Passover: Festival of Binaries

We are approaching Passover, hag ha-matzot, “the festival of matzah.” For Jews who are observant, Passover requires a constant struggle to separate leavened from unleavened, inside from outside, permitted from forbidden.

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A lot rides on these distinctions. When the laws of Passover are first given, just before the Exodus from Egypt, God warns that “No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days. For whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel” (Exodus 12:19). That’s a high price to pay for inadvertently eating a piece of bread, or anything else that contains grains that can be leavened. To remain part of “the community of Israel,” we must we clean our houses and everything in them to ensure that they don’t contain anything that has been or might inadvertently become leavened. This requires us to make absolute, binary distinctions between what we can eat and what can’t, what is part of our dwellings and what is not, what is clean and what is not clean.

READ: What Does Kosher-for-Passover Mean?

When our children ask why we are upending furniture and vacuuming the same places over and over in the days before Passover, why we are getting rid of food they eat every day and (if they’re like my children) substituting food they would prefer never to eat at all, the Torah instructs us to make sure they understand that our obsessive-compulsive efforts to impose this rigid, unnatural order on the fluid messiness of family life is directly connected to another binary, the distinction between being Jewish and not being Jewish:

“When your children ask you, `What do you mean by this?’ you shall say “It is … because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God struck the Egyptians, but saved our houses” (Exodus 12:26-27).

That is, we are to remind our children that what we do to keep Passover today is done in memory of the very first Passover celebration – the one that was celebrated in Egypt on the night that the Exodus began – when the distinction between being Jewish and not being Jewish was literally a matter of life and death. Part of that first Passover ritual involved splashing our doorposts with blood, so when the angel of death came to kill the first-born of the Egyptians, it would be clear which houses contained Jewish families and so should be passed over, and which houses did not. Among the houses that were not marked as Jewish, the Torah tells us, “there was no house where there was not someone dead” (Exodus 12:30).

Leavened versus unleavened; inside versus outside; Jew versus non-Jew; life versus death. Passover is a festival of absolute binary distinctions that we ritually link together in order to affirm our identity as the people God brought out of Egypt and to pass that identity on to our children. This is the Torah’s equivalent of “Jewish Identity for Dummies.” Many Jews find it hard to follow the minutiae of priestly procedure detailed in the Torah, or the complex system of Jewish law – halachah – that grew out of centuries of rabbinic discussion and elaboration. But all of us, even those who identify with the children described in the Haggadah who do not understand or do not know how to ask, can grasp binary distinctions like this. Food is either leavened or unleavened; leaven is either inside our houses or it isn’t; people are either Jews or not Jews, either “passed over” or visited by the angel of death.

As the ritual of the seder reminds us, the world is constantly changing in unpredictable and frequently dangerous ways. As we celebrate our improbable transition from hundreds of years of slavery to sudden freedom, we remember how unreliable even the most absolute of human distinctions can be.

We remember that the Torah tells us that Jews first settled in Egypt because Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, was sold into slavery, was imprisoned for years and then suddenly placed in charge of the entire land of Egypt. We remember that Jews were led out of Egypt by Moses, a child doomed to death by Pharaoh’s genocidal decree that all male Hebrew babies be killed at birth who was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, raised as an Egyptian prince, became a fugitive, and worked as a shepherd in Moab for decades until God charged him to return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let us go.

We remember that Pharaoh, whose power was considered absolute in Egypt, refused to listen Moses until the land of Egypt had been struck by ten plagues that demonstrated God’s power by disrupting the order of nature. We remember that in order to become free, we had to pass through a sea whose waters had been split in half and heaped up on either side of us – waters that fell back together when the Egyptian army tried to follow us.

And this is before climate change.

In a crazy world like this, where everything we think we know about ourselves and our lives can change in an instant, the absolute distinctions we impose on our lives at Passover are a comfort, even if they aren’t comfortable. At least we know what’s right and what’s wrong, what is inside and what is outside, and, most importantly – this, the Torah tells us is the whole point of Passover – who is us and who is them.

