Monday, May 02, 2011

Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah (Individual & Community)

Le-Ha”y Rabbenu: On the 18th Yahrzeit of Rav J. B. Soloveitchik

Someone once said that the greatness of halakhah is also its weakness: that is, that through the observance of Jewish law an ordinary person can feel that his life is filled with holiness. Every time he gets up in the morning or goes to sleep, eats or drinks, the very structure of his week and year, even when he sleeps with his wife (or she with her husband)—there are laws and rules intended to bring him closer to God. But this is also its great drawback, what A. J. Heschel called “pan-halakhism”: the view that the halakhah is the be-all and end-all can cause one to bypass the inner spiritual core of the Torah; thus, the feeling of holiness simply through obedience to the Shulhan Arukh can in fact be illusory.

I believe that this is what the Rav meant when he said (I heard this from him personally, as well as hearing it reported as something he said at his Talmud shiur at Yeshiva University): “Modern Orthodoxy didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped it would. They serve God with their minds and with their hands, but not with their hearts.”

All this may sound surprising to those who think of the Rav as “the Man of Halakhah” par excellence. Yet there was in fact an ongoing tension, if you will, between “Halakhic Man” and “the Lonely Man of Faith” (the titles of his two best-known monographic essays on the nature of Jewish religious life), which might be described as the tension between objective halakhic behavior and inner religious feeling; between the Mitnaggedism in which he was raised and Hasidism, which exerted a powerful influence on his development in early childhood and later (he often spoke longingly of his childhood Habad melamed in Khaslavecz); between halakhah and aggadah; or, as I once put it in these pages, between the feminine and masculine principles (see “The Rav and the Eternal Feminine,” HY I: Pesah [=Torah]; and cf. his “Eulogy for the Talner Rebbe” in Shiurei Harav: A Conspectus).

It seems to me that this tension is the key to understanding a central concept that the Rav introduced into halakhic thinking. As is well known, the Brisker school of Lithuanian Talmudic learning in which the Rav was raised often tried to resolve various difficulties and conundrums within the halakhic system by raising objective halakhic categories to the level of conceptual abstraction, and thereby drawing various fine distinctions among them: e.g., between heftza and gavra, between understanding a given law as relating to a given object, or as referring to the person performing the action. Now, one of the Rav’s most important and frequently invoked distinctions was that between ma’aseh ha-mitzvah, the physical act performed in a given mitzvah, and kiyyum ha-mitzvah, the fulfillment of the mitzvah. Applying these concepts to those mitzvot with a strong spiritual component / element, who would speak of ma’aseh be-yadaim as against kiyyum shebe-lev—that is, that the mitzvah itself might be performed with the hands, i.e., through some external act, but that its true fulfillment was within the heart. Thus, for example: on the external level, prayer involves reciting a given text at certain fixed times of the day, adopting a certain physical posture, various gestures, etc.; but on the internal level, the kiyyim of prayer means that a person feel himself to be standing before God. In like fashion, teshuvah involves the recitation of a verbal confession, but its inner essence is in the change of heart, the cat of repentance of which Vidduy is a mere external expression. Similar things could be said of Keri’at Shema, as a textual recitation reflecting acceptance of God’s kingship; of Simhat Yom Tov as the inner sense of joy in the festival; of aveilut, of mourning as the inner grieving for the person who was, and will be no more, expressed in certain stylized forms… and so forth.

Now, it seems clear to me that the Rav knew and deeply understood the inner message of Judaism, but he couched these insights in the language of halakhah, because that was the language of his familial tradition, and perhaps also because his social role was that of a rosh yeshivah in a strongly halakhah-centered context—but there was nevertheless an ongoing tension between the two.

It seems to me that this may be what he was alluding to when he spoke about the “loneliness” of the “man of faith.” In the opening pages of the essay of that name, he begins with the stark, rather striking words, “I am lonely”—and goes on to describe the sense of loneliness which is part of the nature of religious experience per se, in all times and places; and the special loneliness of the religious person in modern culture, with its emphasis on technology, on the “here-and-now sensible world as the only manifestation of being.” These words reminded me of a statement in the first published Hasidic book, Toldot Yakaov Yosef. The author speaks there of three levels of Galut (“Exile,” but perhaps better translated as: loneliness, estrangement, alienation): the exile of Israel among the nations; the exile of the scholar within the Jewish people; and the exile of the truly God-fearing and learned person (the one who serves God in an inward way?) even among those of his fellow scholars who are lacking in real piety (what he calls shedim yehuda’in, “Jewish demons”).

Halakhic Postscript: Two Approaches to Kitniyot

One of the more irksome aspects of Pesah is the prohibition, incumbent upon the Ashkenazic world, against eating kitniyot—“legumes”: a category that subsumes rice and a variety of foodstuffs belonging to the bean family, or things that grow within pods: greenpeas, stringbeans, red beans, white beans, lima beans, lentils, soybeans and its products, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, as well as corn.

