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.