Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Great Quiona Debate, delivered Shabbat ha-Gadol 5773 (3/23/13)

Shabbat ha-Gadol! This is the Great Sabbath that precedes Pesach. The Sabbath’s special name most likely originates from our haftarah reading for this Shabbat wherein Malachi prophesizes about the coming of Elijah and that Yom Adonai hagadol v’hanora, that Great and awe-inspiring day which will herald God’s redemption. The name is also fitting because historically Shabbat ha-Gadol was one of two Sabbaths during the year (the other being Shabbat Shuva) when there was an expectation for the community’s rabbi to share instruction, and that instruction was often quite gadol. There is much to be discussed regarding Passover and its laws, and Shabbat HaGadol provided the opportunity to review the litany of detail particularly related to the dietary prescriptions and restrictions of the holiday.
Recall that there was a time when a rabbi’s primary role was not one of worship leader but rather one of legal decision maker and advisor for the community. Their job was to interpret the law and advise individuals accordingly. Members of the community, chazzanim and darshanim, led worship and offered thoughts on Torah, not necessarily their rabbinic leaders.
The tradition of the Rabbi preparing and delivering a grand sermon on this Shabbat – and one,davka, that would serve as a highlight of the year – comes as a challenge to those of us who serve pulpits while also taking care of sick children and preparing for the holiday seder. The world has changed a great deal from the model set forth by history. As women have entered the Rabbinate and men’s roles in parenting and household responsibilities have changed, today’s Rabbis have an entire breadth of non-rabbinic responsibility that our pre-modern ancestors couldn’t imagine.
Our pre-modern ancestors may also have been hard pressed to imagine the preponderance of discussion regarding the great quinoa debate that has arisen in recent years around Pesach. Thus, following at least part of the Shabbat HaGadoltradition, I would like to discuss the dietary rules of this upcoming festival with regard specifically to this charming rebel-rousing seed, known as quinoa.
Quinoa is just that - a seed, a seed that resembles, cooks, and tastes like a grain but is not at all a grain. According to a website providing historical information on this seemingly new food item, quinoa has been a staple in South American diets for over 6000 years despite, until the last decade or so, our lack of awareness here, up North. I personally first discovered Quinoa during my years as a vegetarian learning about it from a vegan cooking instructor. It is a primary food in non-meat and non-dairy diets due to its being a nutritionally complete protein source. Quinoa is actually a member of the goosefoot family, a category that includes beets, swiss chard, spinach, and amaranth. Despite its grain-like quality, it has no relation to any of the 5-grains forbidden on Passover, namely wheat, spelt, oats, barley, or rye; nor is it related to the extended category of kitniyot(such as rice and beans) that most Ashkenazic Jews continue to avoid during the days of Pesach.
 Initially, as early as 1997, quinoa was deemed kosher for Passover by mainstream Orthodox kashrut standards. It was understood that it had no relation to any grain or kitniyot, and it was tested in order to make sure it had no leavening qualities. It didn’t, thus it was deemed fair game.
The issue did not rest, however. Looking for reasons to prohibit, to further tighten the limits around this festival, some Orthodox authorities are arguing to include quinoa among the foods in the kitniyot category. The basis of that ruling has all to do with the possibility that quinoa could be confused with grain or infected with grain. The Orthodox Union has now officially stated that, "There is a difference of opinion among Rabbinic decisors (machloket ha-poskim) as to whether quinoa is considered kitniyot. Ask your Rabbi for his guidance…”
I am fascinated with this quinoa debate in part because I continue to eat a lot of quinoa despite my no longer being a vegetarian, but more so because of what the debate seems to represent. Pesach celebrates our liberation from bondage, and yet, there continues to be such a strident effort to limit what is okay to ingest during these festive days. There seems to be far more attention paid to what goes into our mouths and stomachs then towards celebrating our spring festival. The level of scrutiny that is being applied to this entirely non-grain food source – a food source that could enrich Passover meals -- represents a legal system that has become thoroughly distorted and detached from the spirit of the festival. It’s okay to eat kosher-for Passover cereals and noodles that look, act, and strive to taste like chametz, but it isn’t okay to eat quinoa which has no relation whatsoever to chametz? 