But the Torah reminds us that the binary distinctions Passover affirms as the basis of Jewish identity can also be weaponized: the Exodus happens only because a Pharaoh who “did not know Joseph” decided that no matter how long Jews lived in Egypt, and no matter how much they had contributed to the culture, there was an absolute distinction between Jews and Egyptians that made Jews untrustworthy, disloyal, dangerous. That distinction became the basis for our enslavement in Egypt, just as it has been the basis for anti-Semitic actions throughout history.

As a transgender Jew – a Jew whose gender doesn’t readily fit into the binary categories of male and female – I have always known that the binary distinctions on which we base identity can hurt as well as help, exclude as well as embrace, lead to oppression as well as liberation. Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t against these distinctions, or against the identities that were built upon them. For most of my life, I longed to have that kind of binary-based identity, longed to have a body that fit my female gender identity, longed to build a life as a woman, instead of always having to hide the fact that in a world where everyone was supposed to be either male or female, man or woman, I was somehow both, and neither.

But even as a child wishing for the kind of identity everyone else seemed to have, I noticed at Passover that the binary distinctions are hard to maintain. Of course, I didn’t think in terms like “binary distinctions” or “identity” then. But even though, as a boy, I was expected to do little except get in the way during my mother’s backbreaking pre-Passover cleaning, Passover’s binaries descended on me like a plague. I hated matzah and everything made with it, particularly the matzah, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I took to school that exploded in a sticky shower of crumbs when I tried to eat them. I hated traditional Jewish foods like gefilte fish too, and didn’t much like the kosher-for-Passover baked goods either. As a result, I was obsessed with knowing exactly when Passover, and my culinary slavery, began and ended.

The Torah tells us the festival begins “at twilight” (Exodus 12:6), a notoriously inexact time that itself defies binary distinctions, being neither day nor night, but somewhere between them. Twilight is a terribly vague starting signal for laws which, if violated, can get us kicked out of the Jewish people. The rabbis, acutely aware of the difficulties caused by pinning the absolute prohibition against leaven to the indeterminate category of “twilight,” added several earlier stages to prevent inadvertent violations: the bedikat hametz, the final search to eliminate remaining traces of leaven from the home, takes place the night before the festival, and the prohibition against eating both leaven and matzah for hours prior to the official commencement of Passover.

These buffer zones ensure that no one will inadvertently eat leaven after the festival begins, but they do so by blurring the binary distinction between Passover and not-Passover, creating close to 24 hours that are is Passover (in the sense that leaven is no longer supposed to be in our dwellings) and not Passover (because the holiday hasn’t actually begun).

As I would later learn, all the binary distinctions enforced at Passover are similarly hard to maintain. The absolute distinction between what is leavened and what is not leavened is complicated by the fact that yeast, which causes leavening, is an airborne organism that cannot actually be kept out of anyone’s houses, no matter how intensively we clean them. If yeast lands on unbaked flour and the air is moist, leavening may begin – so the rabbis added to the Torah’s prohibition against possessing what is leavened an additional prohibition against anything containing grains that could accidentally leaven.

Ashkenazic rabbis worried that even grains that can’t be leavened, no matter how much yeast and water lands on them, look so much like grains that can be leavened that Jews might confuse one for the other, so they prohibited those grains, called kitniyot, as well – and, though practices regarding kitniyot have always varied from one community to another, most also threw in prohibitions against legumes (beans, soybeans, peanuts, and so on). What began as a simple binary distinction between what is leavened and what is not leavened ended up as a maze of regulations that require specialists to enforce them – hence the proliferation in the modern era of “Kosher for Passover” certifications.

