Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Rabbi, The Monk, and The Chametz

In the spring of 1997 I was several months into a nearly year-long stay at the Trappist Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. The monastery provided me with a cabin, library access, and vegetarian meals, in return for which I gave occasional lectures on aspects of Jewish life to the community of monks, and taught occasional classes to those monks who were interested in studying with me. I spent every other weekend in Reno, Nevada -- about three hours away -- where I was the part-time rabbi of the Conservative synagogue, which was between full-time rabbis. As part of my rabbinic duties it was my responsibility to arrange the sale of chametz, leavened products which Jews may not own during Passover. Because it is often difficult and costly to throw away all of your chametz (since for example virtually everything in your liquor cabinet is chametz), congregants sign a document appointing their rabbi as their agent to sell the chametz to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday. While the rabbi then generally buys the chametz back after Passover, all of the forms state quite clearly that this is in fact a sale and not just a ritual exercise, and that until and unless the chametz is repurchased, it is fully the property of the Gentile buyer.

Since I lived among thirty or so Christian monks, I didn't think it would be too hard to find a Gentile to buy the chametz. As it turned out, it was more complicated than I thought it would be. Although I saw all of the monks frequently, I didn't get to converse with them very often. Contrary to popular belief, Trappist monks do not take a "Vow of Silence", but they do have a practice of silence throughout most of the day. They spend many hours in prayer and meditation and much of the rest of their waking hours working in agriculture or crafts. And they don't have cell phones.

One of the monks, Father Mark, had a graduate degree in Bible from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and knew Hebrew quite well. But he had never studied post-biblical Jewish literature and asked me to teach him Mishnah. We met frequently and during the course of the year studied all of Tractate Berachot (the laws of prayer) and most of Pirkei Avot ("Chapters of the Fathers," rabbinic ethical maxims). Since I saw him often during our study sessions and he was studying Judaism anyway, Father Mark seemed an appropriate candidate to serve as designated chametz-purchaser. I explained the concept and the procedures to him and he readily agreed.

Since it would have been nearly-impossible to observe the Passover dietary laws in the context of the monastery I arranged to spend all of Passover with friends in Los Angeles,about 500 miles away, and thus had to leave the monastery the day before the day of the first seder. Shortly before I was supposed to leave, I went to find Father Mark so we could sign the chametz sale documents. I found him, but he said to me "I can't do it."

Why not? Father Mark explained that through his studies of the Mishnah he was trying to learn to "think like a rabbi", and he understood that the sale of chametz was in fact a legally binding sale and not just a legal fiction. But, he said, "as a monk I have a vow of poverty, and that means I am not allowed to own any property. It's not a valid sale."

While I am not certain that a Catholic monastic vow has any standing in Jewish law, I appreciated Father Mark's concerns. His own religion precluded him from owning anything, and if the buyer never takes possession, the seller still owns it. In that case, all the Jews of Reno who were depending on me to sell their chametz for them would inadvertently be violating the laws of Passover. I was glad that I had taught Father Mark to "think like a rabbi" but I was also faced with the very real need to complete the chametz sale. We both realized that Father Mark's recent realization had put me in quite a bind.
"You could sell it to the Abbott." Father Mark explained that while individual monks are not permitted to own anything, the monastery itself obviously could, since it owned hundreds of acres, dozens of buildings, thousands of fruit trees and a bunch of tractors and pickup trucks. Maybe the Abbott would buy the chametz on behalf of the monastery, Father Mark mused, but then added that he didn't know exactly where the Abbott was at the moment, and he wasn't totally sure that the Abbott, not having studied Mishnah with us, would agree. "Is there something else you could do?"

Then I recalled that in Jewish law, an agent has the right to appoint a sub-agent. The Jews of Reno had appointed me as their agent to sell their chametz, but there was nothing to prevent me from delegating that task to someone else. I phoned the nearest Conservative rabbi, who was in Sacramento and did have a cell phone, and he agreed that he would serve as my agent and sell the Reno chametz along with that of Sacramento. I borrowed the monastery's fax machine, faxed Rabbi Taff some paperwork, and all was in order.
Every year as Passover approaches, I am reminded of Father Mark, the kind and gentle Trappist monk, and his concern that the Jews of Reno not fail in their duties to God through his own observance of his duties to God. May we all have such respect for those who serve God differently than we do.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The African Refugee Crisis in Israel

Yesterday morning I was one of 13 area rabbis who met with Reuven Azar, Deputy Chief of Mission, and Yaron Gamburg, Minister of Public Diplomacy, at the Israeli Embassy. The meeting was organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council to discuss Israel’s recent decision to deport roughly 38,000 African asylum seekers who have been living in Israel for a number of years.

