Tag Archives: holidays

A multicultural view of Passover eating

Every year I get a call from my mother, “Remind me again, do we eat peanuts on Passover?”

This question should have an easy yes or no answer. Rabbis have lists of what to eat and what to stay away from to uphold Passover, and I’m a rabbi so….. But as an Ashkenazi rabbi committed to multiculturalism, I’m torn.

Here is the problem. Back in the 13th century some rabbis in France decided that in addition to things that rise, legumes and rice , which can be made into flour should be off limits during Passover. The rule spread East and caught my family in Romania, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia and Austria in the bargain. Jews in North Africa, the Middle East and the Sub-Continent were never affected. So growing up it was easy, like all of my ancestors, we stayed away from legumes including peanuts during Passover.

But at 19, I went to study in Israel for a year. Among the classes I took was a class in Jewish law with Rabbi David Golikin. Golikin argued, and here I quote from his written opinion on the matter, “it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to eliminate this custom.” In the written response (see volume 3), Golinkin provides many explanations as to why to do away with this custom, but what struck me then and what resonates now is “it causes unnecessary division between Israel’s different ethnic groups.” His plea to eat rice and beans and peanuts was an attempt to tear down this culinary divider between Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi groups.

As the Rabbi-in-Residence for Be’chol Lashon I work daily to remove barriers between groups of Jews of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. From a rabbinic point of view I think it is advisable and permissible to do so. The answer should be easy, “Yes mom, we eat peanuts.”

But though Golinkin is quick to dimiss “the only reason to observe this custom; the desire to preserve an old custom,” I am not so quick to walk away. All of my ancestors, as far back as I can tell, were Ashkenazim. They stayed away from peanuts, rice and so on. Celebrating diversity is important, but fundamental to my ability to reach out and connect with others who do not share my background, is my understanding of who I am and where I come from.

In recent years, my mother has taken to making gefilte fish for the Seder. She doesn’t even like the stuff and it is hard to make. But she makes it as a tribute to her mother and to her grandmother (who she never knew and was murdered by the Nazis) because she wants us to remember them, who they were and to know where we come from that family and place.

So will I eat peanuts this Passover?

I’m sorry mom, I don’t know, the best I can do is “I see a value in doing it both ways.”

 

 

Posted on April 5, 2012

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The Holiness of Purim

As a child, I looked forward to Purim each year. I spent weeks planning my costume and savored the excitement of the annual carnival and the entertaining megillah reading at my synagogue. Purim represented pure, unobstructed joy.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to experience the deeper meaning of Purim. Our rabbis teach that Purim (a day of exuberant, drunken celebration) and Yom Kippur (our holiest day of atonement) have much in common. In fact, the Tikunei Zohar, a section of Jewish mystical literature, makes a delightful pun using the names of these two holidays. Yom Kippur is often referred to in our liturgy as Yom HaKippurim (the Day of Atonements). Our rabbis adjust the phrase slightly to read Yom K’Purim, meaning “A day like Purim.”

On Yom Kippur, we strive to come to terms with the apparent chaos of our lives. When faced with the reality and complexity of the human condition, we turn to tefilah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance) and tzedakah (righteous acts of giving) as vehicles for making ourselves whole. We wear all white (a costume of sorts) and bang on our chests, fasting and engaging in deep personal reflection that will ideally leave us in an ecstatic place of restoration.

On Purim, we also strive to confront the chaos and complexities of human existence, and likewise we ecstatically celebrate our ability to transform these obstacles into entryways to a better tomorrow. We chant the scroll of Esther — the story of how our people came frighteningly close to being annihilated at the hands of Haman and his followers, but miraculously survived due to the brave conviction of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai. We remember how, through human courage and connection, our people were able to claim control over their destiny. And so, on Purim we celebrate the survival of the Jewish people with all of our kishkes — drinking, eating and acting silly.

On Yom Kippur, we do the internal work that is necessary to improve ourselves and our communities. Five months later, on Purim, we do the external work. On Purim, we are commanded to eat a festive meal. Each of us is obligated to take part in this celebratory gathering, rich and poor alike. We are also commanded to give matanot la’evyonim, gifts to the poor. During the remainder of the year, we give tzedakah, righteous charity. Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher and legal scholar, teaches that the highest form of tzedakah is teaching a person a trade so she can help herself in the future. The second highest form of tzedakah is mutually anonymous giving.

Matanot la’evyonim — gifts to the poor — are neither proactive trade classes nor anonymous donations. Matanot la’evyonim come in the form of food or money that are meant to be used on Purim day for a feast. And matanot la’evyonim are given directly — into the palm of the hand. On Purim, we are forbidden from passing a poor person on the street without stopping, truly seeing him and sharing food. On Purim, we must see everybody in our midst, even those we may be in the habit of ignoring, and we must unite as a community.

