March 25, 2010

GM

No, not General Motors, but seeds that are Genetically Modified.

Pesach is a time when we "moderns" focus on grains more than at any other time of the year. Shavuot may be the main summer harvest festival, but very few of us nowadays are involved in commercial agriculture. (Even in Israel, the kibbutz dream of Jews returning to a nostalgic past of cultivating the fruit of the earth and getting their hands dirty with mother soil instead of bank notes, is itself a thing of the past, as a mass ideological movement.) Sukot is more concerned with fruits and temporary living.

We no longer bring the Omer sheaf of barley in the Temple. But on Pesach, when the Torah forbids us from eating grains except in matzah form, we do suddenly have to remember what a grain actually is. How many of us city dwellers can tell the difference between wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye? Most of the Third World poor who toil to produce food for their starving families can.

Pesach gets us to think of produce in other ways too. The Ashkenazi world highlights absurdity by refusing to eat "kitniyot", commonly called pulses or legumes claiming there is a definitive comparison between them and grain. There's no logic to it. Forget the myths of wet European climates fooling rabbis into thinking that peas that sprout might be grains. It is like that other more modern anomaly of prohibiting gebrocks (baked matzah in liquid)--simply a fantasy of strictness that sends shivers of pietistic delight down the spines of those who want to feel better for being more kosher than kosher, more demanding than the Almighty (and you can see what the Talmud thinks about that at Yerushalmi Nedarim 29a).

The prohibition of kitniyot applies to maize, rice, peas, lentils, beans, peanuts, mustard, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds. (Lucky Sefardim, their rabbis were much more realistic.) But wait, there's more (as American TV salespeople say), some improbably add coffee beans, chestnuts, alfalfa sprouts, and even marijuana (sorry, kids). And others want to ban quinoa, only because it is new to them and anything they haven't come across before must be bad news!

And this leads me to GM. European lefties, desperate for moral causes to adopt, have successfully banned GM crops from Europe. This, despite the scientific evidence that they increase yields, reduce the need for pesticides, enable poor farmers to make a living, and help feed the poor. This is why GM crops are rapidly coming to dominate in Argentina, Brazil, India, and China to name only the biggest markets. But the European loonies who gratuitously destroy experimental GM crops spread unfounded scare stories about killing butterflies, causing genetic deformity, and sterilizing the planet. And they think nothing of fiddling statistics and experiments to further their cause, rather similar to those who discredit the campaign to stop global warming by telling lies.

Why ? Because in true Marxist (and Fascist) ideological tradition, the end justifies the means. According to them you may overrule any moral or civil law if it achieves the goals they want. Incidentally in Jewish morality the only time you can deceive is if you are trying to protect someone's hurt feelings. This 'Ends justifies the Means' approach underlies all left-wing political idealism and it explains the increasing rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism. (I am not for one moment suggesting that all criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli, but then neither am I saying it never is.) There is a lot in Israel to criticize, on all both sides of the spectrum. But when it is a matter of ideological warfare in which political victory is all that matters not honesty or truth, then as with GM crops, it is honesty that is the loser and in the end humanity.

Idealism is a wonderful and necessary thing, and there is not enough of it. But it is also dangerous. All fanaticism is dangerous--I don’t care which end of the spectrum or which religion it comes from. The only antidote is openness, honesty, and debate. But if this is being prevented by fanatics who will simply not allow civilized discussion, then what are we who value freedom of thought do, capitulate?

Passover celebrates freedom, and that includes freedom of expression and freedom of debate. We have strange customs and laws to encourage questions and discussion. We are reminded that there are different ways of looking at life and of living life. Variety is the glory of humanity. Suppression of ideas leads to oppression of humans and a return to slavery. If you try to prevent any group from defending itself, like Pharaoh did, you will end up enslaving everyone.

10 Comments:

At 4:31 PM , Anonymous Leila said...

I believe that, historically, some Ashkenazi rabbonim wanted to ban potatoes but changed their minds when they realized that it would be detrimental to the health of most poor families! Such are the vagaries of our religion and Sephardi rice will never be an improvement on potato kugel!

Thanks for another splendid piece and a very happy Pesach to you and yours.

 
At 8:41 AM , Blogger Gill said...

My understanding of why GM crops are not liked is because farmers used to use their own seeds and GM crops do not have any. You have to buy new seeds each year from, in Australia, a large chemical company who make lots of money!!

Happy Pesach

 
At 2:27 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Leila:

Thank you. Yes indeed, someone's always out to make life more difficult! They didn't like Sir Walter Raleigh, so that was why they wanted to ban potatoes; but actually the Tifferet Yisrael commentary on the Mishna names him as one of the great non-Jewish benefactors of mankind!

Still, I hope you enjoy Pesach!

J

 
At 2:29 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Gill:
Yes, several people have pointed out to me the hidden financial agendas of the multinationals and indeed the ongoing questions of how safe the GM crops are. But, similarly, a lot of correspondents have been pointing out how they save poor farmers in fertilizer and insecticide costs and keeping diseases out too. Swings and roundabouts and I guess the marketplace will decide, because rising populations will demand more food rather than ideologies!
J

 
At 9:39 AM , Anonymous Graham said...

A secular business contact of mine once worked for a plywood manufacturer in Ashkelon which is no longer trading.
He told me that for two weeks every year they sat around twiddling their thumbs because the adhesive used was declared to be chametz and had to be removed from the factory!

Graham

Graham

 
At 9:18 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Graham:
No wonder they are no longer trading. Sounds like incompetent management to me. Your informant said "every year" and by the second they couldn't find a Chametz-free chemical substitute?
J

 
At 3:11 PM , Blogger Daniel said...

I detect that you and I may be of one mind when I suggest that it is truly time that voices within Orthodoxy had the courage to discard, officially, the entire business with kitniyot on Pesach. I once heard it referred to as a minhag on steroids. As you say, the premise must once have been that certain sorts of pulse could be used to simulate flour that, absent competent labelling, could be mistaken for flour from the Five Species. The logic here is that different types of confusing foodstuff shold be put on one side. Now, of course, potato starch and corn flour are indistinguishable to the naked eye, but these problems do not appear to have concerned those who have fashioned the customs of our observance (potato flour is permitted). And inasmuch as unlabelled potato flour might need to be set aside if one does not know exactly what it is, potatoes themselves are wholly unproblematic. And so, too, I would argue, are green beans (for example), because although they can be dried, ground up fine and then used to bake loaves, I think it is just possible that you might have noticed that you were involved in doing so in time to stop the process.

I'm going to posture a radical thought here. Most Jews, including most frumm Jews, are not very interested in complex theology, philosophy or religious jurisprudence. Rightly or wrongly, they have a developed religious life based on ritual that is in essence an end in itself. I think ritual should only be a means to a greater end, at best, but that is a long and complex discussion for another time. What concerns me is that those for whom ritual has become the functional Jewish way of life, the end in itself, have over generations and centuries wrapped this ritual in extraneous customary practice, a lot of it based on misconceptions of spiritual leaders who knew less than we know now, and this has allowed our religion to diversify and multifurcate and, ultimately, fragment. Kitniyot is a classsic case of this. What may have had a practical but limited application in the Middle Ages in an era when food labelling and processing was much less carefully regulated than now, has developed beyond all recognition and purpose, but the consequent entrenchment and the fear of the Orthodox world to recognise this creates a significant philosophical problem.

Well, it does for me, even if others may not agree. Those others may be of the view that a settled custom is not to be disturbed, and that is the end of the matter. My problem, and here is the radical note, is that entrenched ballast of this nature, which the core observance of Judaism does not need or call for, is delaying Mashiach. It demonstrates that we are anchored in the past and lack the combination of guts and imagination needed to drive forward to a better spiritual future.

Now if those reading this do not agree, and want to persist in halachic "bean-counting", maybe next year we can count on a Beth Din somewhere to wake up to the fact that chocolate also comes from beans and this ought to be banned. I wonder how popular this would be?

 
At 11:36 AM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

Daniel:

Daniel:

Logically and rationally you are right. Kitniyot, Gebroks and 2nd Yom Tov belong with the Dodo.

But there's a meta-halachic dimension and that is indeed the power of consensus and tradition. It's like belonging to a club or the Masons with nonsensical rituals. If you want to be part of a specific community you have to accept their mesghugassen.

I dont know if you read HAKIRA but theres a fascinating article by Rabbi Slifkin in which he deals with Rav Eliashiv saying that even if earlier authorities said things that support a scientific view, we may not. Modern Charedi Judaism is concerned with control, conformity and fundamentalism and if you want to be totally part of their world those are their conditions (self defeating and self destructive as they many be).

The less Charedi wings of Orthodoxy are still committed to manitaining these "illogical" traditions and so the only recourse is to suggest change and then leave it for a consensus to emerge--but if it does not, too bad. Until it does you are bound.

Now actually I dont mind being bound on these issues. You see as Solzhenytsin says, "I can survive being in Jail so long as I can curse my jailors." I don't mind physical behavioural restrictions so long as I am free to think.

If it were just a matter of the accretion of ridiculous rituals I would not care two figs. But I am very much concerned that the Charedi world in going for bust will eventually bust and we might lose those wonderful and positive aspects it has preserved as the edifice collapses under the forces of unemployment, internal corruption, both financial and sexual, and intellectual stagnation. I only hope I am wrong and once again we will defy the doom mongers and our own self destruct genes.

J

 
At 6:50 PM , Blogger bandit said...

Your ignorance beggars belief. The Gemoro is clear at the beginning of Megillah and other places that it is forbidden to change the Takanos of a Beis Din unless the next beis din is greater than the previous one in age and wisdom. You are qualified as aa Rabbi of some other religion and you do not have the ordination to remove the Issur of Kitniyos.

 
At 6:56 PM , Blogger Rabbi Jeremy Rosen said...

bandit:

My goodness, your manners are as poor as your capacity to read. Would you like to point out where exactly I advocate removing the issur on Kitniyos? One can point out absurdities without suggesting they be removed. You, for example.

 

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