            This was really an unprecedented meeting which was a response to the fact that a number of mainstream Jewish organizations have called on Israel to reverse this policy -- organizations like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League, HIAS, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and our own local Jewish Community Relations Council on whose board I serve. While there have been other meetings between rabbis or other Jewish leaders and the Embassy in the past, they dealt with “our” issues -- conversion and who is a Jew, religious pluralism, egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. This is the first time I can recall where the mainstream Jewish community has been significantly at odds with the Israeli government on an issue which doesn’t impact our own narrow interests.

            Simultaneously with our meeting, a couple of other things happened concerning this issue. Five prominent American Jewish leaders whose pro-Israel credentials are unchallenged (Alan Dershowitz, Abraham Foxman, and Orthodox rabbis Irving Greenberg, Marvin Hier, and Avi Weiss) issued a statement warning that going ahead with the deportations would cause “incalculable damage” to Israel’s reputation. At the same time, the Supreme Court of Israel put a temporary hold on the deportations, so for the foreseeable future they will not, in fact, be carried out.

            Coverage of the meeting in the Israeli press described the meeting as “frank and respectful” which is diplomatic language which means that there were sharp disagreements and possibly some raised voices, and indeed, that is what happened.

            I don’t want to put words in the mouths of the Israeli diplomats so I won’t try to quote what was actually said, but we also received a written statement of the Israeli Government’s position on the issue which I will be happy to share with you on request. Basically, the statement tries to make the case that Israel has no legal obligation to permit the African refugees to remain and that everything Israel is doing is in accordance with international law. I don’t know whether this is accurate or not as my undergraduate studies in Foreign Service were a long time ago and it’s not my area of expertise.

            Whether or not these deportations are legal, the larger questions for me are “are they moral?” and “are they necessary?” The Israeli government statement says that Israel’s most important obligation is to the safety and well-being of its own citizens, and of course this is correct. But the statement doesn’t even attempt to make the case as to why letting these refugees remain would be harmful to Israel or why Israel couldn’t absorb them rather than expel them.

            Over the last few years Israel has portrayed itself as the “Startup Nation” which is achieving all kinds of technological miracles, or as one of the other rabbis at the meeting put it, “turning air into water.” And of course one of the key slogans of the Zionist movement coined by its founder Theodor Herzl is “im tirtzu, ain zo aggada -- If you will it, it is not a dream.” I find it difficult to believe that Israel couldn’t find a way to successfully settle these refugees if the will to do so were there -- we are talking about 38,000 people in a population of over 8 million which on a per capita basis is roughly the same percentage of the Israeli population as DACA-eligible men and women in the US population.

            I hope and pray that the Israeli government reverses its position and allows these refugees to stay. Those of us in leadership positions in the American Jewish community are constantly alarmed by the erosion of attachment to Israel and the documented fact that the younger an American Jew is, the less likely he or she is to feel that Israel is important to them. Refugees are a hot-button issue in American society right now, and the sight of mass deportations of Africans from the State of Israel to a third country where their safety cannot be guaranteed is not going to make Israel’s image better among young Jews or among Americans generally. For Israel’s own sake, this is not the way.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Kosher for Passover Made Intelligible -- 2018/5778 Edition

“Kosher for Passover” Made Intelligible

The following is intended as general guidance for observing Passover according to normative Conservative guidelines. Different families have different traditions and if you have a family tradition that may be more stringent on a particular question, it is always permissible to be strict. It is not a violation of Jewish law to avoid taking leniencies even if they are legally permitted.

Observing the dietary restrictions of Passover is not always easy, but it is made even more complicated by misunderstandings and misinformation, both of which are rampant. To help you in your observance, I have prepared this Pesach Guide, trying to be as straightforward as possible. In doing so, I have consulted the Rabbinical Assembly Pesach Guide, but I alone am responsible for the rulings and conclusions contained herein. This guide was revised in the spring of 2016 to reflect the recent decision of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative Movement to permit the consumption of kitniyot. It was further revised for clarity and style in 2018.
 The full CJLS Passover Guide can ge found online at

I. What is Chametz?
Chametz (“leaven”) is the product of five specific grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye. Once these grains come into contact with water for eighteen minutes they are considered chametz. These are the same five grains which can be made either into bread which requires the hamotzi blessing or into matzah. We are forbidden not only to consume these products during Pesach, but even to own them or derive benefit from them in any way. Obvious examples of chametz include bread, cakes, cereals, pasta, and most alcoholic beverages other than wine. Only products made from these five grains can become actual chametz. However, once these grains have been made into matzah they are no longer subject to becoming chametz, and thus we can use matzah meal or crumbled matzah for all kinds of different Pesach products.
Note that the issue of chametz, despite popular misconceptions, has nothing to do with the presence or absence of yeast. Crackers, pasta, pita, and flour tortillas contain no yeast, yet they are still chametz and forbidden for Passover use.
II. What are Kitniyot? 
Another category of products which Ashkenazi Jews historically did not use for Pesach is kitniyot (“legumes.”) This category in essence consists of vegetables which can be ground into flour. The most common forms of kitniyot are corn, rice, and beans. Ashkenazi authorities, fearing that people might accidentally use wheat flour while thinking it was corn or rice flour, banned the use of these products on Pesach as well. Sephardic communities never accepted this prohibition and thus Sephardic Jews have always been free to eat these products on Pesach to their heart’s content.

