Today's New York Times Dining & Wine Section has an article by Joan Nathan on new leniencies introduced by rabbis who are trying to "simplify" Passover observance for their constituents.
At least, that's the way it's presented.
In reality, none of these so-called leniencies are actually new. Jews who think that baking soda isn't kosher for Passover because it is "leavening" are simply mistaken. Only the "five grains" -- oats, wheat, barley, rye, and spelt -- can meet the halakhic definition of "leaven," or chametz. Baking powder typically contains corn starch, which is problematic for those who adhere to Ashkenazi custom, but the corn starch can be replaced with potato starch to make kosher for Passover baking powder. There is nothing wrong with the leavening per se.
Another supposedly new leniency is allowing legumes as well as grains such as rice and corn. According to the article, "Jews in medieval Europe began to keep beans and lentils, as well as grains, from the Passover table because until modern times they were often ground into flour." This is not precisely true. Legumes were considered problematic because they were grown alongside wheat and rye so that the grains could benefit from their nitrogen-fixing properties. Corn and rice were later restricted because they could be ground into flour. Sephardic Jews never observed these restrictions. Instead, they carefully separated the legumes from their grain before Passover.
Today, legumes are no longer grown alongside grains, so the issue should be moot. (See my rant here.) The only reason to refrain from eating legumes, or kitniyot, is the force of communal custom. In Israel Sephardim comprise a larger proportion of the Jewish population than in the U.S. and tend to dictate religious practice for less observant Jews, so consumption of kitniyot is typical. When the Masorti movement ruled that kitniyot could be eaten by Ashkenazim in Israel, they were merely codifying existing practice.
The Passover recipes accompanying the article include a Morrocan dish of Shad With Fava Beans, presumably to celebrate this "freer interpretation of the Passover pantry." Of course, since most New York Jews adhere to the stricter Ashkenazi practice, they won't be able to enjoy this dish during the upcoming holiday. For New York's Sephardim, on the other hand, eating fava beans on Passover is no novelty.
The other recipes are for cakes and cookies, two of which prominently feature "kosher for Passover" leavening. The Double Chocolate Mocha Drop Cookies and Sesame Vanilla Passover Cookies call for kosher for Passover baking powder and confectioner's sugar, respectively. Ironically, the only reason that either of these products require a special "kosher for Passover" version is that the standard formulas include corn starch, which can be eaten by anyone who will eat the fava bean dish. The Sesame-Vanilla cookie recipe is cautious enough to specifically call for "kosher for Passover baking soda." (Baking soda arguably does not require a hekhsher for Passover; at any rate, the most widely available brand, Arm & Hammer, has an OU-P.) Meanwhile, both recipes call for vanilla extract without any reference to the fact that it is typically made with grain alcohol -- that is, real chametz. Real vanilla extract is available with a Passover hekhsher, but it isn't easy to find.
Perhaps I'm being too picky. But it seems to me that American Jews have a tendency to make a big fuss over relatively unimporant matters while ignoring issues that are much more central to halakhah. This problem is exacerbated on Passover when many Jews assume a level of stringency to which they are not normally accustomed. Now, the New York Times and Joan Nathan are adding more confusion to the mix. Joan Nathan, at least, should really know better.
(Cross-Posted to Kosherblog)