Fight for Your Quinoa! by. R. Yosef Kanefsky

February 28, 2013

This one is in our hands.

Quinoa has been a breath of fresh culinary air in the non-kitniyot Pesach kitchen, and has restored dietary sanity to us Ashkenazim. But the kitniyot zealots are lurking. The OU, for example, is equivocating on quinoa’s non-kitniyot status . The battle for quinoa is underway, but if we all work together, we can win this one.

Remember when peanuts were not considered kitniyot? Probably you don’t. But when Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l was asked about peanuts in 1956, most Ashkenazim were eating them on Pesach. And not only that, but Rav Moshe argued clearly and unequivocally that peanuts should remain permissible, and that they should NOT be lumped in with beans and legumes. (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 3, 63) The only reason we don’t pack up peanut butter and jelly on matzo for our Chol HaMoed outings today, is that our forbearers buckled before the kitniyot zealots of their day. And those of us who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

The kitniyot zealots of Rav Moshe’s day used arguments quite similar to those being raised by the forces conspiring to deprive us of quinoa today. The rabbi who posed the peanuts question was “astonished” that Ashkenazim were eating peanuts, for “he had heard that there is a place somewhere in which people are making flour ” out of peanuts, and further, “he had heard that peanuts are planted in fields in the same manner as other kitniyot are (i.e. they too share uncomfortable proximity to grains) ”.

But Rav Moshe, while acknowledging that these are the concerns that motivated the custom of not eating kitniyot, nonetheless dismissed the idea that the peanuts ought to now be added to the prohibition. To begin with, he points out, not everything out of which flour can be made is kitniyot, with potatoes being exhibit “A”. Additionally, not everything that may come into contact with grain is considered kitniyot, as pointed out by Taz and Magen Avraham, the classic commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch. In short, Rav Moshe concludes, the category of kitniyot includes only those items which “were explicitly prohibited, and those which are widely known [to be included]”. Further, he states, “the Sages of recent generations did not want to add new items”  to the kitniyot basket, even as they would not permit that which already was customarily not eaten. . Rav Moshe continued, “and accordingly, in many places the rabbis did not want to prohibit peanuts. And in places where there is no custom prohibiting them, one should not prohibit them, for in matter such as these one should not be machmir (stringent).” Rav Moshe spoke. But we just didn’t want our peanuts badly enough.

The quinoa game is ours to lose my friends. To win, all we need to do is to keep eating it (and to check the raw quinoa for any foreign matter before cooking it, the same way Sefardim check rice). If it becomes our minhag (custom) that we eat quinoa, then the halachik argument is settled. So let’s fight for our quinoa! And then turn our attention to cooking up the most meaningful, inspiring Pesach that we can.

Ruth Calderon – Mother of Redemption? by R. Yosef Kanefsky

February 27, 2013

 Dr. Ruth Calderon’s Knesset speech has created more buzz around the Jewish world than any speech like it in the history of the State of Israel. Probably because nothing remotely like it has ever happened before. The unexpected, unprecedented, yet incredibly moving sight of a non-Dati woman passionately teaching Gemara in the Knesset has captured the attention of Jews everywhere. Most of the reaction has been extremely enthusiastic. I think it might turn out to be one of the most pivotal moments in the last 300 years of Jewish history.

 As a religious people, we still haven’t figured out how to engage modernity. Since the mid-18th century we have been trying to figure out how Judaism should respond to the opportunities and challenges presented by the Enlightenment and Jewish political equality. To this end, we have created political Zionism and Haskallah, Reform and Reform’s counterpoint Orthodoxy, Historical Judaism, Conservative Judaism and host of other movements and frameworks, each one  intended to help us live Jewishly either in concert with, or despite, modernity. None of these approaches has proved completely successful, which is why there are so many Jews who are not connected to their roots, but each has made contributions, some of enormous historical import.

 For the most part, the State of Israel has known only two of the models, Orthodoxy and secular Zionism. Both have contributed enormously to the strength and vitality of Israeli society and the rebirth of our people in its land. At the same time though, each is irremediably limited in its ability to forge a Jewish-Israeli identity that can carry the country forward. Even as we are eternally indebted to secular-Zionist ideology for creating and building the State of Israel, its weakening grip on successive generations of Israelis is well-documented and a cause of great concern. And while Orthodoxy can rightly claim credit for numerous important achievements, such as Israel’s living by the Jewish calendar in a meaningful way, and largely preserving Jewish tradition around life-cycle events, it has not – and by its internal rules frankly cannot – accommodate the thinking, the needs and the choices of most Israelis. As an Orthodox rabbi here in the States, I know only too well that the Orthodox community lacks the halachik tools and the theological leeway to satisfactorily address many people’s principled, ethical concerns around issues of universalism, intellectual honesty, and the religious inclusion of women and of gays. I obviously believe that Orthodoxy nonetheless has enormous contributions to make (through, for example, its joyful acceptance of the Divine will, and its willingness to be counter-cultural in its approach to standards of physical modesty), but like secular Zionism, it will not lead the Jewish people to redemption, at least not in the foreseeable future.

 With the emergence of people like Ruth Calderon however, and with the emergence of self-described “secular” institutions of classical Jewish learning such as Alma, and Elul, and Bina, we are seeing a development that just might step into the breach. A new way of thinking and learning and behaving as a Jew in the modern world  which can actually serve as a vital partner and ally of traditional Orthodoxy, living in dynamic intellectual and spiritual interchange with it, and with it weaving a net of Jewish life that will capture so many who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

 It takes great courage of course to enter this kind of partnership and alliance, but the first signs of a willingness to do so where on display as Ruth Calderon offered her “shiur” in the Knesset.