READ: Kitniyot — Not Quite Hametz

We find similar difficulties in maintaining the distinction between what is outside our houses and what is inside them, because, as everyone who cleans knows, bits of the outside world – which may include bits of what is leavened – are constantly being brought inside on the bottoms of shoes and so on. Even the distinction between Jew and non-Jew that was so brutally enforced on the first Passover, and has subsequently been brutally enforced on Passover pogroms, is, as the Torah itself acknowledges, much more complicated than that binary suggests. Immediately after recounting the night of the Exodus, the Torah tells us: “This is the law of the Passover offering: no foreigner may eat of it.” (Exodus 12:43). That sounds simple enough, but the Torah continues, “But any slave a man has bought may eat of it once he has been circumcised” (Exodus 12:44) and “If a stranger who dwells with you would offer the passover to the LORD, all his males must be circumcised” (Exodus 12:48). Thus, there is a third category between Jew and non-Jew, the category of circumcised strangers “who dwell with you.”

The Torah’s use of circumcision to distinguish between foreigners who can participate in the Passover offering and those who can’t – another binary – seems like a simple, though intrusive, criterion, but it only applies to men with penises. What about women – female slaves owned by Jews – and foreign men who have lost their penises?

For that matter, what about non-Jews who participated in the Exodus, the members of what the Torah calls “a mixed multitude” of people who weren’t Hebrews but also thought getting out of Egypt was a good idea? The Torah tells us the “mixed multitude” not only left Egypt with us but wandered through the wilderness with us afterward, blurring the boundaries of Jewish identity in ways that troubled later commentators, who blamed the mixed multitude for causing the grumblings and rebellions in the wilderness that soured the triumph of the Exodus. If that is true, these non-Jews had a tremendous impact on the history of the Jewish people, on the relationship between God and Israel, and on the Torah itself – and thus on what it meant, and means, to be a Jew. We wouldn’t be what we think of us as without them – which means that in some ways, they are part of us.

But it wasn’t only the “mixed multitude” that blurred the distinctions between Jews and non-Jews. The Torah tells us that the generation of Jews-by-birth who left Egypt had, after hundreds of years of slavery, too little sense of national identity or purpose to begin the process of occupying the Promised Land of Canaan. This generation of Jews who were not Jewish enough had to die before the occupation could begin.

Even the law of Passover that we began with – the one given just before the Exodus – complicates the binary-based Jewish identity it is intended to define and enforce by telling us that “whoever eats what is leavened … shall be cut off from the community of Israel” (Exodus 12:19). In other words, a Jew who violates the prohibition against eating leaven will be exiled from the Jewish community, and, because Judaism (including the rites of Passover) is based on communal participation, that Jew will no longer be fully Jewish. This creates yet another form of identity which blurs the distinction between Jew and non-Jew. It also makes Jewish identity is extremely fragile. According to this law, during Passover, we are all one bite of leaven away from losing our status as Jews.

From this perspective, our doomed-from-the-start efforts to attempts to rid our dwellings of leaven before Passover seem like ritualized expressions of built-in anxieties about Jewish identity.

No matter how hard we try – and observant Jews try very hard indeed – we can’t completely rid our houses of the leaven that could get us kicked out of the Jewish people, a fact that is acknowledged by our tradition at the end of the bedikat hametz, the pre-festival search for remaining traces of leaven, when we say “may any leaven we have inadvertently left behind be as the dust of the earth.” This prayer further confounds the binaries on which Passover depends by declaring that whatever leaven remains inside our homes is legally considered part of the outside world, i.e., “the dust of the earth.”

In short, Passover is not only a festival that celebrates and enforces binary distinctions – it is also a festival that confronts us with our inability to make messy human reality conform to those distinctions. As maddening and uncomfortable as they can be, for me, the laws of Passover ensure that at least once a year, every observant Jew struggles with a condition of existence that transgender Jews live with and suffer from all the time: the fact that the binary distinctions on which Jews traditionally depend to define ourselves are unworkable simplifications of lives that are too complicated to fit within them. Most Jews do not identify as transgender, but like Joseph, the Egyptian Jew / Jewish Egyptian whose assimilation into Egyptian culture first brought our ancestors to Egypt, in one way or another, all of us are always more than either/or, this or that. This Passover, I hope you will join me in celebrating that.

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