Monday, April 23, 2012

Mezuzah in Connecticut Causes a Stir: Condo Board Backs Down

There is a you tube video making the rounds about an incident in Stratford, Connecticut. A condo resident, Barbara Cadranel, was ordered by her condo association to remove her Mezuzah from her door or face a fine of $50 per day. Other condo residents had crosses and Easter decorations on their doors, but they claimed that the Mezuzah had to be removed because it was actually on the door post rather than the door. Isn't it incredible how petty and nasty some people can be? Is there really any reason for insisting that someone remove a religious object from their door other than anti-Semitic or some other Xenophobic prejudice? At least in this case, the matter was resolved without litigation about one week letter. Various sites, including have reported that Ms Cadranel was able to keep her Mezuzah on her door without any further issues.

In Canada, a more complicated issue went all the way to the Supreme Court a few years ago. Can condominium residents put up Sukkahs on their balconies during the festival of Sukkoth, despite a condominium rule that prohibits balconies from having any kind of structure? Incredibly, there was so much hostility in the condominium complex that the parties fought this issue out at three different court levels. Perhaps even more incredibly, the Sukkah dwellers lost in the Quebec Court and the Quebec Court of Appeal. It took a narrow 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada to find that people have the right to carry out a week long religious practice provided that it does not cause any interference or problems for the other condominium dwellers.

The majority of Canadian Supreme Court judges provided a practical and reasonable explanation of their decision. If the minority religious practice causes minimal disruption and does not create any harmful effect, then the rights of the members of the religious minority should trump any other right such as "private property rights." This will permit them to practice their religion and feel welcome in the country, even as a minority. Of course if the condo members wanted to erect a permanent structure or carry out a disruptive, noisy or unruly practice, the Court might have seen things differently. There are limitations as to what one can do on the basis of minority religious practice.

In a bitter dissent, the minority of the Supreme Court judges argued that a person who moves into a condo unit should be bound by whatever rules that condo happens to have in place. This logic raises more than a few questions. If they have a rule that says "no vehicles or moving objects of any kind in the condo" does that mean that residents confined to wheelchairs must move out? Can the condo board have a "no hat" policy? Or can the condo simply say no Jews, no blacks, no gays or whatever else it wishes to put into its condo rules? Not in Canada. In Canada, unlike most U.S. jurisdictions, human rights legislation is intended to govern some places that might be considered "private." So a golf club, condo board or other quasi public institution must not operate with discriminatory rules or even rules that have a discriminatory effect.

The real issue that both of these types of cases raise is the juxtaposition between minority religious practices and the rights (or prejudices) of the majority. Every liberal democracy that has a significant minority population is wrestling with and will continue to struggle with this issue. In France, one example has been the rule against the wearing of religious symbols in schools. In Israel, Jerusalem has seen a great deal of public debate over the use of gender-segregated buses, operated by ultra-religious groups or that run through ultra-religious communities. Other countries have enacted or tried to enact bans of Kosher slaughter of animals or of ritual circumcision.

There may well be some disputes that are not easily resolved. Some religious practices may well have a significant effect on others. These issues are the difficult ones that will make their way through various court systems. But prohibiting someone from putting up a Mezuzah on their doorpost? That should certainly not be seen as an issue that requires any serious reflection. Fortunately, the condo board in Connecticut agreed without having the matter percolate through the court system.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Kitniyot or Lo Liyot (To Eat or Not to Eat Legumes on Passover)

As another Pesach (Passover) has come and gone, I have continued to reflect on the issue of kitniyot eating during the holiday.

I discussed the issue briefly just before Pesach in one of my blog articles. Observant Jews are prohibited from eating any kind of “chametz” during Pesach. Chametz was traditionally defined, under Jewish law, as any of the five grains – wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye – which came into contact with water for more than 18 minutes. These products were all strictly forbidden and still are among all Jewish communities.

