Conservative Rabbis Reverse Stand on Kitniyot

Conservative Rabbis Reverse Stand on Kitniyot

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

Hummus could be in the picture for Conservative seders. (Photo by Donovan Govan)
Hummus could be in the picture for Conservative seders. (Photo by Donovan Govan)

Members of the Conservative movement now have the option of eating rice, beans, corn, soy and other kitniyot during Passover under a pair of opinions issued by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in late December.

Kitniyot (legumes, corn, rice, etc.) are items that aren’t the five grains that can become chametz when exposed to water — wheat, oats, barley, rye and spelt — but can be ground and used in similar ways. By Ashkenazi custom, they have been barred at Passover for eight centuries, although Sephardi Jews have allowed them, creating one of the most visible difference between the two groups.

Reform Judaism has allowed kitniyot since 1810, but the Conservative and Orthodox stuck with the traditional ban, leading to such familiar sights as yellow caps on corn-syrup-free Coca-Cola each spring.

In Israel, where Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews increasingly mix, the small Conservative movement made a similar decision more than a decade ago, said Congregation B’nai Torah Rabbi Josh Heller, who serves on the Rabbinical Assembly’s law committee.

“This is something that has been brewing for a long time,” he said, citing the increase in vegetarians and vegans, for whom legumes are an important alternate source of protein; a rise in dietary sensitivity; and people visiting Israel and seeing a different attitude toward kitniyot there.

Rabbi Heller said the continuing ban on kitniyot created both practical and spiritual concerns:

  • On the practical side, specialty products for Pesach are increasingly expensive, and clearing the use of sunflowers, buckwheat, beans, lentils and chickpeas (including hummus) opens the way for lower-cost, healthy eating.
  • On the spiritual side, “we really want people to focus on the actual commandment not to eat leavened grain.” People who spend too much time worrying about kitniyot might violate the core rules of Passover or not observe the holiday in a joyful way.

Even though grits swell in contact with water, they are allowed under the new Conservative position, Rabbi Heller said.

The committee actually produced two opinions against the traditional ban. The more extreme position, written by Rabbi David Golinkin, argues that the anti-kitniyot custom was a mistake and that people should abandon it. It passed 15-4 with three abstentions.

The more moderate position, produced by Rabbis Amy Levin and Avram Israel Reisner, grants permission to eat kitniyot, “but we’re not going to force you to eat your veggies,” Rabbi Heller said. It passed 19-1 with two abstentions.

Rabbi Heller voted yes to both opinions.

While the Orthodox-led Atlanta Kashruth Commission has not responded to the Conservative ruling, its director of supervision, Rabbi Reuven Stein, said he personally was disappointed by the decision and hopes that “nobody abandons important Jewish customs because of it. I personally am proud to keep an over-800-year-old unbroken tradition and have failed to see any case for tampering with our beautiful Passover holiday.”

A dissenting Rabbinical Assembly view endorsed by five members of the law committee echoed Rabbi Stein.

“We do not see the need to overturn this custom for all Ashkenazim. We feel it would accustom people to do something they feel instinctively is ‘wrong’ and we fear it would lessen their respect for other laws and customs, even if rationally they are in a different category, and even if the kitniyot stringency is excessive or even illogical,” the dissenting opinion reads. “The Ashkenazi custom not to eat kitniyot remains relevant and compelling and remains in force.”

Rabbi Heller said the openness on kitniyot has its limits. He counsels against eating tofu, even though soy is now allowed, because most producers of tofu include a chametz solvent that is not necessarily listed in the ingredients. An emulsifier used in peanut butter — peanuts aren’t kitniyot but also are banned by custom — causes a similar problem.

It just may take the market a while to catch up, he said.

“Passover is such an important holiday, and avoiding leavened products is such an essential part of the observance, that if we can avoid things that distract from that, we are doing people a favor,” Rabbi Heller said.

Here is some of the Conservative guidance on how to apply the new leniency:

  • Fresh corn on the cob and fresh beans (like lima beans in their pods) may be purchased before and during Pesach, that is, treated like any other fresh vegetable.
  • Dried kitniyot (legumes, rice and corn) can be purchased bagged or in boxes and then sifted or sorted before Pesach. These should ideally not be purchased in bulk from bins because of the concern that the bin might previously have been used for chametz, and a few grains of chametz might be mixed in. In any case, one should inspect these before Pesach and discard any pieces of chametz. If one did not inspect the rice or dried beans before Pesach, one should remove pieces of chametz found in the package on Pesach, discarding those, and the kitniyot themselves remain permissible.
  • Kitniyot in cans may only be purchased with Pesach certification since the canning process has certain related chametz concerns, and may be purchased on Pesach.
  • Frozen raw kitniyot (corn, edamame [soy beans], etc.): One may purchase bags of frozen non- hekhshered kitniyot before Pesach provided that one can either absolutely determine that no shared equipment was used or one is careful to inspect the contents before Pesach and discard any pieces of חמץ chametz). Even if one did not inspect the vegetables before Pesach, if one can remove pieces of (chametz) found in the package on Pesach, the vegetables themselves are permissible.
  • Processed foods, including tofu, although containing no listed chametz, continue to require Pesach certification due to the possibility of admixtures of chametz during production.
  • Even those who continue to observe the Ashkenazic custom of eschewing kitniyot during Pesach may eat from Pesach dishes, utensils and cooking vessels that have come into contact with kitniyot (מי קטניות) may consume kitniyot derivatives like oil that have a KP hekhsher.
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