Purim forces us to experience the wonder of a world, for one day, in which there is no 99 percent and no 1 percent, a world in which both the billionaires and the working class eat a celebratory meal. We remember that through our people’s ability to unite in the story of Esther, we were able to change the course of history. And so we imagine a time in the future when everybody will truly see each other without shame, and everybody will enjoy a beautiful meal, like we do on Purim, each and every day.

Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, conceals her Jewish identity when she marries the king. Her name includes the root letters of the word “hidden.” However, in order for Esther to do the transformative work of saving her people, she must reveal her Jewish identity. Our rabbis teach that when we dress up on Purim, we should pick a costume that not only disguises our immediate appearance, but also reveals an inner piece of us that we keep hidden during much of the year. With this intention, we use the act of covering to uncover, the act of disguising to reveal an inner essence.

And so we say that Yom Kippur is a day like Purim, and Purim is a day like Yom Kippur. Some Jews repent hard on Yom Kippur, and some Jews party hard on Purim. In truth, both holidays are essential. Our internal reflection on Yom Kippur and our external celebration on Purim both propel us past life’s moments of chaos and pain, and help us embrace our potential to reveal goodness and light.

Posted on March 9, 2012

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Some Purim Torah

Those of us who fall under the general rubric of “believers” may feel a sense of God’s presence in our lives at most, if not every moment, and others may find God hidden or seemingly absent much of the time.  This experience of God’s absence probably goes back to time eternal and the Bible records how our ancestors confronted it.  Much has been written, and much will be written as people of deep faith continue to face this question.

One of the much discussed themes of Purim is this hiddenness of God in the Book of Esther. I will not attempt to add anything new to this theological concern, except to point out something that emerges from the mitzvot/practices of Purim.

After describing the mitzvot of Purim which include reading the Megillah, giving gifts to the poor, gifts of food one to another and have a festive meal, Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Laws of Megillah 2:17) adds:

“It is preferable to spend more on gifts to the poor than on the Purim meal or on presents to friends. For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. Indeed, he who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Is. 57:15)”

Maimonides reminds us that while all the mitzvot of Purim are binding, gifts to the poor should be of greatest importance. What is striking is his use of the idea that to support the poor is an expression of imitating God. This is a theme expressed in a number of areas by Maimonides (see my previous post Hysteron Proteron for one example).  While Jewish law has its specific applications in all areas, we who follow the law should also be a certain type of religious personality whose goal is to lead a life in imitation of the Divine. Thus when I come to Purim, I must observe all its practices. The serious religious personality who understands that they must be seeking to emulate God, will pursue supporting the poor to a greater extent than the other mitzvot.  

While I have no illusion that Maimonides intended this, supporting the poor on Purim (and any other time as well) is a way of addressing the problem of God’s apparent absence. On Purim I “emulate the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones”.  While God’s absence may and perhaps should bother us theologically, it in no way can hamper us morally and ethically.  I must always act as if I am in God’s presence, seeking to emulate all that God does.

Posted on March 1, 2012

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What is Hanukah?

“What is Hanukah?”  the Talmud asks and typically each year at this time we are reminded by a variety of writers what the “true” meaning of Hanukah is.  From the pages of the Wall Street Journal to numerous websites, scholars, rabbis, educators, and the “man (sic) on the street” offer their take on the nature of Hanukah.  To be clear, many of these pieces are quite engaging and informative and this year I have certainly profited from their insights.

It is in this vein, I want to share an approach of Rabbi Isaac Hutner obm. In one of his teachings R. Hutner suggests that the lasting impact of Greece on Israel was the development of machloket-differences of opinion as to the practice of Torah. The Greeks, through their decrees, caused Torah to be forgotten and it was this forgetting that created differences of opinions as to what the correct practice was and should be. It was the war with the Greeks and their defeat at the time of Hanukah that created the “war over Torah”, the sometimes acrimonious debates in which rabbis and sages engage in order to recover what was lost during the persecutions by the Greeks .  The legacy of Greece is the legacy of the darkness caused by the accurate tradition of Torah being lost. However, this legacy of darkness and forgetting is compensated by the recovery project of the sages, the “war over Torah” which increased the knowledge of Torah itself. Debate led to new understandings and insights. Even the rejected positions had to be justified and explained. The legacy of Hanukah is the increased light of knowledge of Torah overcoming the darkness of the forgotten Torah. It was the forgetting caused by the Greeks that allowed Torah to expand exponentially  in its scope and knowledge.

This rather inadequate summary of my reading of R. Hutner’s teaching I hope will lead the reader to explore it in depth in the original.  To be sure not all agree with R Hutner’s understanding of the origin of machloket- differences of opinion. In the context of his teaching I do want to reflect on “war over Torah”. While the tradition itself hopes and expects that the “enemies” in this battle, who are after all sages, will become “lovers” in the end, there is a danger in intellectual/religious battle that one  go overboard and flex one’s muscles in a way that ventures far beyond a search for truth to a destruction of civility. There are examples of this in the Talmud. We certainly see this problem pervading our own political and religious discourse. Perhaps even in this pursuit of truth we may have to stop sometimes and not use it as a license for slamming those with whom we may have even profound disagreement.