However, from the beginning of the 13th century C.E. in France, according to Rabbi David Golinkin (See Responsa OH 453:1 5749), a custom began, among Ashkenazi Jews of adding a whole range of legumes (“kitniyot”) to the list of prohibited items. The practice spread in certain communities and became widespread among Ashkenazi Jews in many parts of Europe by the 15th and 16th centuries C.E. The list of prohibited foods grew to include peas, lentils, mustard, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and even peanuts. Even today, some rabbis are determined to continue adding food categories to the list. Quinoa is an example of a food that some rabbis have recently banned without a really coherent justification.

Interestingly, Sephardic Jews and Yemenite Jews never adopted this custom of prohibiting kitniyot. They considered the Torah prohibitions against eating chametz sufficient and followed those prohibitions strictly. Some Jews mistakenly believe that this means that Sephardic Jews are more lenient about Pesach. But that is not really the case. They simply never accepted that the prohibition against eating chametz should be extended to a whole range of foods which were never really chametz. Some rabbis, even Ashkenazi rabbis, have called the custom “mistaken” and even “foolish.”

Legally speaking (at least regarding halacha – Jewish law), it is not strictly forbidden to eat kitniyot on Pesach. But it has now become a custom that has been followed for hundreds of years by Ashkenazi Jews. As with many other customs, it is very difficult to draw the appropriate line between maintaining religious practices and customs on the one hand and modernizing these practices where appropriate and permissible. The main argument that is usually presented by non-kitniyot eaters is one of tradition – that this has been the practice in our family and our community for hundreds of years – and who are we to end our family traditions?

Like with many other practices, these are not easy decisions. Many observant Jews are worried that changes to tradition and continuity are slippery slopes. When I spoke about this issue with a close relative, she said “well if you are going to eat rice and beans, I guess you will no longer need to change over your dishes on Pesach.” The implication was that adopting a different practice with respect to kitniyot was part of a leniency that would lead to more liberal practices in other areas.

Since we attend a Conservative synagogue, we have certainly accepted the need to change, modernize or review certain practices. For example, one could argue that it has been a tradition for many years in the Orthodox Jewish community to prevent women from playing any active role in the prayer services. Most Conservative synagogues have now accepted fully or at least partially egalitarian practices that mark a change in traditional practice. Should we not accept this same type of argument with respect to kitniyot? Of course, many observant Jews are opposed to these changes, which they also view as part of a slippery slope. They point, particularly, to U.S. Conservative and Reform synagogues and claim that once you allow for an egalitarian service, you will soon make many other wholesale changes to the traditional service, so much so that it will no longer really resemble a “traditional” service. I have to admit that drawing the line can be very challenging in dealing with these issues.

Living in Israel, there is another reality as well. The majority practice is now clearly one of permitting kitniyot during Pesach. The supermarket shelves are filled with products that are marked, in tiny letters, “for kitniyot eaters only.” Restaurants are open across Israel, mostly “for kitniyot eaters.” It is not just Sephardic Jews but Ashkenazi Jews as well, even those who are Orthodox and very observant. In Israel, not eating kitniyot during Pesach has come to be viewed as an extreme practice, limited to some specific Ashkenazi communities, mostly ultra-religious or immigrant Jewish communities (from the U.S., South Africa etc.,). As a result, it is extremely difficult to find many products during Pesach that are kitniyot free. Products like oil, margarine and even tomato sauce usually say, in small letters, that they are for kitniyot eaters only.

Walking along the streets of Ra’anana during Hol Hamoed, the intermediary days of Pesach¸ it was very interesting to see the range of food places that were open for business and strictly kosher for Passover during the holiday. Some hamburger places were open and were using corn flour to make the buns. Some pizza places were open (one was actually kitniyot free and used potato flour). Two falafel shops were open, using corn flour to make the pita breads. Lavan, the popular yogurt place was open, with a slightly changed list of toppings (no granola this week). And of course, the coffee bar Aroma was open for business, with bourekas and other pastries made from corn flour. All of these places were labelled as strictly kosher for Passover, but for kitniyot eaters only. And they were all being frequented by observant Jews, many of whom were Ashkenazim.

