Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Gebrochts and the Limits of Jewish Pluralism

Over the last few years, you may have noticed that more and more of the Passover products you buy carry the notation that they are non-gebrochts. Do you know what this means?

    The word “gebrocht” is actually Yiddish for broken. A product is considered “gebrochts” if it contains “broken” matzah, meaning matzah meal or matzah flour. Many of the foods we associate with Passover are gebrochts, such as matzah balls (kneidlach), matzah kugel, matzah brei, and so on.

    It may surprise you to learn that Chasidim and some other fervently Orthodox Jews do not eat such products on Passover. Why? Because there is a fear that a clump of flour in the matzah may not have been thoroughly mixed with water in the matzah-making process. If this happened, when that unbaked flour mixes with any liquid during Passover, it would create chametz. So therefore Chasidim avoid soaking any matzah in liquid during Passover to avoid that theoretical possibility. No matzah balls, no matzah brei, no matzah kugel, no crumbling up some matzah to put in your chicken soup. While this is originally a Chasidic custom, as the Orthodox community in general moves to a more rigorous observance, the custom has spread. Therefore many manufacturers, seeking as large a customer base as possible, have begun to produce non-gebrochts products and to label them as such.

    A fascinating aspect of this custom is that those who refrain from gebrochts for Passover only do so for the first seven days and indeed, go out of their way to serve and eat gebrochts on the eighth day. Why?

    For one, there is a technical halachic reason for this. The original custom of not eating gebrochts is due to a safeik, a doubt. The likelihood of some unmixed flour becoming chametz is doubtful, albeit theoretically possible. Similar, the observance of the eighth day of Passover is due to doubt, since in ancient days our ancestors were not one hundred percent sure of the dates of the holidays. When there is a doubt about a biblical commandment, we rule stringently. But the question of gebrochts on the eighth day is now a s’feik sfeika, a “double doubt.” The worry about the flour is a doubt and the worry about the status of the day is a doubt, and the rule is that in cases of a “double doubt” we act leniently.

    But there is a larger philosophical reason for eating gebrochts on the eighth day as well. Those who observe this know that it is a custom and a stringency. It is not baseline halacha, Jewish law. Someone who eats gebrochts is not violating any Jewish law; eating a matzah ball is not the same thing as eating bread or pizza. In order to demonstrate that they recognize it is only a custom, and that they are not casting aspersions on other Jews who don’t observe it, they go out of their way to eat gebrochts on the eighth day.

    That effort at demonstrating respect for Jews who observe differently is laudable, and it is something that each of us should replicate in our own way. We do that in this community through our participation with synagogues of other denominations in joint services and educational programs, my leadership role in the interdenominational Board of Rabbis, and in many other ways. When a rabbi of another denomination needs me to sit on a Bet Din (rabbinic court) for a conversion, I am happy to do so if the candidate is able to demonstrate a sincere commitment to living a Jewish life, even if their practices are not totally in accordance with ours.

    But are there limits to pluralism? The non-gebrochts people who eat gebrochts on the eighth day of Passover do so because they recognize their own practice as custom rather than law. If they believed that gebrochts was actually chametz, they would not do so.

    Our commitment to Jewish pluralism and our commitment to halachic standards of personal status at times create situations which are not easy to deal with. Jewish movements to our left accept patrilineal descent and some of their rabbis perform conversions without mikvah, and hatafat dam brit or circumcision for males. If a Conservative rabbi accepts such a person as a Jew he or she violates halacha as well as a “Standard of Rabbinic Practice” which means that he or she could be expelled from the Rabbinical Assembly. But telling someone in this situation that they aren’t Jewish risks alienating them from Judaism and Jewish life. Former Senator and Defense Secretary William Cohen recounted on more than one occasion that he attended Hebrew school as a young boy but his family became Unitarians when they were told he couldn’t have a Bar Mitzvah unless he was formally converted (his mother was Catholic).

    These issues go to the heart of someone’s identity and are a little bit more consequential than eating matzah brie or kneidlach on Passover. The Conservative movement is starting to grapple with these issues but a solution won’t be easy or universally accepted. As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Two-Minute Torah: Ten Commandments and Polarities

Have you ever noticed that almost all of our prayers are in the plural? We address God in the Amidah as "our God and God of our ancestors." During the Days of Awe we refer to God as "Avinu Malkenu," "our Father, our King." On Yom Kippur we ask God for forgiveness "for the sin which we have sinned against You." And so on and so forth.

Which makes it all the more interesting to note that the Ten Commandments are all in the singular. You may not notice this when reading an English translation since "you" in standard English is both singular and plural. (There are of course dialects which do distinguish between second person singular "you" and second person plural such as the Southern "y'all" or the New Jersey/Philadelphia "youse.") But when God says "I am Adonai your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt" or says "you shall not kill" or "you shall not steal," the Hebrew is in the singular. It is not a collectivity being addressed, it is an individual.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, says that Judaism in general, and Conservative Judaism in particular, is about "balancing the polarities." Is Judaism concerned with the needs of the Jews or the needs of all people? The answer is both. Is Judaism concerned with the spiritual or the material? The answer is both. Is Judaism concerned with perfecting the individual or creating the beloved community? The answer is both.

We stray from the right path when we focus too much on one pole and lose sight of the other. If we are not concerned about the needs of Jews, we will not survive as a people. But if we are only concerned about the needs of Jews, we have no real reason to survive as a people. If we are not concerned with spirituality, our souls will starve. But if we are only concerned about spirituality, our bodies will starve.

Our liturgy is in the plural to remind us that we are a community, a collective, that we are responsible for each other. Perhaps the Ten Commandments are in the singular to remind us that each of us, individually, has our own relationship with God; and that each of us has a responsibility to fulfill the covenant, and not depend on others to do so on our behalf.