Kitniyot Labels: Keeping Authenticity Out of Jewish Conversations

The Jewish-American community has a tendency to superficially highlight the complexity of issues without taking clear positions to help resolve them.

Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon
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Kitniyot in Jerusalem's Old City.
Kitniyot in Jerusalem's Old City.Credit: Tess Scheflan
Benjy Cannon
Benjy Cannon

The Jewish community has a frustrating tendency to tiptoe around our most controversial issues. Rather than tackling them straight on, we employ a series of half-measures, which render our attempts to address challenges vague and incomplete.

Just last week, I discovered that Manischewitz and the Orthodox Union now make special labels that designate food as “Kosher for Passover with kitniyot” (legumes and other non-wheat grains). The obvious reason for creating such labels is to highlight for the Sephardi community, who consume kitniyot, which products are okay for their consumption over the holiday. A less obvious reason could be that Manischewitz and the OU are trying to accommodate the growing number of Ashkenazi Jews who have abandoned their custom of avoiding kitniyot during Passover and instead follow the custom of their Sephardi brethren. And so, in creating this label, Manischewitz and the OU may be trying to indicate to all Jews who choose to eat kitniyot during Passover which foods are kosher for them. Unfortunately for many Orthodox Ashkenazim, the label fails to clarify whether or not they should reconsider abstaining from kitniyot. By taking a non-position, it does not even help set the stage for possible religious reforms.

Why didn’t Manischewitz and the OU make the bolder move of declaring kitniyot kosher for Passover for all Jews? According to the OU website, there are two primary reasons Ashkenazim don’t eat kitniyot. The first is that they were often grown next to chametz (leavened) products. The second is that, supposedly, they are easily confused with one another. I had hoped that the OU would provide some sort of clear, updated stance on the issue, given kitniyot’s acceptance in Israel and our modern-day ability to distinguish between and properly separate grains, beans and rice.

But instead of authentically addressing the issue and taking a definitive stance (like declaring kitniyot kosher for all Jews, or even doing the opposite), the kitniyot labels merely concede that the issue is contentious and worth labeling as such. They create the illusion of engagement, but do little to address problems, because they don’t articulate a substantive stance.

Unfortunately, the Jewish-American community uses proverbial “kitniyot labels” when it comes to far more pressing issues. We embrace half-measures, rather than positions which address the heart of serious problems. These labels make us feel open minded to change, but by remaining superficial, shy away from it.

Take the issue of gay Jews for example. Recently, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi, came to talk at the University of Maryland. He gave an impassioned defense of gay Jews’ rights to not just be “accepted” by Orthodox communities, but to engage in intimate, sexual and loving relationships, without religious judgment. His defense came in response to a common question: While it is obvious that we must accept gay Jews, why must we also accept their “lifestyles?” The attitude evident in this question reflects a supposed sensitivity and openness to LGBT Jews, while simultaneously clinging to a traditional, discriminatory view of their sexual preferences. Here, the askers slapped on a kitniyot label by conceding the complexity and sensitivity of the issue, without actually addressing the challenges of living and loving as a gay Jew.

The same half-measures are evident in the area of intermarriage. Even some of the most progressive Jewish circles commonly regard interfaith families as mere “facts of life,” rather than acknowledging their unique contributions to Jewish communities. We slap on the kitniyot label when we describe interfaith families as an unfortunate reality that we must accept, but refuse to engage with their thoughts, feelings and unique contributions to Judaism.

The half-measures are also evident among liberal-Zionist attitudes to Israel. Students have told me, a campus activist, that my criticism of Israel is welcome so long as it has Israel’s best interests at heart. Rather than being engaged on the merits of my arguments, I am accused of manipulating fellow students or being insufficiently pro-Israel. These attitudes allow for superficial criticism of Israel, but only within an arbitrary set of parameters. Yes, it’s another kitniyot label.

Recognizing that certain issues are complex is important, but it’s only the first step in solving them. We also have to be clear about what we believe if we want to actually make progress.

Kitniyot labels, with their half-hearted acknowledgments, might help us feel like we have the best of both worlds, but they entail a superficial engagement with the problems they cover up.

When we hide behind kitniyot labels, we can claim to address the root of the problem without actually doing it. Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but we should be honest about our views when our attitudes toward LGBT, intermarried and politically diverse Jews are perceived as discriminatory, offensive or intolerant. Only when we are clear with ourselves and those with whom we disagree will we be able to peel off our kitniyot labels and progress toward meaningful solutions to Judaism’s greatest challenges.

Benjy Cannon studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland. He is deeply involved in collegiate Jewish life at Maryland Hillel, where he sits on the board of directors, and is a J Street U communications co-chair. Follow him on Twitter, or send him an email.

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