13 April 2009

The Letter & The Spirit

I think there are two direct ways to approach a law: to abide by its letter and (or) to abide by its spirit. We can do both, as we interpret each. Or we can choose one path or the other, also subject to some interpretation. Let's put aside "big" laws, like prohibitions on murder or rape. For smaller laws - let's say jaywalking, or speeding on the highway, I think most of us are inconsistent. We obey certain laws to the letter, devotedly. Others, we choose to view as more flexible prohibitions, deciding for ourselves where the spirit of the law (not going 95 MPH) is more important than the letter (staying at or under 65 MPH). I have been thinking about this issue a lot this Passover holiday, and I'll tell you why.


If Jimi Hendrix had been an observant Jew, right now he might be posing the question: have you ever been afflicted? Well, I have.

Six days into the matzah-eating holiday of Passover, I feel fine. I have controlled my intake of matzah this year, and worked to balance it with a slightly higher proportion of fibrous fruits and vegetables than I have in some years past. If you are Jewish, and you've binged on matzah, you know what this is about; if not, I'll spell it out: constipation. (It's almost the opposite of a dirty word.)

Still, even with the occasional burdens of matzah, I love Passover. It's a joyous holiday, that reminds me of many of the best qualities of Judaism, particularly the ability to reflect on the past while focusing on the future - and embedding firmly the idea that part of the key to future success is teaching and exploring ideas, across (and within) different generations.

But part of the problem with Passover is that it seems to have lead contemporary Jewry - almost regardless of the degree of orthodoxy - to make some stark choices between the letter of the law and its spirit.

During this holiday, there is a wide category of foods that are off-limits, which in a short and untechnical description can be rendered as: any grain-based food that may have had an opportunity to leaven or rise, or any food that includes grains or other rising agents. It's that simple, and that simply defines the letter of the law.

The spirit of the rule, however, I interpret differently. We are told to eat matzah because of the symbolism of this flat, unleavened bread in the context of the holiday: it was the bread of slaves, and a reminder of that experience. Therefore, to me, the spirit of the law dictates refraining from other grain-based products that one might normally eat in leavened form - even if they follow the letter of the law in being produced with no leavened grains, as with the kosher-for-Passover marble cake, pasta, and cous-cous pictured above. I am sure the folks at Osem, Savion, and Gefen are all nice people, simply making a product for a niche in the market. At the same time, I think companies like these have helped create that niche where it did not used to exist.

We have these products in my house right now. We have a toddler, and I would rather her eat, and eat according to the letter of the law in this instance, than violate both the letter and the spirit because she needs more food than we can muster under a matzah-only regime. But I find these foods to be problematic; even for me, even with my own very personal and quirky levels of observance.

Mostly, I find them a challenge to the underlying message of this eight-day holiday: if, throughout Passover, we eat foods that are very similar to those we eat the rest of the year, I fear we will degrade the message of the holiday itself, the teaching from one generation to the next that we should remember when we were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the joyousness that came with our freedom. Matzah is that reminder, where kosher-for-Passover faux-Cheerios are not.

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