Thursday, April 14, 2011

Is Breaking Passover as Sinful as Illicit Sex? (Hammerman on Ethics)

Q: A friend told me that in Jewish law, breaking Passover is considered as wrong as illicit sex. Can that possibly be true?

A: If you’re insinuating that eating a bagel on Passover is akin to forcibly raping someone, exactly what planet do you live on? I hate to be so direct…no, actually, I like to be direct. But this is precisely what Rabbi Israel Salanter, the great 19th century Jewish ethicist, was concerned about when he toured a matzah factory and was asked what demanded the greatest attention when baking unleavened bread. He replied: “One must be scrupulous not to yell at the woman kneading the dough.”

Sometimes we allow our obsession with Passover correctness to overshadow basic human decency and common sense. There is something almost erotic about a fixation that leads people to do crazy things like dusting every corner of the house, or, in Israel, diverting the entire country’s water supply a week before the holiday to eliminate the possibility of its being “infected” by bread crumbs thrown into the Kinneret by picnickers and fishermen. There have been years when I’ve timed dental visits to have my teeth cleaned for Pesach. So I confess. I’m borderline obsessive too; but I somehow manage to stay on the right side of the border.

The connection between Passover and sex is not accidental, which is one reason why the new innuendo-filled video, “Just Had Hametz,” a takeoff on the popular video, “I Just Had Sex,” has struck such a chord and why everyone giggled a few years ago when Viagra was declared Kosher for Passover. Hametz has often been seen as a metaphor for all things that inflate, including the ego, so in our oversexed era, phallic inferences regarding Hametz are as natural as the spiritual ones drawn by the hasidic masters a few centuries ago. There’s even a site asking whether Facebook is Hametz, because it “represents our over-inflated sense of self.” I wonder whether rabbis would consider it a violation of the holiday to surf the internet for photos of undressed hallah rolls in provocative poses. And what of those dreaded website “cookies” that pollute our hard drives?

Passover is erotic by design. Spring fever excites all the senses. Nature is manic with newness and our noses and tongues are bursting with the pain of chrain. We read “Song of Songs” on the intermediate Shabbat, a love poem so sexy that Rabbi Akiba had to lobby hard to get past the Biblical censors; if today’s Christian and Jewish literalists read it literally, they would surely ban it. Akiba read the Song as an allegory of the passionate courtship between God and Israel that grew out of the liberation from Egypt. The laws of Hametz might be seen as an early test of that relationship, which had yet to be formalized in the covenant that would be drawn up at Sinai a few months later.

So a callous disregard for these laws could be seen as a serious betrayal of divine love, akin to marital infidelity. The rabbinic punishment for incest and adultery is identical to the one for breaking Passover: Karet, literally being “cut off” from relationship – with God, the Jewish people and with life itself. This punishment is said to lead to a premature death and a living hell in the world to come.

All of this makes it somewhat understandable that your friend would compare breaking Passover with sexual indiscretions. But Rabbi Salanter helped us to place it all into perspective. We need to approach Passover in the spirit of moderation; ridding our lives of leavening should not give us such a rise. Let’s lighten up about Passover. Sometimes a shankbone is just a shankbone.

As for me, my guilty pleasure on Passover is not Hametz. It’s Maalox.

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