Guest Post – Reflections on Rabbi David Hartman z”l – Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

February 12, 2013


The first time I heard Rabbi David Hartman speak was in the summer following my “shannah aleph” year in Israel between high school and college. After spending a year in the yeshiva one of my teachers invited me to accompany him to a panel discussion taking place one evening at the Machon – the Shalom Hartman Institute – in Jerusalem’s German Colony. I barely remember what was said that evening by any of the panelists – including Rabbi Hartman. But I do remember the thrill of encountering a vibrant Jewish intellectual conversation that was taking place outside the walls of my Orthodox beit-midrash.  Hearing about his death this week, at the age of 81 (an age that does not seem old when considering a scholar with so many insights left unsaid), has caused me to reflect on his legacy within my own life and work.There are two ideas that have become central to my own worldview and teaching that I learned from Rabbi Hartman.  Additionally, his place within (and outside of) contemporary Orthodoxy has an additional message for the future.


The quest by Jews, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, to translate the message of Judaism into something with universal significance was, to Rabbi Hartman, a mistake. The Torah is not a universal book with universal significance to all people. Rather, the Torah should be understood as a particular book about the relationship between the Jewish people and God. One therefore cannot turn to the Torah for guidance about other nations, other religions, and their place in God’s universe. That just is not what the Torah is about. Read the rest of this entry »

A Personal Thank You to Rabbi David Hartman and Dr. Menachem Elon: Giants of the Jewish World -By Rabbi Avi Weiss

February 11, 2013

I am deeply, deeply saddened to hear of the death of my friend, Rabbi Dr. David Hartman. This comes on the heels of the loss of the great Jewish legal scholar, Dr. Menachem Elon. While Dr. Elon and Rabbi Hartman made different contributions to Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael, for me, as part of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) and Yeshivat Maharat families, they had a common point – their unconditional support for our vision, our programs and our institutions.

Modern Orthodox rabbinic training had for years been in the sole domain of one institution. When Chovevei started, indeed, several years before it started, there was a harsh reactionary pushback. YCT was not always YCT. It actually began as the Meorot Fellowship, a once a week study group on issues confronting Modern Orthodoxy. Once the Jewish world heard about Meorot, it didn’t take long for it to be declared off limits by some rabbis. There were several rabbis and even some students who told me they agreed with the philosophy and would like to be involved, but could not because of this ruling.


And then I was in touch with Dr. Menachem Elon. I came to know Dr. Elon after he dealt with the Women at the Wall issue as an Israeli Supreme Court Justice. He was, after all, a master of mishpat ivri, and hence most suitable to write that decision. In the course of that ruling he contrasted the arguments for women’s prayer groups with the psak of several Roshei Yeshiva who prohibited such services. In the end, Dr. Elon’s decision was extremely favorable to women’s prayer groups. He was a man who was not afraid to speak truth to power.


I, therefore, in those early years, turned to Dr. Elon for advice. His reaction was quick and clear, “if I could be of any help, please let me know.” And he was as he began his annual teaching for the Meorot Fellowship program. He was one of the highlights of the year, giving us the credibility we sorely needed.


In time, I came to know some of Dr. Elon’s children. What struck me is how they had taken different paths in life, and yet, remained close. That does not happen in a vacuum. It comes, I believe, from parental influence. Dr. Elon embodied a tone reflective of the basic philosophy at Chovevei, that Am Yisrael, despite its differences, must learn to love each other like family. And the test of family is not how we love when agreeing, but when disagreeing.


And now, to Duvie. I first met Duvie when trying out as his replacement in his Montreal synagogue in 1971. I had already known that he was a unique man, but when I was walking in I saw a towering figure in sweatpants on a pre-Shabbat jog. It was Rabbi Hartman with his engaging smile and glowing eyes wishing me well. I felt then that our kesher (connection) would be long and strong.


Over the years, I spoke to Duvie about the larger issues facing Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, Religious Zionism, Orthodoxy, Modern Orthodoxy, Open Orthodoxy, and of course, Chovevei and Yeshivat Maharat. The constant in our conversation was Duvie’s passionate spirit as a source of encouragement. “Don’t let them get you down” he’d say, “just look forward. The Chovevei guys are the best – they shine at our Institute.” He inscribed one of his books to me with sentiments I will always cherish – in honor of the students of Chovevei and Yeshivat Maharat who are changing the future of Modern Orthodoxy.


When Duvie first became a rabbi in Montreal and especially after he began the Hartman Institute, he was, in many ways, alone. He brought challenges to the fore that were not previously discussed openly in Orthodox circles. He knew that a Torah Institute whose foundations were faith, integrity and open inquiry would be attractive not only to Jews of other denominations and the unaffiliated, but to the Modern Orthodox world as well. As it evolved he was the subject of intense criticism. But he always stood strong. That was Duvie – he was not afraid to stand up for what was right – and he did that for us the YCT and Yeshivat Maharat community.


When the Rabba and Maharat controversy broke out, Duvie was there as well. Sometimes the criticism during that time was more personal than ideological. Duvie was not only an ideological brother, but a friend who, in this extremely difficult time, was there.


There were times when as President of Chovevei, I thought, why not let it go. The criticism was too piercing, it kept me up at night. The toll on my children and wife was too heavy. But we did not give up because of the incredible support along the way from people like Dr. Elon and Rav Duvie who stood with us.


I know that Dr. Elon and Rabbi Dr. David Hartman’s accomplishments go well beyond Chovevei and Maharat. But I pray that they know that they have touched our lives as well. To them, the Chovevei and Maharat communities – and the tens, even hundreds of thousands of people whom the lights of these communities have inspired and will inspire – are forever grateful.

Avi Weiss is the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. He is the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat.