Thursday, March 29, 2007

Passover Reading

One of the reasons I've been posting so frequently is that, for the first time since we got married, DH and I are going away for the whole week of Passover, meaning that we don't have to clean our apartment. It's been so long since I've actually had time to think about the Seder before sitting down to it that it's making me a little bit giddy.

Here's some stuff that I'm printing out to read over Shabbat:

David Kraemer on leavened and unleavened bread
Hitzei Yehonatan on Passover
Adderabbi on the Haggadah (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Here are some radical Haggadot:
The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah
The Love & Justice in Times of War Haggadah

And here are some traditional Haggadot (mostly Hebrew).

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher veSameach!

Michael Pollen on the Seder

I know, this is my third post today. I'm not usually like this, and I won't keep being like this, because I have other things to do. But having just posted on Michael Pollen yesterday, I couldn't pass up the change to read and link to this interview in the Jew and the Carrot, a blog sustainable food and the Jewish community. Toward the end, the interviewer, Leah Koenig, asks Pollen to talk a bit about Passover, which he apparently mentions at the end of The Omnivore's Dilemma. Here's what he says:
I think ceremonies around food are very important and I’ve always loved Passover and Thanksgiving because they revolve around ceremonial meals where we rehearse our key relationships, both to one another and to nature. The seder is the older and more profound one – but Thanksgiving is important to our identities as Americans.

I think there’s not enough ceremony in our eating, so any time we are forced to slow down and rehearse the relationships, and symbolism and the meaning of the food we eat, and the connections that they enact, is enormously useful. We do so much thoughtless eating and the seder is an opportunity for very conscious eating. Everything on your plate has a very specific meaning – it ties to history and ties to nature.

Granted, there's a lot more to the seder than ceremonializing food, but I think that's an important part of it. Something to think about Monday night.

Everything You Never Wanted to Know About the RA Haggadah

In response to my previous post, a commenter asked a question about the slightly different selection of midrashim in the Rabbinical Assembly Haggadah:
Can you please elaborate on why the originals were replaced and how the replacements are better?

I started to post a response, but then I realized that it was getting much, much too long for a comment, so I am going to post it here.

[Warning: serious liturgical minutia ahead.]

First off, I should clarify that I had nothing to do with the composition of the RA Haggdah, nor do I know anyone involved with the project, so I can only guess at the reasons for the changes. Second, I wouldn't go so far as to say that the RA's version is "better" than the traditional version; it's a matter of the purpose of this particular Haggadah. I presume that where choices were made, the goal was to produce a text that is accessible, thought-provoking, and relevant to contemporary Conservative Jews.

Now for the details. As far as I can tell, they begin with the midrashic exegesis of Deuteronomy 26:5-8. The RA Haggadah begins by quoting the entire passage, which I think makes the text a bit easier to follow. It skips the initial interpretation of ארמי אבד אבי, which states that Laban the Aramean was worse than Pharaoh, because he attempted to destroy all of Israel (via Jacob) rather than Pharaoh alone. I would imagine that this was omitted because it requires a strong familiarity with Genesis to appreciate, and because it's difficult to figure out what relevant message to take from it. However, my theory is undermined by the fact that this interpretation does appear in the commentary; it is simply absent from the Hebrew text and translation. Maybe the editors set a word limit for this part of the Haggadah?

The second change is a simple expansion. The traditional Haggadah comments on וירד מצרימה, "he [Jacob] went down to Egypt," with אנוס על פי הדיבור, "he was compelled by the [divine] word." The RA Haggadah adds a quotation from Genesis 15:13 to explain that Jacob's descent to Egypt was a fulfillment of God's statement to Abraham.

To my great sadness, the RA Haggdah skips the comment on ורב, which comes from Ezekiel 16:7,6. The passage is not at all family friendly, and its relevance to the verse in Deuteronomy is rather obscure, so I think I understand why it was omitted, but I miss it. (I'm planning to compensate this year by giving a shiur on it on Shabbat Chol Ha-Mo`ed.)

