Friday, May 17, 2019

Judaism and the Abortion Debate


            

          With so many states having recently passed or considering legislation which purports to eliminate or severely restrict abortion, I want to take a look at what Judaism says about this issue.

            Before I do that, I want to talk about “framing”, in other words, how an issue is presented and perceived in the public square. To a large extent, the debate over abortion is framed as religious people who are “pro-life” vs. secular people who are “pro-choice.” In point of fact, as a Conservative rabbi I am pro-choice precisely because of our religious teachings, and this is why the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism issued this statement this week after the Alabama legislature passed a law which, if allowed to go into effect, would ban virtually all abortions.

            The most recent spate of legislation is rooted in the Catholic and Evangelical Christian belief that we become full human beings with full human rights at the moment of conception. Catholics and Evangelicals have every right to believe this but it is a belief, it is not a scientifically provable fact. The normative Jewish teaching codified in the Talmud and Codes is that a fetus becomes a full human being at the moment of birth -- when its head or in the case of a breach birth the majority of its body has emerged from the womb.

            The halachic position that a fetus is not a full human being is rooted in Exodus 21:22-23. These verses describe a situation where two men are fighting with each other and as a result of their fight, a pregnant woman is injured. If the woman herself dies as a result, the death penalty is incurred. If the fetus dies but not the mother, the perpetrator is fined. The inescapable conclusion from these verses is that a fetus is not a full human being and causing its death is not murder, because in the Pentateuch there is no such thing as a fine for murder. There is only the death penalty.

            The fact that we do not consider a fetus a full human being does not mean that a fetus has no value. The Talmud says in a number of places that “a fetus is a limb of its mother” rather than an independent being itself, but just as we would need a compelling reason to amputate a limb, we need a compelling reason to “amputate,” so to speak, a fetus. But regardless of whether the halacha would or wouldn’t countenance any particular abortion, the assertion that abortion is “murder” is contrary to Jewish teachings, full stop.

            Halacha going back as far as the Mishnah (codified in 200 CE) actually requires abortion if carrying the pregnancy to term endangers the life of the mother. This is based on the law of the rodef, the “pursuer.” In a case where the fetus endangers its mother’s life, it is considered a “pursuer” and we are obligated to put the welfare of the mother first -- up until the point where the head or the majority of the body has emerged, at which point we don’t kill one human being to protect another.

            The point of this admittedly cursory survey of halacha regarding abortion is simply to help you understand what Jewish religious teaching on the subject is and why Jews do not share the belief of many Catholics and Evangelicals that abortion is murder and that all abortions should be banned. While in point of fact Judaism might disapprove of some of the reasons some women choose to have abortions, Judaism disapproves of lots of things which people do which nevertheless are and should remain perfectly legal. I’m not aware, for example, of any move anywhere in the United States to ban the sale of pork or of clothing made from a mixture of linen and wool (Lev. 19:19, Deut. 22:11).

            Having counseled women who were unsure about having an abortion, and even having accompanied women to the abortion clinic, I know that this is a serious decision that is not made lightly. I deeply respect those who have a religious-based opposition to abortion but there is no reason for any state or the Federal government to decide that the Catholic/Evangelical belief is correct and the Jewish and liberal Protestant belief is wrong. I hope and pray that these clearly unconstitutional laws will not survive the judicial scrutiny they will surely receive.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Kosher for Passover Made Intelligible -- 5779/2019


“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.
--CLA

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 and again in 2019
 The full CJLS Passover Guide can ge found online at www.rabbinicalassembly.org/pesah-guide.

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 things 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 for those who continue to refrain from them during Pesach.
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. If you maintain the practice of avoiding kitniyot during Pesach, you should follow your family’s tradition as to whether or not a particular food is to be avoided.

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.
Kitniyot:
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. Conservative Jews and Kitniyot
The 2015 decision of the Conservative Movement’s CJLS to permit the consumption of kitniyot by all Jews during Passover has had a mixed reception. Some follow it, some reject it, and some follow a middle ground approach.
Because we want everyone to be comfortable eating at our synagogue at all times, I have decided not to permit consumption of kitniyot or kitniyot-containing products at Kehilat Shalom during Passover.
For those of you who may wonder about my personal practice: as noted above, rice and beans to be consumed during Pesach need to be sifted through before Pesach to make sure that no grains of actual chametz have become mixed in (unless the rice or beans have reliable Kosher for Passover certification). Because I view it as unlikely that people will really do this, I do not recommend consumption of actual beans or rice during Pesach and I do not consume them myself.
However, on occasion one finds products with reliable certifications “for those who eat kitniyot” coming from Israel, France, Mexico, or other countries. I recommend these products if you are comfortable eating kitniyot, but I reiterate that you are perfectly free to continue avoiding kitniyot if that is what makes sense to you.

VI. 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. Earlier this week in the Goshen Plaza Giant, I found Kosher-for-Passover chicken stock right next to chicken stock which is kosher but not for Passover, and both were stocked in the store’s Passover section along with hamantashen left over from Purim. I am sure that the stores are acting in good faith but you must exercise reasonable vigilance.
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.

VII. 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.