Though this debate is taking place largely outside of our Progressive circles, it should challenge us to consider what it means to be an observant Jew, regardless of denomination. We are deep into the book of Leviticus, a book consumed with ritual detail and rules. The purpose of these numerous rules, as I expressed last Shabbat, were in essence to define the community and draw the Israelites together and towards God. They provided a structure for this newly liberated people so that they could function well as a society. As we begin to experience and celebrate Pesach, our Z'man Cheiruteinu, our season of liberation, let us be mindful and conscious of the choices we make. Let us ensure that the limitations we place on ourselves are not for the sake of stridency but rather for the sake of recalling our history, celebrating our redemption, and reminding ourselves of the mandate to continue working towards that task.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Vayikra & the Lessons of Downton Abbey

            There is a great deal of rabbinic comment on the opening verse of our Parashah – the opening verse of the whole of Leviticus:   ויקרא אל משה וידבר יי אליו
The syntax is awkward:  The subject is assumed in the opening verb and two verbs are used where one would seem to suffice:  “He called to Moses, then Adonai said to him.”    Why not simply:  “God spoke to Moses” like we see throughout Torah?  Of course, JPS’s translation is not incorrect.  The Hebrew can certainly be understood as “Adonai called Moses and spoke to him,” but the manner in which the Hebrew is presented emphasizes the calling.  The action of God calling is front and center:  Vayikra el Moshe, “He called to Moses” only after that, vayidaber ‘then did he speak to him’ at the tent entrance.
            The Rabbis understand this call as a prophetic one.   A Midrashic discourse found in Leviticus Rabbah, for instance, concludes that this call puts Moses in the category of malachim, Divine messengers.   Our Medieval Frenchman Rashi comments that only Moses could hear the details being outlined by God.  The words, he imagines, could not be heard beyond that entrance to the tent of meeting.  They were for God’s chosen, for Moses, alone.    Rashi’s, at least in this instance, dutiful grandson the Rashbam confirms Rashi’s understanding saying that one should not budge from his understanding of this section.   What is unclear, however, is why the need for such a call to begin with?  Why the need to raise these instructions, the detailed rules for the offerings to be brought to God, to the level of prophecy?   Sinai wasn’t all that long ago.  Wouldn’t Moses’ authority among the people already be assured without this prophetic call?
            While counterintuitive, the call may serve to remind us that what follows isn’t at all about Moses.  It is all about the message that follows, namely the instruction for the worship ritual to take place inside this newly built portable Tabernacle.   The instructions, guidelines, and expectations.   Leviticus provides the detailed and necessary rules and laws regarding this community center.  These laws cover staffing, building maintenance, worship implements, communal impact (what we might label today broadly as public health), as well as the specifics of worship, the sacrificial procedures.  According to the text, there is a proper manner necessary for the successful functioning of the Tabernacle and by extension the community that supports and is supported by it.    
            Rules, guidelines, expectations.
            We modern, progressive Reform Jews are not so fond of rules.  Individual autonomy reigns, and prescribed ritual is deemed a useless remnant of the past.   The Levitical author would disagree, and I wonder if we shouldn’t pay better attention to the message sent by his elevating what appear to be tedious rules – limitations and structure to our behavior -- to the level of prophecy despite our discomfort with the bloody mess of the details.
            I’ve been watching the first season of Downton Abbey, a PBS Masterpiece theatre offering that has gone mainstream.   The first season takes place during the time that passes between the downing of the Titanic and the start of World War I.  It offers a lovely window into a world consumed with rules and manners that work to ensure the smooth functioning of a particular society.   The idealist in me is impressed.  Perhaps this is the intention behind the conservative concept of supporting “job creators.”  Employer and servant staff serve each other as part of a greater system, and those who hold the economic and social power understand the responsibility incumbent upon them to care for those who serve them – providing adequate salary, housing, health care, job security, and perhaps as important as all of these, compassionate respect and consideration.  As a dear friend reminds me, however, and perhaps what seasons two and three will point out, is that we can’t rely on Nobless Oblige to ensure such proper behavior of those who hold all of the resources.  Downton Abbey, so far, has shown just that: the ideal.  Not the reality.  Unfortunately, for every Lordship who had his cook’s eyes fixed, there were several who turned out their cooks out because their eyes failed them.  Labor laws and unionization, guidelines and limitations on what is permitted, are necessary because history and experience have taught us that decency and ethical morality are not motivation enough for too many. 
            Centralized law is required for the proper and peaceful functioning of our society even when it may seem at first glance to curtail our immediate rights and entitlements.   As the hymn that we will sing in just over a week on Pesach reminds us: law and freedom are partners, the former – with all of its limiting detail - ensuring the latter.
            This weekend is being marked by faith groups throughout the nation as “Faiths Against Gun Violence.“ The goal of drawing attention to the issue of gun violence in our country is not in order to take away rights from responsible citizens.  It is about that wake up call I discussed on Rosh Hashanah: it is all about acknowledging that our country needs more in the way of instruction, guideline, and expectation in terms of gun ownership and use.  It is about acknowledging a serious problem in this country and working to ensure a safe, secure, and non-violent environment for the broader community.    As the Union of Reform Judaism stated back in 2008:
Our task as Reform Jews is to challenge America’s conscience and to heed the biblical injunction that we must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. We must embark on a moral offensive and send the message to our elected officials that we care deeply about this issue and will hold them accountable.
            Rules, guidelines, instruction.   They are necessary.   Vayikra Yisrael!  Vayikra Amerikanim! Let us not be afraid of being called to work towards ensuring a society that functions well and ensures the safety and freedom for us and future generations.