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Seitan, hametz and the vegan Passover ‘veder’

by Jonah Lowenfeld

April 4, 2012 | 11:14 am

The Veder Plate, with a tofu slab in the shape of a bone instead of a lamb shank-bone and a small amount of Ener-G brand egg replacer instead of a cooked egg. Photo courtesy Gene Blalock

“How do vegans do Passover?”

That was the subject line of an email I got in my inbox last week, and I couldn’t ignore it.

I once tried to cut animals from my diet—it was just before Passover—and the effort ended on the holiday’s first night. As an Eastern European Jew who doesn’t eat lentils, beans or rice during Passover—the very same good, protein-rich legumes that can sustain non-meat-eaters for the rest of the year—going vegetarian during this holiday felt like a strange kind of cleanse.

So it was with some measure of anticipation that I asked Gary Smith, who runs Evolotus Public Relations with his wife, what he, a committed vegan and advocate against all types of animal cruelty, did last Passover:

Last year, my wife and I decided to start a new Passover tradition for our friends: a “veder,” or vegan seder. All of the traditional dishes were served - matzoh brie, brisket, gefilte fish, potato latkes, matzoh ball soup, kugel and macaroons - in veganized versions without meat, dairy or eggs,” Smith wrote in an email. “This included discussing the slavery of farmed animals such as egg-laying hens, cows, and pigs as part of the Passover story.

As Smith broke down what went into the meal, it quickly became apparent that the veder menu was rather unorthodox. Vegan matzah balls and matzah brei depend on using egg substitutes, like Ener-G Brand egg replacer, which doesn’t appear to be kosher for Passover. The same goes for macaroons and other baked goods.

Gefilte fish made of faux lump crab is simple enough, and vegetable soup (sans matzah balls) could work, but Smith’s “seitan ‘roast’ made of wheat gluten, mushroom and onion and vegan beef broth,” which looked rather appetizing in the picture he sent me, is about as forbidden for Passover consumption as any food item can be.

Hametz, the very stuff forbidden to Jews on Passover, is any mixture of water and either wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats that is allowed to stand for 18 minutes or longer. Seitan is made of vital wheat gluten flour mixed with vegetable broth, shaped and then baked for at least 20 minutes. The recipe might as well be called “How to make hametz.”

But if the veder is a bit more vegan than it is kosher for Passover, it made me wonder if there’s anything particularly wrong with that.

Jews go to great lengths in their urge to purge their houses, cars and other possessions of hametz before Passover, and the reason given is usually quite simple. The punishment for eating hametz on Passover is karet, or God-driven excision of a person from the Jewish people.

Imagine being banished from your people—for all time—because of something that you ate: You can see why some Jews vacuum every pocket of every jacket they own.

But it turns out that to actually earn that severe punishment takes some work.

In a lengthy rumination laden with the kind of terminology that only rabbis and true scholars understand, Rabbi Aaron Alexander explained that karet only applies in certain very specific cases:

“To receive the punishment of karet one has to:
a) Eat a significant amount (olive’s worth) of full fledged hametz (not a mixture).
b) do it with intention to sin, be-meizid. (See MT, Laws of Hametz, 1:1-7)”

Alexander is associate dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinics at American Jewish University and he’s not telling people not to clean their houses with care and exactitude. He doesn’t even want people to stop talking about the severe punishment of karet—only to address it to the situations where it actually applies.

Here’s his final concluding thought:

I find the spiritual and physical transformation from slavery to freedom to be quite compelling and religiously powerful.  Consciously moving from human-enacted slavery to God-enacted freedom service (slavery) is essential to this holiday. The fact that the Torah itself has so many ritual laws (not counting sacrifices… more than any other, I think?) concerning the journey to, and life in, freedom service - it exclaims something quite profound. Transforming our homes and what we eat elevate this idea with limitless potential. Freedom isn’t anarchy. Religious freedom is a conscious, intentional, and free-will submission to something greater than ourselves. But it has to be reasonable, grounded, attainable, and as potentially inclusive as our hearts demand it to be.

Which brings us back to the veder.

I am certain that Alexander, as a member of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, won’t have any seitan on his seder table. But in our modern age, when you can find a haggadah for every flavor of Jew or non-Jew in the world, is the idea of having a consciously vegan Seder such a bad one? If Smith’s idea of slavery extends to the animals we put to our service laying eggs and making milk, isn’t his elimination of food products from his diet and his table, on this night (and all others) an equally “conscious, intentional, and free-will submission to something greater than ourselves?”

I’ll sign off with the traditional greeting for this time of year:

Chag Kasher v’sameach.

May your Passover be liberating, happy, and—in some sense or another—Kosher.

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