Passover is almost here and with it come the familiar sounds, rituals and tastes of the holiday. Pesach seems to have its own unique culture. Most of us have Passover memories of some type, whether recent or spanning generations. My childhood Pesach memories include the usual- saying the Four Questions as the youngest child, my mother’s cooking and my father’s voice racing through the Haggadah. In recent years, the years of my own family, my memories include pride at observing the stages of growth in the lives of my children, passionate discussions around the table, and the annual explanation of why we use a boiled potato instead of parsley when we dip karpas in the saltwater.
My memories also include a dessert we enjoyed one year, courtesy of Amy’s brother Peter. He brought a cake from a fancy New York Kosher for Passover bakery. This was nothing like the Passover cake or cookies we were used to eating. It was so cake-like, so authentic, so incredibly good that I couldn’t believe it wasn’t made of chametz. I remember asking Peter if he was sure that the bakery had hashgacha (rabbinic certifrication) for Passover- he assured me it did.
Once we were finished enjoying this masterpiece, this culinary Passover puzzle, we launched into a discussion of the ethics of eating such a cake on Passover. After all, isn’t Passover supposed to be the holiday when Jews refrain from eating chametz (leaven)? Don’t we go through the exercise of selling our chametz in order to fulfill the requirement of not even owning any leaven during the holiday? Aren’t we supposed to deny ourselves the pleasure of eating a nice piece of pizza or a doughnut in fulfillment of the holiday’s regulations?
Well, the answer came back, isn’t eating a chametz-defying “Passover cake” the same thing as eating Baco-bits (which bear the symbol of “OU”) or putting non-dairy creamer in your coffee? What’s wrong with getting around the stated law? People do it all the time.
It’s true. There’s nothing technically wrong with putting non-dairy cream in your coffee or fake bacon in your salad. We may have a lot of reasons for doing such things. There are those who can’t bring themselves to eat actual bacon, but want to know what it tastes like. There are those who focus only on the letter of the law and not on its spirit. There are those who want to eat their cake and have it too (even on Passover).
But getting around the rules raises a problematic issue, one that has persisted through Jewish life since Moses brought down the Torah from Mt. Sinai. We have to contend not only with the letter of the law, but its spirit too. Unless doing so out of ideological conviction, observing laws for their own sake often leads to an absence of relevance and meaning, and ultimately an absence of observance. The law must have meaning; we must be able to appreciate its spirit if we are to embrace it with a full heart.
This idea came into focus during last week’s scholar-in-residence Shabbaton with Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS. On Friday night, Rabbi Nevins spoke about his reasoning for maintaining Conservative Judaism’s prohibition on the use of electricity and electronics on Shabbat. He discussed a teshuva (legal brief) he had written in which he explained in eloquent detail what scenarios he could envision for permitting the use of electricity and electronics and in what situations they should not be used. At the end of his presentation, Rabbi Nevins added his own encouragement that people unplug their electronic devices on Shabbat if, for no other reason, we will all feel better for doing so. He provided sound halakhic reasoning (the letter of the law) and also reasoning that explained the spirit of the law and its relevance.
So before you reach for that Passover dinner roll or “pareve” cheesecake, remember that the letter of the law has to be balanced by the spirit of the law. Following laws without understanding their relevance and meaning will often lead to an empty feeling. In that spirit, make sure to squeeze out of all the Passover rituals we are about to observe the rich meaning that lies within them.
Click here to read a great article in the Jewish Week on meaning vs. ritual.