The next change is somewhat interesting. On וירעו אתנו המצרים, "the Egyptians dealt harsly with us," the traditional Haggadah comments, "as it is said, 'Come, let us deal cunningly with them, lest they multiply, and if it should come to pass that a war should occur, they too will join our enemies, and fight against us, and go up out of the land'" (Exodus 1:10). On the surface, it isn't clear how the verse from Exodus serves as an interpretation of the verse from Deuteronomy. The RA Haggadah explains: "They made us appear to be bad (וירעו אתנו), for it is written that Pharaoh said to his people, 'Behold, the Israelites are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal cunningly with them...'" It also adds another intepretation (דבר אחר): "They were ungrateful, for they paid back in evil the kindness that Joseph had done for them, as it is written, 'A new king arose over Mitzrayim* who did not know Joseph' (Exodus 1:8). He acted as if he did not know Joseph." In this case, I think that the RA version is not only easier to understand, but also provides more to chew on. This latter midrash is the first of a series of RA additions that present the Egyptians and Israelites as archetypes of evil and good, respectively. This presentation is somewhat problematic from a contemporary perspective, but it comes straight from the midrashic tradition, and I guess the editors saw it as an opportunity to include some moral lessons.

On ויתנו עלינו עבודה קשה, "and they imposed hard labor on us," the traditional Haggadah simply quotes Exodus 1:13: "And Egypt made the children of Israel serve with rigor." The RA Haggadah offers a midrashic interpretation: "They would impose a difficult task upon the weak and an easy task on the strong, a light burden upon the young and a heavy burden upon the old. This was work without end and futile, for the Egyptians wanted not only to enslave them but also to break their spirit."

On ונצעק אל ה אלהי אבתינו, "and we cried out to the Lord, God of our ancestors," the RA Haggadah adds a comment on "God of our ancestors:" "Because of the merit of the ancestors, we were redeemed from Mitzrayim. As it is written, 'God heard their moaning, and recalled his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob."

On וירא,"and [God] saw," the RA Haggadah adds, "what did He see? He saw that the Israelites had compassion for each other. When one of them finished his quota of bricks, he would help others."

On את ענינו, "our affliction," the traditional Haggadah explains, "this refers to the separation of husbands and wives" [my paraphrase]. The RA Haggadah adds a midrash about how the Israelite women ensured that procreation continued by bringing their husbands warm food and drink while they were in the fields and by offering them comfort and encouragement. It seems clear to me that this is mainly an attempt to include women in the Haggadah, but it's kind of nice and it works.

On ואת עמלינו, "and our burden," the traditional Haggadah comments, "this refers to the sons, as it is said, 'every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save.' The RA Haggadah adds the midrash that the Israelites continued to circumcise their sons even though they knew that they would die shortly after birth.

On ואת לחצינו, "and our oppression," the traditional Haggadah reads, "this refers to the force used, as it is said, 'and I have also seen the oppression with which Egypt oppresses them'" (Exodus 3:9). The RA Haggadah reads, "this refers to the straw. For Pharaoh decreed, 'you shall no longer provide the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather straw for themselves (Exodus 5:7). Whenever the Egyptians counted the bricks and found the quota unfilled, the Israelite overseers refused to deliver their fellow Israelites to teh Egyptians. Instead, they submitted themselves, and willingly suffered punishment in order to lighten the ordeal of the Israelites."

On ביד חזקה, "with a mighty hand," the traditional Haggadah comments, "this refers to the cattle plague(דבר), as it is said, 'Behold the hand of Adonai will be on the field..." On ובזרוע נטויה, "and with an outstretched arm," it reads, "this refers to the sword, as it is said, 'and a drawn sword was in his hand, stretched out over Jerusalem'" (1 Chronicles 21:16). The RA replaces these comments with something more accessible: "When the Egyptians made the life of our ancestors bitter, the Holy One said, 'I will redeem them,' as it is written, 'I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary judgments. I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, Adonai, am your God'" (Exodus 6:6-7).

On ובאתות, "and with signs," the RA Haggadah includes the interpretation in the traditional Haggadah, which refers to Moses' staff, and adds another: "This refers to God's commandments. For they are an eternal sign that God saves and redeems, and a remembrance for all generations of the covenant between the Holy One and His people. Thus it is written, 'And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand, and as a symbol on your forehead -- in order that the teachings of Adonai may be in your mouth -- that with a mighty hand Adonai freed you from Mitzrayim'" (Exodus 13:9).

The next change is quite small, and it may be based on a variant text. On the word ובמפתים, "and with wonders," the traditional Haggadah reads, "this refers to the blood, as it said, 'and I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke'" (Joel 3:3). In place of "this refers to the blood," the RA Haggadah reads, "this refers to the plagues."

After this, the traditional Haggadah includes a sort of rabbinic math competition, in which the number of plagues is inflated from ten to 300. This entire section is omitted in the RA Haggadah, presumably because it seems like too much reveling in others' misery (and because, my God, they made maggid long enough already!).

Now that I've gone through all of this in detail, I realize that the RA's Haggadah Committee is more like me than I thought: they added a lot more text than they removed. All the more reason to create my flexible fantasy version.

*The RA Haggadah uses the transliteration "Mitzrayim" rather than "Egypt" in order to emphasize the symbolic significance of the Israelite place of enslavement rather than the actual location. Kind of silly? Maybe, but I can see why they made that decision.

My Fantasy Haggadah

My family always used a traditional Haggadah. We have a set of cheap Haggadot without commentary (the red and yellow ones) to use at the seder so that everyone can be on the same page. We also have a collection of Haggadot with various commentaries, which are used to spark discussion. The traditional Haggadah is a complex book -- too complex, really, to be properly utilized by anyone without an extensive Jewish education -- but over the years, I've come to really like it. For me, that appreciation derived in a large measure from learning Mishnah Tractate Pesachim, which outlines the structure of the Seder and allowed me to discern the order behind the chaos. It also came from the questions and ideas raised by many years of discussing the Haggadah and reading various commentaries. I've often wished that I could shed more light on the Haggadah for other people at the Seder, for many of whom I think it is still a random collection of obscure texts, strung together in no particular order. But that would be too complicated for Seder night. People want to get to the meal eventually, and I'm not even sure that everyone would be interested.

After I got married, I began to attend Seders at my in-laws', where I was introduced to the Rabbinical Assembly Haggadah, which is almost traditional. It follows the sequence outlined in m. Pesachim (and explains it in the commentary more clearly than any other Haggadah that I've seen). There are some subtle differences, however. Where the mishnah prescribes that one expound on Deuteronomy 26:5-8, the composers of the traditional Haggadah settled on a particular set of midrashim from Sifre Deuteronomy. The Rabbinical Assembly includes a slightly different set of midrashim, some from Sifre and some from other sources, such as Tanchuma. I generally like the midrashim in the RA Haggadah, and for the most part, I understand why they were chosen over the few that the committee decided to omit. Still, I like the traditional Haggadah, and I miss the parts that aren't there.

A few years ago, I was discussing this with a friend, and I said that if DH and I were ever to make our own Seder, I wouldn't know which haggadah to use. He immediately responded, "you should make your own!" Since then, I've had a fantasy of creating my own Haggadah (with DH, of course, and whoever else wanted to participate). Early on, I realized that "my" Haggadah would be about twice as long as any other, and everyone using it would hate me. Then it occured to me that, thanks to miracle of technology, I could reformulate it slightly each year, including a different selection of readings and commentaries each time, keeping it fresh. I could expand on anything I wanted to, and whatever was omitted, I could always bring back another time. Wouldn't that be fun?

Maybe some day. . .

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

How to Eat

Right before Passover, when many of our diets are about to be severely restricted, may not be the best time to post about this, but I just happened to read an old New York Times Magazine article yesterday by Michael Pollen, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. I heard Pollen speak on television a few times, and was somewhat put off by his statement that he wouldn't eat anything that his great-great grandmother wouldn't have recognized as food. This struck me as a blatant example of the "naturalistic fallacy" (equating "natural" with "good" and "unnatural" with "bad"), and as evidence of an absurd nostalgia for the past, when many people -- and often, whole populations -- were frequently severely nutritionally deprived.