However R. Hutner asserts something that may appear at first as counterintuitive. True love he says only can emerge from those with whom you have disagreement.  Becoming “lovers” is only possible because you had profound differences and were able to engage them in a way that brought you closer in the end. Becoming closer does not mean reaching full agreement, but it does mean having a deep attachment to your ideological opponent.  What might our discourse look like if we retained this as a goal even while maintaining our deep convictions and commitment to pursuing the truth as we conceive it?

Is this true of our most intimate relationships as well? Might it be that learning how to truly argue without achieving full agreement  is what can bring lovers the closest? The answer to that I leave to you, in the meantime Happy Hanukah.

Posted on December 19, 2011

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Fighting Poverty with Faith

It’s four days after Thanksgiving and I am feeling guilty. My family enjoyed a weekend of delicious leftovers from our Thanksgiving feast and there’s plenty more for the rest of this week, plus the stuffing we froze for another day and the pile of leftover homemade cakes and breads that went back to school with my children who are in college. A family of cooks and nutrition fanatics, we spent the weekend talking about the pleasure of the colorful spread of vegetable dishes we prepared.

So why am I feeling guilty about all this joyous abundance? {In my view, guilt is a healthy emotion if it leads one to righteous action.} My unease comes from the realization that many Americans did not enjoy this type of lush eating, even on Thanksgiving – and could not access – the quantity and quality of food that my family is privileged to have.  Today I am thinking about the hundreds of thousands of residents of my state alone, NJ, who struggle to buy food. Many can only afford to eat low cost, processed and nutritionally empty foods. Some are going to bed hungry, including far too many children. All suffer the indignity of being poor.

This is just one state. A recent article posted on WNYC website elaborates: “The number of New Jersey residents receiving food stamps has doubled in the last four years despite the state’s standing as No. 2 wealthiest in the nation. One in every 10 people in the state now receive aid – totaling 400,000 households, according to New Jersey Department of Human Resources.”

We know the reasons: unemployment and underemployment top the list. But these are people’s lives. “The Community Food Bank of New Jersey said it has doubled the amount of free food it provides to needy residents. ‘They’re becoming more desperate,’ said Diane Riley, director of advocacy, who noted people tend to be more embarrassed to go on food stamps than to come to a food pantry.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation reported that the average cost of this year’s Thanksgiving meal for 10 people was $49.20, a $5.73 price increase from the average in 2010.  In my kosher home, the turkey alone cost that much. Add in lots of fresh vegetables and fruits and, well, it’s embarrassing to notice the gaping discrepancy between what we typically spend on a holiday feast and this much smaller sum that is “average.”  I couldn’t help but notice that this is symbolic of the wealth and class divide that has become a scourge in America.  And we are not even wealthy!

The inequality in our country is a travesty. The poverty rate in New Jersey is also rising, according to government reports. 
The Census Bureau recently documented that 13.6 million American households reported receiving food stamps, a 16 percent increase.  “One in three Americans — 100 million people — is either poor or perilously close to it.” (NY Times editorial, 11/23/11) As wealth is concentrated at the top of the income scale, poverty spreads and suffering grows.

So I feel guilty. But I can’t stay there for long—I know that I have a job to do: to take even more responsibility to help correct these huge problems; to help share my bounty with those who are not as lucky. I am no more worthy than anyone else, and my neighbors who are hungry deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion.  The Torah commands us to care for the needy, leaving the corners of our fields that those who are hungry may come and eat.  The Torah commands us: “…Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 11). The responsibility to care for the needy and to help them to rise up out of poverty is a central spiritual value of the Jewish people.

The toxic political environment in this country right now is discouraging. But the idea that those who are hungry may not be given basic assistance to obtain food, and the dignity to find their way out of poverty, is a moral outrage. The challenge to government Food Stamp budgets is absolutely not acceptable. So my responsibility does not stop with providing food – real help for those who are struggling with poverty requires activism.

It is very encouraging that there is an interfaith effort to address these challenges. The organization Fighting Poverty with Faith is building a nationwide, interfaith movement to cut domestic poverty in half by 2020. “Working together to end hunger” is a theme of this year’s mobilization. Many are taking the “Food Stamp Challenge,” living on the budget of food stamps for a week.

It would be so easy to shrug our shoulders, quietly eat our bountiful leftovers, and hope someone else would solve these problems. But our ancestors knew that it takes much more. It takes a goal, a vision, that “there shall be no needy among you,” even as we know that poverty is a constant challenge in every society. With this as our vision, we are empowered to work together — to help each other.

After all, at any moment, any one of us could lose our good fortune. Wouldn’t we want our neighbors to be there for us too?

Posted on November 29, 2011

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