Wednesday, April 16, 2008

On the Insanity of Pesach Cleaning . . .


Something of mine from last Pesach which, I must admit, I was roundly attacked for--which just proved my point.

This craziness has little to do with Pesach and everything to do with a religious one-upsmanship that puts religious people into different "castes" in our community.

This is not the way it is supposed to be, but it is the way it is. Very unfortunate.

This is why the Sephardim are unlikely to take on chumrot (religious stringencies). Sephardim must have the approval of a rabbi before taking on chumrot because there are very few honorable reasons to take on a chumrah. Most people take on chumrot for two reasons: pride and ignorance. They either want to be thought of as better than someone else, or they are worried that they don't know the law, so they overshoot it.

I have a friend who mentors gerim through the conversion process. She has a beautiful custom. As a centerpiece on her Pesach table, she sets a bowl of uncooked rice and beans. Why? Because she wants to remind everyone that, even if it isn't her minhag to eat rice and beans, that they are NOT HAMETS!!

Her custom is one that unifies rather than splits the Jewish people. This is a lesson we must all learn.

Competitive Spirit
by Michelle Nevada

I was sitting at a wedding reception with an older friend of mine whose children are grown and who lives alone with her husband in an immaculate and tastefully decorated home. She was telling me how she needed to leave the reception early, as she was going to start her Pesach cleaning the next morning.

I nodded and smiled, as is required by the social situation, but behind my eyes, my mind was racing: "What does she have to clean? Why does she need to start now? How long does it take her? What does this say about me? Why am I not beginning my Pesach cleaning?" I started to worry, right then and there, that I wasn't a good enough Jew to be sitting with a woman who would start her Pesach cleaning so early and take it so seriously that it would limit the time she spent at a wedding only a few days after Purim.

"Wow. She is amazing!" I thought to myself. "What a woman!" I, on the other hand, must be lacking some essential Jewish trait that I could sit and enjoy the wedding reception without thought (until that moment) of the giant task that lay ahead of me.

Why is it that preparing for Pesach is the most guilt-ridden, neurotic time in a woman's life? Our rabbis lecture, cajole and counsel us to "keep it simple." They tell us that we should not worry about Pesach cleaning to such an extent that we tear through our closets and drawers, polish our cars, and worry about whether a tiny drop of cat food has lodged itself under some boxes in the back room. They tell us to use cleaning spray for the counters to render the chametz void; they explain that bread crumbs too small to eat are nullified with prayer anyway, and we shouldn't worry. But it isn't the rabbis we are worried about - it is the other women.

Let's face it, Pesach is a competitive sport for a lot of women. I can't count how many homes I have been in where the kitchen looks like something out of a set for Star Wars, with aluminum-foiled counter tops, stoves and ovens. My kitchen doesn't look that way. My kitchen looks relatively normal.

Yes, I remove the canisters of flour and sugar (that I inevitably dunk my flour-covered measuring cup into as I rush to finish the cookies 30 minutes before Shabbat); and my pantry is unusually organized with the loss of so many boxes of Wacky Mac; and some of my chipped stuff is put away. But my counter tops look the same (I listened to the rabbi, and I spray them with some type of caustic cleaner), my stove looks normal (I run the self-cleaning feature of the oven and wipe-down the glass top), and I use the same silverware, pots, pans, glass dishes and cups (I kasher them, of course).

Then again, I don't live in a competitive neighborhood. I am isolated from the prying eyes of neighbors who would forbid their children to eat in my home because my house isn't covered with aluminum foil. I don't have to bear the social stigma of being whispered about as "that woman" who doesn't spend ten hours repacking Pesach dishes into hermetically sealed containers after the holiday is over.

My friend, "Sarah," does live in such a neighborhood. She is a former member of the keep-it-simple Pesach club, but, she complained, she can't do that any more. "I know I don't have to do these things for halacha, but I have to do them for social reasons. It's really stupid, but if I don't, I am stigmatized for a week - maybe longer. I have to live in my community, so that's what I have to do."

When I think about what she said, I have to shake my head in sadness. Not only am I upset by the fact that she is stuck wasting time and money on something she knows is silly for the sake of the opinions of the neighbors, but I am also upset by the fact that this is the way that Judaism seems to be going in general. If a rabbi suggests that we are over the line, that we need to cut back and just follow the basics, we rebel. We crave more strictness, more difficulty, more pressure.

What's more, if that same rabbi is courageous enough to speak out about the difference between what the halacha demands and what our over-the-top, insane competitive nature demands, he is likely to be judged by the community as "not religious enough." He may lose his job, his reputation, his stature in the community. The rabbis feel as much pressure in these communities as my friend Sarah feels; they know it is crazy, but they have to keep up appearances.

But isn't this attitude just as dangerous, just as disrespectful, and just as damaging as refusing to listen to our rabbi about being more strict? Is there not a Torah commandment that we cannot add to Torah - and don't our sages also warn us that by adding we subtract? It seems we ignore our rabbis, forget this Torah commandment, and disregard our sages' warnings because we have heard them too often quoted by those who wish to deny basic halacha, who are not shomer mitzvot, and who want to find too much leniency in the Torah. We refuse to say anything out loud, because we worry that by suggesting we should purely follow halacha, we will be accused of being less-than-observant, our kids will be denied entrance to religious schools, our families will be shunned, and our husbands won't be called to Torah.

So, those who are religious find an unending march to the right, with no apparent opportunity for the voices of moderation to check our progress and stop us from becoming so obsessed with the perfection of certain aspects of observance that we ignore or disregard others.

Perhaps, the level of difficulty and strictness we crave cannot be satisfied by another roll of aluminum foil and another set of Pesach dishes. Perhaps, that level of difficulty can only be satisfied by making a strong commitment to learning what the laws actually require, by the difficult prospect of understanding our responsibility to speak out in defense of rabbis who modestly teach what the law requires, and by a commitment to keeping the balanced perfection of the whole Torah.

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