Pollen's argument, however, is much more subtle than that. He notes that, for all of nutritional science's advances in recent decades, there is still quite a lot about food and nutrition that scientists don't understand. For this reason, among others, we are probably better off eating "real" foods, in conjunction with which our species has evolved over the course of millenia, than "food products" engineered by scientists. Pollen also makes some other interesting, and potentially very important, observations about the Western diet, such as the restriction of our common food sources to an extremely limited number of species, the trend toward producing foods from grains rather than leaves, and the ubiquitous tendency to simplify foods to their most basic components, casting aside countless nutrients with both known, and, probably, unknown health benefits.

Pollen's basic guidelines for eating are summarized in a few words at the start of his article: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This is a messsage to which I am generally quite receptive (although the "not too much" part is a constant stumbliing block). In recent years, I've come to appreciate how much more delicious and satisfying a balanced meal composed of "real foods" can be than the fortified "diet" garbage that I used to go for. Pollen's plea that we regard eating as a "relationship" rather than as fuel elicited a predictable "WTF" from DH, but it struck a certain chord with me. If only so much of my "relationship" weren't with desserts, I think I'd really be on the right track.

All this said, I still maintain that we shouldn't romaticize the past. It's easy to forget that without modern technology, we in New England would be without fresh produce from November to May. (Today's Boston Globe article on local hydroponic tomatoes is a fitting reminder.) As in so many areas, common sense and moderation are key. That may sound cliche, but it's no less true for that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Latest Battle in the Kitniyot War

Last year, I posted about a New York Times article that discussed, among other things, the recent trend of non-Orthodox rabbis permitting the consumption of kitniyot (legumes, etc.) on Passover. This year, Gil student discusses a similar ruling (for Israelis) by an Orthodox rabbi. Rabbi Student objects to the ruling because ignores the precedent set by Ashkenazim in Israel over the past two centuries. This objection seems reasonable to me. I only wish that more Jews would consider precedent before introducing new chumrot (stringencies) as well.*

*DH reports no new news on the quinoa front this year.

(Cross-Posted to the Kosher Blog)

Monday, March 26, 2007

JTS Decision to Admit Gay Students

The Jewish Theological Seminary officially announced today that it will admit qualified gay and lesbian students to its rabbinical and theological schools.

Chancellor-elect Eisen's letter to the community announcing the decision is quite eloquent and worth reading in its entirety. I particularly liked this bit:

The debate over ordination of gay and lesbian students has served to highlight the need for serious discussion and resolution of these key issues of principle concerning what halakhah means for Conservative Jews. Such disagreements are particularly vexing to Conservative Jewish laypeople frustrated at the movement's inability to decide this and other matters quickly and unequivocally. Others, myself included, while no less impatient at times, actually take pride in the fact that our movement struggles over issues such as these. We do so as the heirs to Frankel's founding declaration of our purpose: "the reconciliation of belief and life, the assurance of progress within our faith, and the refining and regeneration of Judaism from and through itself." Both sides of the current debate have acted in accord with Frankel's call for "maintaining the integrity of Judaism simultaneously with progress." This remains, as he wrote in 1844, "the essential problem of the present." We cannot, any more than he could, "deny the difficulty of a satisfactory solution." But we must find a solution.

. . .

The proper way to do so, I believe, is not for JTS to promulgate a set of standards for Conservative belief and behavior. It is, rather, to engage Conservative Jews in discussion of what matters to them and why. Many of us are convinced, on the basis of numerous conversations with clergy and laypeople alike, that many Conservative Jews do feel a keen sense of mitzvah, in all the connotations stored up in that word by the Bible and the sages. They feel that there are deeds they should perform, activities in which they should engage, loyalties they should cherish. . . .It is my hope and belief that getting Conservative Jews to talk about these matters will be a step toward greater commitment and consensus.

Then he writes this:
JTS has already taken on the responsibility for leading this discussion. Working with the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet and with the RA and the United Synagogue, we have set in motion a process that we hope will eventually include every arm of the movement as well as professional and lay leaders. Our faculty and students will be actively involved. Stage Two of that process — logically and pedagogically dependent on the first — will be reclarification of the place of halakhah in the movement: the nature, authority, and scope of Jewish law in relation to other sources of authority and guidance. We will embark on that stage in the upcoming two years.

The position of halakhah in Conservative Judaism is going to be clarified over the next two years? Good luck!