In his 1989 responsa, Rabbi Golinkin addressed some of the reasons for doing away with the custom. One of the reasons that he cited is to eliminate the custom because it “detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods.” This is a point echoed by a friend of mine from Ra’anana, who reminded me that Pesach is a holiday about celebrating freedom from slavery and about redemption. It is not supposed to be a holiday of suffering. So many of the rules that Ashkenazim have followed during Pesach have unnecessarily limited our food choices and made it very difficult to enjoy the culinary aspects of the holiday. Not to mention the effects on regularity of eating matzah every day without eating enough of these other kitniyot products.

As someone who has always followed the kitniyot prohibitions during Pesach, I am not sure that I would feel comfortable sitting down to eat a bowl of rice on Pesach despite all of the arguments set out above. But, as Rabbi Golinkin suggested in his responsa, even for those uncomfortable eating rice and beans, there should still be little reason to avoid peas, green beans, garlic, mustard, sunflower seeds, peanuts, canola oil and the many derivatives of these products.

I guess I still have another year to think about it but I’m inclined to change my practice. If we are in Toronto celebrating Pesach, we may have to reconsider to ensure that non-kitniyot eaters feel comfortable eating at our house over the holiday. But otherwise, I'm likely to say "pass the kosher l’Pesach humus so I can spread some on my corn tortilla."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Yom Hashoah V'Hagvurah 5772 - April 2012

Tonight marks that start of Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah, Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes' Remembrance Day, in Israel and across the world. The annual date for commemoration of the Holocaust coincides closely with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 69 years ago.

As people across the world, Jews and non-Jews alike, try to come to grips with the enormity of evil, the murder of six million Jews and millions of non-Jews, Israel is holding commemorative ceremonies across the country.

According to Yedioth Ahronot, one of Israel's major daily newspapers, there are approximately 198,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel today. Last year, some 11,700 died and the remaining survivors are not getting any younger. Many of these survivors are still able to tell their stories and we hope that we will have the privilege and opportunity to listen and to hear their words.

In many of the ceremonies, detailed accounts about specific Holocaust victims or survivors are recited. One of the recurrent themes of Israel's Holocaust Memorial Center, Yad VaShem, has been the idea of individual dignity. "L'kol Ish Yesh Shem" - Each person has a name. Despite the fact that six million people were murdered, we remember that each person had a name, a life, dreams, hopes and a family. Each person had a story. By recounting these individual stories, of victims and of survivors, we remember the individual humanity of the millions of victims and survivors.

For some, Holocaust commemoration is accompanied by a universalist message; that people everywhere must fight prejudice and hatred and that we must be vigilant in ensuring that the world takes steps to actively prevent and stop genocide from occurring. This is the message that is powerfully imparted at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Washington, D.C.

While many in Israel share this view and reflect on this universalist message, there is another message that is of equal if not greater importance. For Israelis and for many Jews across the world, the Holocaust demonstrated that the Jewish people could not rely on anyone other than themselves for their survival as a people. That message resonates at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial Center, which has a less universalist focus than its newer Washington counterpart. For many Israelis, only a strong and powerful Israel can protect the Jewish people against the many worldwide threats.

At this evening's Yom Hashoah V'Hagvurah commemoration in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu cited the Iranian threat, an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people that focuses on the latter of these lessons. Yet in a world in which a Norwegian Nazi-inspired mass murderer is trying to use a trial to promote a message of hatred, and the Syrian dictatorship continues to massacre Syrians, we cannot help but also consider the other lessons of the Holocaust as well.

Aside from the importance of Israeli strength and Jewish resolve, and of the importance of the universalist fight against evil and intolerance, tonight and tomorrow, above all else, we remember the millions of victims who perished during the Holocaust, their lives and their stories, and the lives and stories of the survivors who were scarred for life.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Kitniyot, Passover Preparations and Other Random Observations

I hope everyone enjoyed my April Fool’s column about the pigs in Beit Shemesh. Hopefully no one was too offended.

This time, I thought I would provide a few different observations about the frantic few days before Pesach (Passover) as Israel prepares for 7 days (this year 8) of Hametz free eating. This might be a bit more thematically disjointed than some of my other blog entries.