What people find so irksome about all this is not so much the prohibition itself—after all, for people accustomed to observing kashrut all year round, one more restriction, for one week a year, oughtn’t to pose any great difficulty—but certain other factrs. First, that the rule seems rather ill-defined—it’s unclear whether or not it include oils and other kitniyot derivatives; in some communities, such as the United States, things that everyone used “a generation ago,” such as peanuts and peanut oil, now seem to be forbidden; and that there is a long list of things that are clearly not legumes as such but which contain small seeds and are customarily forbidden, such as anise, kűmmel, peanuts, mustard, safflower oil, rape and rapeseed (canola oil), etc. Second, particularly for those of us living in Israel, the fact that this rule, which greatly restricts one’s diet during Pesah, applies to Ashkenazim but not to Sephardim, is disturbing. Kitniyot puts a damper on free social interaction between the two groups during a week when people enjoy more leisure time and can go visiting—and this, at a time when the barriers between the groups are gradually being erased and when even marriages between people from the different “tribes” of Israel are increasingly common. Isn’t the idea of the “ingathering of the exiles” and “mixing of the exiles” into one nation part of what Zionism is all about? Third, as an offshoot of the above, many of the Passover products one encounters in the supermarkets in Israel are marked “permitted only to those that eat kitniyot”—a label found on such diverse products, seemingly unrelated to beans, as tuna fish or sardines (packaged in oils derived from kitniyot), mayonnaise, cakes and baked goods, etc.

Finally: the justification for this rule is not altogether clear. It is not a Rabbinic edict (takkanah) that was adopted by a council of Sages as a “fence” around the law, but a folk custom which seems to have sprung up among Ashkenazi Jewry at some point in the early Middle Ages and is first mentioned in halakhic literature as an already existing practice, whose reason is unclear and subject to speculation. Some suggest that it was a gezerah made because these substances were sometimes made into flour, which might then accidentally be confused with flour from real grains, and vice versa, causing people to inadvertently use wheat flour as rice flour—a serious violation of the Pesah laws. (But in that case, why should it continue to be observed today, when food manufacture and distribution is better organized? And if it is such a serious issue, why doesn’t it apply to Sephardim?) Then again, there are others who suggest that it may have originated from some egregious error: for example, as the late Prof. Israel Ta-Shma suggests in his book on Ashkenazi minhag, it may have been based on a careless misreading of a text warning against grinding grains on Yomtov generally, as a form of labor forbidden on festival days, that was somehow misinterpreted as prohibiting using anything that could be ground during Pesah, when people’s minds are much on grains.

Thus, one finds some people today, from what might be called the liberal end of the spectrum of Orthodoxy, who have quietly decided for themselves to scuttle the whole business. The sociological factor is important here: if Israel represents an “ingathering of the tribes of Israel,” why should people be so sharply divided and unable to eat in one another’s homes during a festival which symbolizes our birth as a nation—one nation? But each person has his/her own considerations: in one family, several members of whom suffer from celiac, a genetic condition involving an intense allergic reaction to wheat products and other grains, those members with the condition eat kitniyot, while the others do not. Another friend of mine, a Reconstructionist rabbi who is declaredly “non-halakhic” and a strict vegan, is strict about kitniyot because “all year long my diet centers around rice and legumes, so were I to eat kitniyot, there would hardly be any recognizable difference between Pesah and the rest of the year.”

I once discussed this problem with a learned friend, who pointed towards two halakhic approaches to this problem, which he saw as typifying the movements from which they came generally. The one was that of Rabbi David Golinkin, the leading posek (decisor) within Israel’s Masorati Movement (i.e., the counterpart of Conservative in the US), who some years ago issued a ruling granting blanket permission to eat kitniyot. The sociological argument was foremost (he was asked: “in light of the ingathering of the Exiles, shouldn’t it be possible to eliminate this restriction?”), but he followed this with a list of eleven different reasons for the custom, all of which he saw as spurious. He quoted a number of prominent rishonim who opposed the custom when it first emerged, among these the Tosaphists R. Yitzhak (the R”y) and R. Yehiel of Paris, and even some who described it as a minhag shetut (a “foolish” or “silly custom”).

On the other hand, Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztz”l, generally considered the leading Orthodox posek during the latter half of the 20th century in America, wrote a responsum about the use of peanuts during Pesah (Iggerot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, Vol. 3: §63; pp. 370-371) in which he discusses the issues involved in kitniyot generally. He first dismisses the argument that one ought to prohibit as kitniyot all those things from which one could make flour, or those things whose sseds are sown in the ground in a manner similar to wheat. Following that logic, one would have to prohibit potatoes, which as everyone knows are a staple of the Pesah diet of Ashkenazic Jewry! Interestingly, like Golinkin, he notes that the actual reason for the prohibition is shrouded in obscurity and mentions those rishonim who objected to the whole thing.

But his conclusion is different: since the prohibition of kitniyot is a long-standing custom in Ashkenazic communities, one cannot nullify it entirely. But as it was never properly legislated by a gathering of sages, and as there was never a general rule determining what is and is not prohibited, it ought properly be restricted to those items that were originally prohibited, as stated in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 453.1). He thus goes on to permit those things, such as peanuts and peanut oil, as well as kummel and anise, which are not explicitly prohibited. It seems to me, applying the principles implicit in this teshuvah, that one might freely use kitniyot oils in frying and cooking, possibly after making a hatarat nedarim—and such is my practice in my own home. By this, one also bypasses perhaps 80% of the problems encountered in shopping in Israeli supermarkets during Pesah.

But what is more significant in the contrast between these two responsa is the attitude towards tradition. Golinkin seems to see the halakhah largely as a logical system; hence, he has no difficulty in abolishing something which seems to fly in the face of reason or common sense. Rav Feinstein, by contrast, is moved by a sense of reverence towards the halakhic tradition and those authorities who came before him; hence, he is reluctant to give a blanket “dispensation” from kitniyot as such, but at most rounds off some of the rough edges and permits those things which are demonstrably without any basis.


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