Monday, April 28, 2008

Reconsidering how I keep kosher for Pesach

Another Pesach has come and gone. My back aches from hauling the Pesadik dishes back down to the basement. But having though some more about the laws of refraining from eating hametz, and the ways Jews apply legal fictions, I think I might want to reconsider how I observe.

Consider this. After we have searched out our hametz, we say the following legal formula:

All chametz, leaven and leavened bread, that is in my possession which I have not seen, removed or is unknown to me, should be annulled and considered ownerless like the dust of the earth.

We say something similar after we take the hametz to the fire station and burn it.

All chametz, leaven and leavened bread, that is in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have removed it or not, should be annulled and considered ownerless like the dust of the earth.

Now it's true that a real balabusta will actually clean the house very thoroughly so that this declaration is pretty close to being literally true. Except, of course, for all the hametz that sealed up and "sold" to a Gentile. But I once had a learned friend who told us not to drive ourselves crazy with the ritual. After all there's a line that divides meticulousness with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He said, "I try to check for bread, but in the end, there are some pretty big pieces of "dust of the earth" hiding around in my house."

The fact is, attempts to remove hametz need to be considered symbolically, not literally. Unfortunately, our attempt to be literal (or semi-literal) about it causes grief and results in unnecessary household drudgery that goes against the command for us to "rejoice in your festival."

However, there's the Conservative Apikoris Way Out: Use the traditional formula of nullification as our justification for eliminating most of the burdensome rules. Some will say that this is rejecting the very concept of Pesach. I say phooey! Yes, maybe my faith in the theology of Orthodox Judaism (or Orthodox-Lite Conservative Judaism) is weak, but despite that, I find much about Pesach that is meaningful, plus I've been doing it as long as I can remember, and so it's a major part of my identity. The last thing I would want to do is reject the concept of Pesach. I wouldn't recommend these changes if I didn't think they could be justified by passing the "laugh test" of Jewish tradition. And if we can accept the concept of the "sale" of hametz, then we can accept my proposal, which, by the way, will make the "sale" of hametz unnecessary.

We are only commanded by God (or we pretend for our own reasons to be commanded by a possibly non-existent "God") to avoid eating hametz for the duration of the festival. We are given an opportunity right before the festival to search out the hametz and nullify any that remains. The nullified matter is thus no longer hametz, but is rather "dust of the earth." This has several useful and helpful consequences.

First of all, it means that anything in our cabinets, from leftover pasta, to single-malt scotch, is no longer hametz, and thus there is no prohibition on having it in our possession over the holiday. The phony "sale" is thus no longer needed, and our rabbis will thus have a little more time available to write better quality sermons for the first day of the festival.

Second, it means that all of the hametz essence that is on our year-round plates, pots, and other eating and cooking implements is no longer hametz. That means you don't need special Passover dishes, and you can dispense with the noxious labor, reminiscent of the burdens placed on us by Pharaoh, needed to turn our kitchens inside out. In fact, removing this burden of labor might reduce the perceived need for Pesach Hotels and thus remove what some commentators believe is the biggest threat to Judaism today.

In fact, I believe that it would theoretically be possible to even eat the nullified hametz that is no longer hametz, but I would not go so far as to recommend it, as we would want to at least have a Pesadik menu during the festival in commemoration of what we forced ourselves to do during our history. At the very least, one should refrain from any obvious hametzidik menu items for the Seder. Anyway, it's all symbolism, we only need to observe enough to get the point. And certainly, if one cannot control one's yetzer and has to sneak a drink of the single-malt scotch, at least you're not stealing from the gentile to whom it was "sold," and, in fact, you're not even consuming hametz. Thus, my proposal prevents two serious sins, and fulfills the Biblical command to "not place a stumbling block before the blind."

I see these proposals as being very much withing the Jewish tradition, but I don't believe that any Conservative Rabbi would have the guts to write a responsum advocating it. But I stil lpresent ti to all of Catholic Israel (not to mention Protestant Israel as well) as something to consider doing next year.