During Pesach, all around the world, observant Jews follow the biblical prohibition against eating Hametz, leavened foods made from five species of grains. Many people are extremely meticulous in their Pesach observance. They clean their houses completely to rid them of all traces of Hametz and then change over their dishes, kitchen utensils and other kitchen items to use only items that are “Kosher for Passover.”

As if this weren’t strenuous enough, many Ashkenazi Jews follow an additional prohibition against eating kitniyot, a whole additional category of prohibited products on Pesach, which derives from a rabbinical ruling from around 700 years ago. Sephardi Jews did not follow the ruling and continued to eat kitniyot on Pesach. Ashkenazi Jews followed it and continued to expand their list of prohibited items on Pesach. There is enough controversy about this issue to provide material for a lengthy essay. However, for reasons mainly of tradition, we have continued to follow this Ashkenazi custom, for now, which means no rice, beans, corn, or a range of other products on Pesach.

In Israel, where the combination of observant Sephardi Jews, observant Yemenite Jews and secular, non-observant Jews (of all different backgrounds), all of whom happily eat kitniyot during Pesach, vastly outnumbers the observant Ashkenazi community, it has become logistically more and more difficult to even follow the custom of avoiding kitniyot. For example, it is extremely difficult to find Kosher for Passover, kitniyot free margarine. One place in Ra’anana that I know of, Meatland, sells it – and there may be other places – but it is not sold in any major supermarket chain. All of the margarine is labelled as “for kitniyot eaters only.” It is virtually impossible to find non-kitniyot cooking oil. Again, Meatland sells some – but it is palm oil – which, of course, is dangerously high in saturated fat content, as opposed to the Canola Oil that everyone else is using – which is labelled as “for kitniyot eaters only.” You can get some olive oil – but it is quite pricey and it really changes the taste of some baked goods. I asked someone at Meatland if the margarine was kitniyot free. “All of our products are,” he answered, “we will never sell kitniyot during Pesach, God Willing” he added.

As another example, most of Ra’anana’s Kosher restaurants are open during Pesach but most are certified as “for kitniyot eaters only,” like the pizza places that use corn flour or the yogurt place that apparently has evil kitniyot in its yogurt. I suppose that by now, it probably makes sense to follow the old “when in Rome, do as the Romans do…,” on this issue, which is supported by relatively recent Conservative and Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewish Rabbinical opinions (modern opinions), but so far we have resisted, out of deference to a silly family tradition that we continue to observe. There's even a Facebook page - the "kitniyot liberation front" dedicated to having Ashkenzi Jews eliminate the practice of prohibiting kitniyot during Pesach. But let’s face it; Judaism does have many traditions, derived from Rabbinic rulings, which are often not entirely logical.

Turning to another unrelated issue, I was reminded of the directness of Israeli society when I visited the local butcher. He asked what I wanted. I asked for some boneless chicken thighs. He told me that they were now all out and reminded me that there would now be no fresh meat until after Pesach, because of the holiday. He suggested I get some chicken breasts instead. He told me they were cheaper and lower in fat. He looked at me and told me that I look like a guy who should probably be worried about my cholesterol and so I would be better off eating the chicken breasts instead. I’m not necessarily saying he was wrong – but where else would you hear that from your local butcher, who I didn’t even know?

I also saw the Israeli economic system in action while I was in the supermarket. The woman ahead of me had a bill of about 780 N.I.S. That would be about $210. She negotiated a deal with the cashier (everything is negotiable in Israel) whereby she paid 180 N.I.S. in cash, 100 on a credit card and five post- dated cheques, each for 100 spread over the next 2 months. This was a supermarket bill!... Yet, Israelis pay in “multiple payments” everywhere – at the gas station, the local convenience store (the “makolet”) and other places. It seems like it must make things extremely complicated for both merchants and consumers. People can be paying in June for a supermarket bill from March, while making a new order that they will continue paying until October.

