Opinion |

The Right to Chametz, on Principle

Rogel Alpher
Rogel Alpher
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Ultra-Orthodox Jews burn leavened grains in preparation for Passover, 2019.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews burn leavened grains in preparation for Passover, 2019.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Rogel Alpher
Rogel Alpher

Secular Jews have no practical problem with observing kashrut on Passover. There is no physical or emotional need that prevents them from restraining themselves and not eating chametz, leavened foods prohibited during the holiday – not only on Passover. At all. For months. Years, even. Their whole lives, if necessary. Many of them are already on low-carb diets. The issue of chametz on Passover isn’t one of abstention. Nor is it a question of consideration for other people and respect for their beliefs. It’s obvious that secular people are capable of taking into account the feelings of people who observe kashrut on Passover and not bringing chametz into hospitals and army bases.

But consideration, by definition, is not an act that is compelled by force or by rules and regulations. It’s based on the intention of those who are demonstrating it, as an expression of their own free will and at their discretion. The considerate people decide that their right to eat chametz is less important or less a matter of principle to them than their desire – yes, their free desire, based solely on their own judgment, dictated by their understanding of morality and community as derived from their worldview – to be considerate of the fact that strict adherents to kashrut on Passover may be offended at seeing chametz in public.

Consideration is meaningful only as part of a legal framework of fundamental rights and liberties that cannot be challenged. Until such a framework is established, the insistence of secular Israel Jews on their right to bring chametz into army bases and hospitals is neither petty nor a provocation for its own sake. It’s a matter of principle. Because the principle must be that the rights of people who observe kashrut do not outweigh the rights of people who do not.

Secular people will entertain showing consideration for kashrut observers only if the law stipulates that the rights of this group do not outweigh their own. Logically speaking, consideration only happens in a state of equal rights. Otherwise, it’s not consideration, but capitulation to the Orwellian principle that some people are more equal than others.

Conscript soldiers or hospital patients are not in those situations of their own free will, but by virtue of the compulsory draft law or a medical condition requiring hospitalization. Military service and hospitalization are zero-option situations. (Although inpatients who are liable to die if they discharge themselves nevertheless have the right to do so, this discussion does not apply to people who are suicidal). This captive audience is forced to “be considerate” – and that’s an oxymoron. This isn’t compromising, but rather discrimination.

“People who observe kashrut on Passover have a big problem,” Akiva Novick wrote (Haaretz Hebrew, March 27), because “the level of strictness on this particular holiday is higher than usual, and Jews in every generation have made great efforts not even to see chametz. Does this seem excessive to you? Ridiculous? Antiquated? These are the materials out of which tolerance for other people’s beliefs are made.”

But that isn’t true. Whether this seems excessive, ridiculous or antiquated to secular people is completely irrelevant. The only relevant thing is that tolerance for others’ beliefs consists of refraining from forcing them to violate those beliefs in their own homes. That is tolerance according to the principle of separation of religion and state. Separation of religion and state is a fundamental condition for tolerance.

People who observe kashrut cannot avoid from seeing chametz in the army or in hospitals. Let them obtain a halakhic exemption on the grounds of pikuah nefesh (a principle of Jewish law holding that saving a life trumps most other religious commandments). Tolerance is the right of secular people to bring their hospitalized loved ones chametz on Passover even as strict kashrut observers in the same ward continue observing kashrut as they see fit.

This is a matter of principle. Chametz itself isn’t an existential need, but the principle is. And for this principle, we will fight.

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