On Passover, rice might be nice

Eat rice on Pesach. God won't mind.

(RNS) This is what happens to me, every year, during Passover.

I go through many moments of ethnic confusion.

I ask myself: Where were my ancestors from?

By the fourth day of Passover, I call my father, and I ask him to review our family tree with me.

“Where, exactly, is our family from?”

“Vilna,” he says. “What the Lithuanians call Vilnius. The capital of Lithuania. The Jerusalem of Europe!” he waxes poetic.

By the sixth day of Passover, I remember that my late mother had once said that her family was from Munkascz, in Hungary.

She must have got it wrong.

My maternal grandfather, I am sure, was from Aleppo, Syria.

As modern Zionism founder Theodor Herzl once said (yes, in a different context): “If you will it, it is no dream.”

So, this is what you know about keeping kosher for Pesach.

No leavened products — bread, donuts, bagels, pasta, pizza.

(Great spiritual interpretation of “no leaven:” leaven is yeast that has expanded, or has become puffed up.

When our egos become “puffed up,” that is a sign that we are still enslaved to our inner Pharaohs.)

But, Ashkenazic Jews go one step further.

For centuries, they have refrained from indulging in rice and legumes (“kitniyot”) during Passover.

Sephardim have no such “legume-phobia,” and they eat beans, as well as rice, during Passover.

But over the past few years, there has been a revolution in how Jews think about cuisine for Passover.

It is the cry of those who seek redemption from the custom of avoiding kitniyot, and who are ready to walk the way of rice.

And so, for those Jews who are ready to embrace kitniyot, and to eat rice, soy, and other assorted legumes during Passover, let me strengthen your resolve to do so.

A variety of legumes. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Eight reasons (one for each day of Pesach) to support that decision:

  1. There is no mention in the Bible of a prohibition against legumes. It says “leaven.” Period.
  2. There is no mention in the Talmud of a prohibition against legumes.
  3. The prohibition against legumes seems to have come from France in the 12th century. No one knows exactly why they prohibited legumes. There are about 10 reasons cited for this custom, which is proof enough that this is, in fact, a bit of a stretch.
  4. Maimonides thought that it was a “stupid custom.” (Yes, he was a Sephardic Jew. You got a problem with that?)
  5. With the creation of the State of Israel, and the ingathering of the exiles into the land of Israel, we should be emphasizing the unity of the Jewish people, not those ethnic differences that separate us.
  6. Not to mention the fact that in Israel itself, the preponderance of Ashkenazic-Sephardic mixed marriages makes Pesach a nuisance.
  7. And if we make Pesach so restrictive and so onerous, there is the real and present danger that otherwise committed and caring Jews will simply walk away from even trying to observe the festival at all.
  8. By elevating a Sephardic way of observing Pesach, we are “repenting” for having created an (a new term, here) “Ashke-normative” American Judaism.

Let’s face it: our Judaism has centered on central and Eastern European ancestors, narratives, languages, and folklore.

The danger of this is that we ignore the lived experience of so many Jews — especially the fact that the early Jewish settlers in America were, by and large, Sephardim from the Iberian Peninsula.

Now, the reasons for eating rice and legumes will not work for every Jew — and, frankly, they shouldn’t.

First: The whole “it’s not in the Bible, so I’m not going to do it” argument.

While that might be true, it is not true enough.

Contemporary Judaism is not a biblical religion. Let’s make a short list of Jewish things that are not in the Bible.

  • Hanukkah.
  • Purim.
  • Lighting Shabbat candles.
  • Bar mitzvah — and certainly not bat mitzvah.

Neither, by the way, is the Passover seder.

It’s not only that Judaism is allowed to grow and change; it must.

Second: In a time when Jews are all too flippant about abandoning their rituals, perhaps we should not be militantly trying to remove Jews from their past.

Third: The ban on eating legumes for Ashkenazic Jews helps us maintain the diversity of Jewish customs.

There are numerous variations in Jewish traditions and liturgy: Ashkenazim (and even here, between German Jews, Polish Jews, and Hungarian Jews), Sephardim (and even here, between Turkish Jews and Greek Jews), Middle Eastern Jews (and even here, between Moroccan Jews, Tunisian Jews, Yemenite Jews, and Iraqi Jews).

Why should all Jews have the same traditions? Like the coat that the biblical Joseph wore, Judaism is multicolored and richly textured.

But: If you want to have a rice, legume-ish Pesach, and be liberated from the Pharaoh of all-too-strict-and-historically-flimsy customs, as your rabbi (or, as one of your rabbis), I will tell you: feel free to do so.

After all, it was none other than Maimonides who said that abstaining from legumes was a “stupid custom.”

We’re talking Maimonides here.

I’m just saying ….

Whatever you eat, or don’t eat — have a great and sweet Pesach.