and Ashkenazim.
And for what? Yes, everyone has different customs, demonstrated in the way some people make kiddush on Friday night, the prayers they recite on Yom Kippur or the songs they sing at the Passover Seder.
But they are all practicing the same substance. Here, when we say that one person can eat something and the other cannot, we are separating people instead of bringing them together. This is where I take issue.
For the first time in more than 2,000 years, Israel is home to more Jews – about 6.6 million – than anywhere else in the world. Alongside the establishment of the modern Jewish state, the last 71 years have seen the rise of a new stream of Judaism – not Ashkenazi or Sephardi, not mitnagdim or hassidim, not Mizrachi, not Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, but something else: Israeli Judaism.
It is a hybrid created by immigrants from more than 100 countries, only 71 years old and far from a finished form. We really have no idea exactly where it is going, but if history is any indication – and signs of evolving Judaism go back to Babylon – we are creating a new identity that will impact Jewry for centuries to come.
As ethnic identities disappear and customs blur inside nuclear families, issues like kitniyot become less and less relevant for Israeli Jews. As well it should – don’t we have enough division between Jews?
Rice? Corn? Soy? It might sound trivial, but what we eat oftentimes defines who we are.
I’VE KNOWN Naftali Bennett for six years, ever since I joined his staff in the summer of 2013. I had returned to Israel from a journalism fellowship at Harvard, and months earlier he had started his term as the minister of economy and Diaspora affairs.
I did not know Bennett before and had nothing to do with his then-party, Bayit Yehudi. One day, while still living in Brookline, I received an email from someone putting me in touch with his team. They were looking for a person to help run the Foreign Trade Administration in the Economy Ministry and help rebuild the Diaspora Affairs Ministry. I had a foot out of journalism at the time and felt like it was an opportunity to see how things really worked in our government (what I learned is for a different column).
I did not come from Bennett’s political camp and did not always agree with his politics or policies. But I did have the opportunity to get to know someone who was passionate and dedicated about one goal and one goal only: serving the State of Israel.
You don’t have to agree with Bennett’s politics. I, for example, am concerned that his plan to solve the conflict with the Palestinians could one day lead to a binational state. But it is difficult to question his dedication and determination to serve not just his voters, but all of Israel and the Jewish people.
As education minister – I no longer worked for him then – he reduced the size of classrooms, added teachers in preschools and dramatically increased the learning of high-level math across the country. In the security cabinet, he singlehandedly pushed the government to launch a ground operation in the Gaza Strip to destroy the attack tunnels Hamas was digging across the border.
In the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, he initiated and spearheaded a number of projects – Mosaic United, JWRP and Community – while at the same time giving Jews around the world, even those who disagreed with his politics, a feeling that someone in Israel cared about their fate.
While there is no shortage of politicians who come into office just for the power, respect and authority that comes with it, Bennett came to execute. He had ideas and he worked hard to implement them. Agree with him or not, that is something worthy of our respect.
 His and Ayelet Shaked’s absence from the Knesset will be a loss for the State of Israel. For now, the least we can do is to say – Thank you.