Yet somehow, with the pressure-filled preparations for detail oriented holidays (like Pesach, Sukkoth and others) throughout the year, the Israeli in-your-face directness and even the crazy state of the Israeli economy, Israel still managed to rank 14th in the 2012 World Happiness Report, 4 spots ahead of Great Britain and only 3 behind the United States. Not bad at all for a country facing existential threats from many of its surrounding neighbours, internal religious-secular tensions and chilly relationships with many of the world’s countries. Imagine how happy Israelis would be if we had peace!

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy and Kosher Pesach.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

More Religious-Secular Tensions in Israel: Swine Let Loose in Beit-Shemesh

A new organization has waddled into the religious-secular debate in Israel by stirring up a great deal of mud. HAZIRA (Chilonim Zazim – Yisraelim Rotzim Herut) (Secularists on the Move – Israelis Want Freedom) has taken responsibility for the strange incident in Beit Shemesh early yesterday morning. Somewhere between 9 and 10 a.m., a white cattle truck (M’sait bassar l’vana) stopped right near Beit Knesset Ohalei Ohavei Nashim and dropped off three large hogs. One witness reported that the van quickly sped away after letting the animals loose. It is unclear how the vehicle made its way into the area, which is normally closed off to vehicular traffic on Shabbat.

Congregants who were arriving late to Synagogue noticed the pigs meandering around just outside the synagogue doors. Since it was Shabbat, no one was able to contact the police or remove the swine. The pigs were apparently well groomed but were nevertheless a major affront to this very Orthodox Jewish community. One hog was wearing a sign that read “even pigs have rights.” Another pig was draped in a blue and white blanket.

At about 10:30 a.m., a crowd of 15-20 onlookers arrived, most of whom appeared to be secular Israelis. Some tried to take pictures which created tension since the use of cameras is forbidden for observant Jews. Worshippers were forced to pass by the pigs as they made their way out of the shul after services ended. One shul member was apparently so shocked at the sight of the three pigs that he passed out. Two other congregants, Lazar Wolfe and Moshe Tzayad, reportedly became ill. Wolfe later told Yidiyot Ahronot that the idea of seeing pigs in a blanket just after having eaten at the Kiddush made him sick.

About an hour after Shabbat ended, Rabbi Menachem Hayim Moshe Yisrael Reuven, commonly known in Beith Shemesh as “the Mahmir” provided a statement to the press. Calling this one of Israel’s most insidious and provocative acts in the ongoing dispute between religious and secular Jews, he referred to Torah passages from Vayikrah (Leviticus) calling for the death penalty as the appropriate punishment for this type of the desecration of the Sabbath. He called for immediate arrests and speedy prosecution.

The chair of the newly formed organization, HAZIRA, Izzy Boten, issued a press statement late Saturday evening, responding to the attacks by Rabbi Mahmir. “Pigs are not illegal in Israel and should have the right to dignity and fair treatment. Although this might have offended some, we chose to drop the pigs off near the synagogue as the quintessential expression of the fight against religious coercion. Pigs are rarely seen or heard in Israel, which is symptomatic of the power that the religious hold over the secular in Israel. Our aim is to free Israeli society from this oppression.”

In a strange twist, the incident created an unusual coalition of Arab and Jewish Knesset Members who issued a joint statement calling for greater religious tolerance, mutual respect and a continuation of the “status quo” as it pertains to pigs and pig products. They proposed that the Knesset institute a rule change prohibiting boorish behaviour in the Israeli parliament as an initial response to this incident.

The “Swine Affair,” as it has been named, has divided many Israelis and led to Op Ed pieces in all of Israel’s major daily newspapers. Noting the various protests that have been held earlier in the year in relation to issues such as public transportation on Shabbat and religious –based gender discrimination, some writers have asked that society also consider other areas of religious oppression including rules of Kashruth. Others have argued that the incident went too far. “Despite the differences of opinion between secular and Orthodox Israelis on a range of issues, no mainstream organization advocates making pigs kosher” argued the Op Ed piece printed in Ma’ariv.

One Yisrael Hayom reporter even contacted convicted rapist and former Israeli President Moshe Katzav, who reportedly claimed that “there is no place for pigs in Israeli society.”

The political fallout is likely to continue over the coming weeks.