In December 2015 the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative movement passed two responsa permitting the consumption of kitniyot by all Jews. Of course, just because consumption of kitniyot is permissible does not mean it is obligatory and if changing your family custom makes you uncomfortable you are free to continue to observe it.
A couple of things are worth noting here:
a.) There was never a prohibition for Ashkenazi Jews of owning kitniyot on Pesach or having them in your home. While actual chametz needs to be disposed of or sold through the agency of the rabbi and locked away, this is not necessary with kitniyot.
b.) Different communities in Europe followed different practices with regard to what was or was not considered kitniyot. Some products which have different status in different communities are garlic, mustard, and string beans. Everyone should follow their own family tradition in this regard.

III. What Products Require Kosher for Passover Certification?
Another area of confusion is what products require certification, and why some products may be purchased without certification before but not during Pesach.
During the year, an accidental admixture of forbidden foods which is less than 1/60th of the total is considered nullified. This would also apply to any accidental addition of chametz in an otherwise Kosher-for-Passover product. That is the reason why we formally nullify any overlooked chametz both the evening and the morning before Pesach. But during Pesach, even the tiniest amount of chametz cannot be nullified.
An example of this type of product is orange juice. Orange juice is a product which in the normal course of things is chametz-free. But suppose it is produced in a factory which also produces chametz-containing products. There is a remote possibility that some small amount of chametz might accidentally wind up in our orange juice, but if we bought the juice before Pesach, this would be nullified. If we buy it during Pesach, the miniscule amount of chametz is not nullified, and thus juice bought during Pesach needs certification.
The following foods do not require Kosher for Passover certification if purchased before or during Pesach, i.e. they are always acceptable without special Passover certification:
Fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, fresh kosher meat, fish.
The following foods do not require Kosher for Passover certification if bought before Pesach but require certification if bought during Pesach:
Unflavored caffeinated coffee (flavored, instant and decaffeinated coffees require certification), sugar, pure tea (not herbal or decaf), salt, pepper, natural spices, pure fruit juices, frozen uncooked vegetables, milk, Grade A butter, hard cheeses, frozen uncooked fruit (with fruit as the only ingredient), and baking soda.
The following foods  require Kosher for Passover certification whether purchased before or during Pesach:
All baked products (matzah, matzah meal, cakes, cookies, etc.), processed foods, wine, vinegar, liquor, oils, dried fruits, candy, flavored milk, ice cream, yogurt, soda, decaffeinated coffee or tea, herbal or flavored tea, and canned tuna fish.
Rice and dried beans should either have Passover certification “for those who eat kitniyot” or else they must be sifted through before Pesach to find and dispose of any possible grains of chametz which might have become mixed in. Processed kitniyot (such as canned beans) require Passover certification as does any other processed food because of the complexity of the manufacturing process. It is never a good idea to simply rely on the ingredients listing to determine if a product is kosher for Pesach.

IV. Pets and Pesach:
The problem with pets and Pesach is not a question of animals eating chametz or non-Kosher food. Animals are not subject to the mitzvot and there is no problem with them eating anything. The issue is that Jews are forbidden to own or benefit from chametz during Pesach.
The problem can be dealt with in one of three ways:
1. Feed your pets Kosher for Passover table scraps during Pesach if that is possible.
2. Scrutinize pet food labels to make sure they contain no chametz (kitniyot and non-kosher meats such as pork or shrimp are not a problem).
3. Include your pet and its food in the sale of chametz authorization.

V. Kosher for Passover Certification:
When looking for products which require Kosher for Passover certification, it is important to make sure that the certification is actually printed on the label or bottle cap and not just a sticker which is handled at the retail level. There is no guarantee that the sticker was applied to the proper product.
Similarly, do not assume that just because a store stocks something in the Passover section that it is actually kosher for Passover. Neither the supermarket clerks nor their managers are experts in Jewish religious practices, and it is not uncommon for “Jewish” foods which are not kosher-for-Passover to be placed in or near the Passover section. It is your responsibility to check for appropriate Passover certification.
It is not uncommon to find matzah which is not Kosher for Passover -- it will state “Not For Passover Use” on the label but you must look for it. Some people eat matzah year-round and these products are not produced using the special Passover stringencies.

VI. Some Final Thoughts:
We are fortunate to live in an age when many kosher products, both for Pesach and year-round, are available even to Jews who live in areas with relatively small Jewish communities. Gone are the days when kosher-observant Jews subsisted on matzah, potatoes, cheese and eggs during Pesach. I hope that this guide makes your Passover observance more meaningful and less stressful. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.