Anyway, I would like to get back to commenting on the teshuvot at some point. (I'd also like to comment on the teshuvot on mikvah that were released at the same time.) It's just that for some reason, posting about halakhah uses up a lot more of my time and energy than it should. Good thing DH has been on top of it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Purim Recipes and Stuff


It has occured to me that I should perhaps post my real Purim recipes before, say, Pesach. Above is a picture of the food at our vegetarian, buffet-style Purim Seudah. (The drinks and desserts were at other tables.)

On the menu:

Challah Rolls: From my usual challah recipe, which I'll share some time, bli neder.

"Asian" Orzo Salad: Based on this recipe, from Sadie's Luncheonette. I used tofu and halved the vegetable oil, compensating with extra soy and teriyaki sauce. You can see other changes I've made to the recipe in the comments on Sadie's post. (By now, it's pretty far removed from the original Paula Dean version.)

Bow Tie and Broccoli Salad: This is a recipe that I learned from my friend and former roommate, Jill. It consists of bowtie noodles, steamed broccoli, mayonnaise, golden raisins, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds. The raisins, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds are sauteed in sesame oil until the raisins are plump and the sesame seeds are golden, and then everything is mixed together. I don't bother to be consistent with the proportions.

Lentil Salad: Based loosely on this recipe from Alanna of A Veggie Venture. Alanna lowered the olive oil to vinegar ratio in her dressing from more than 3:1 to 1:2; I stuck with 1:1 and added some fresh lemon juice. I used the same veggies as Alanna, minus the radishes and chives and with the addition of sliced green olives.

Chickpeas with Charmoula Vinaigrette: There is a custom to eat chickpeas on Purim that dates back to the Middle Ages, according to Gil Marks. The practice is based on the midrash that Esther kept kosher while in Ahashuerus's palace by eating only legumes and seeds. We tried a new chickpea recipe this year, from Myra Kornfeld's The Healthy Hedonist. (I made some adjustments, since I was in a hurry, but it still came out great.) Here's the recipe:
1 1/2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds [I used a reduced quantity of ground cumin]
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice [from about 1 large lemon]
4 garlic cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
3/4 cup fresh parsley
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
freshly ground black pepper
3 cups cooked chickpeas or 2 15-oz cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed [I used canned]
3 tablesppons extra-virgin olive oil

If using whole cumin seeds, toast them in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-low heat for about 2 minutes, or until fragrant, then grind with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. [Obviously, I skipped this step.]

Now, throw everything in a food processor, beginning with the garlic and herbs, followed by the cumin, paprika, salt, and pepper, and ending with the liquid ingredients. Process well, taste for seasoning, and pour over chickpeas.

All right, so that last step wasn't quite in accordance with the book, but it works perfectly well.

And now for my favorite new recipe of the holiday: Bourbon Ice Cream!


I got the recipe from CDKitchen, though I've seen nearly identical ones all over the internet. The main distinguishing feature of this version is that it uses 1/2 cup bourbon per gallon rather than 1/4 cup. (That's about 10% ABV, I think, so it's not for children, pregnant women, etc.)

And as a bonus, DH making kiddush:


Until next year. . .

(Cross-posted to the Kosher Blog)

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Purim Rum Cake

I've seen a few versions of this recipe. This is my adaptation:
1 or 2 qts. rum
1 cup butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup dried fruit
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tbs. lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped nuts


Before you start, sample the rum to check for quality.

Select a large mixing bowl, measuring cup, etc. Check the rum again. It must be of the highest quality.

With an electric mixer, beat butter in large fluffy bowl. Add 1 seaspoon of thugar and beat again. Meanshile, it’s important to make sure the rum is still good. Try another cup.

Open the second quart of rum if necessary. Add 1 arge leggs, 2 cups of fried druits and beat till high.

If the druits get stuck in the beats, just pru it loose with a drewscriver. Sample the rum again for cinscistincy.

Next, add 3 cups of salt and or pepper (it really doesn’t matter which). Sample the wum again.

Sift 1 pint of lemon goose, add 1 bablespoon of brown thugar, of whatever color yoo can find. Mix well. Grease oven, turn cake pan to 350 greeds.

Nyow, pour the whole mess sinto the boven and ake. Check the crum again and bo to ged.

Cross-posted to the Kosher Blog.