Quinoa and Orthodox Judaism's Relevancy Problem

The question of long-term vitality of Judaism may ultimately come down to the question of relevance and whether Orthodox Jews are seen more as keepers of the faith or gatekeepers of the faith.

Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov
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Quinoa and butternut squash salad with dried tomato powder
A quinoa dish. Credit: Vered Guttman
Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

There has been a dueling of Judaisms going on in the blogosphere over the past week. When a New York Times columnist devotes his regular allotment to waxing rhapsodic about Orthodox Jews’ proclivity to purchase pre-cut tablecloths, people pay attention.

Soon after, Gershom Gorenberg in The Daily Beast accused Brooks of deploying a superficial portrayal of his brand of Judaism. Jane Eisner wrote in The Forward about the dark underside of aspects of the Orthodox community (including poverty and sexual-abuse cover-ups), and in the same paper, Jordana Horn touted her brand of Conservative Judaismin light of Brooks’ idealization of Orthodoxy.

To understand the subtext of the debates, one needs look no further than the quinoa aisle. But the story of quinoa is only the knife edge of a much deeper issue: the issue of ethical relevance.

As was reported this week, the Orthodox Union is refusing to extend its Passover hechsher to the miracle food that acts like a side dish but is packed with protein. Quinoa is actually a chenopod, a flowering plant, and the OU is apparently concerned that other grains may have found their way into the crop, rendering it unfit for the holiday.

In response, the Conservative movement issued its own decision on quinoa – one that Rabbi Aaron Alexander, on his public Facebook page, called a “more reasonable ruling.”

Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, for the most part, accept quinoa and allow much more leeway when it comes to personal decisions about kashrut.

One can understand why my Facebook feed was filled with “shares” of Brooks’ column, particularly from various Orthodox Jews who are part of my social media community. Seeing their own denomination portrayed so positively for the world to see – in the New York Times no less – is a far cry from the "sha shtil" mentality that dominated so many corners of European and American Jewry for so long.

One could also agree with Brooks’ claim that Orthodox Jews “feel they are the future.” Certainly, birthrates and the strong drive to marry within the fold tell a large part of the story, a story that also carries political implications.

But the question of long-term vitality of Judaism may ultimately come down to the question of relevance and whether Orthodox Jews are seen more as keepers of the faith or gatekeepers of the faith.

As social attitudes are modernizing, Jewish life is struggling to keep pace. Specifically, Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism are working overtime to ensure that contemporary attitudes – about the sanctity of gender equality, the dignity of sexual identity and care and responsibility for the earth and its environment – are matched by practice. These three streams tackled gender equality long ago, and Conservative Judaism is now in the midst of making great strides to bring GLBTQ Jews into the fold. Not so for Orthodoxy.

As for quinoa, what does it matter? I’ll go a week without quinoa, said a woman interviewed for the news story on the denial of the OU Passover hechsher to the ancient grain-like foodstuff.

And in a sense, she’s right. It doesn’t really matter whether we are one menu-item short this Passover, a festival where we don’t tend to go hungry.

But today’s debate over quinoa masks a more troubling discussion of values, ethics and relevance. Quinoa is a symbol of continued thoughtful dietary innovation in the contemporary era, in this case matching the values of healthful and ethical eating – one more vegetable-based protein is one less factory animal abused and killed – with the creative attempt to find alternative foods to eat on Passover.

And it goes far beyond this. Can Orthodoxy – with its relegation of women to a separate sphere, its denial of GLBTQ Jews one of the most fundamental aspects of human identity and even its proclivity for disposable tablecloths – underscoring Orthodoxy’s oft-seen proclivity for favoring the ease of fulfilling halakha over the health of the environment – ever manage to speak to the range of values and ethics that govern a well-rounded life? 

To be a religion that manages to retain its relevance, Judaism will need to continue to grapple with contemporary values, looking to the many hidden problems calling out for redress once the fourth question of the seder has been answered. Here at The Fifth Question blog, I try hard to pose new questions, knowing that in this complex world, wise answers can be tough to come by. The question now is whether Orthodoxy will also seek to address those many unanswered questions or whether the burden of Jewish relevance – deep and broad, timely and quotidien and Torah-wrestling and covenantal – will fall to the rest of Judaism.

Haredi men taking water for shmura matza
The final product: shmura matza
Baking matza shmura in bakery in Mea She'arim Jerusalem
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Haredi men taking water for shmura matzaCredit: Gil Cohen-Mage
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The final product: shmura matzaCredit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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Baking matza shmura in bakery in Mea She'arim JerusalemCredit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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