A look at the women that have opened the Seder table to those often overlooked, in honor of the upcoming Passover.
Seder with Safran Foer
The Passover Seder is a special dinner to remember the Exodus; when the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt. This story is retold during the Seder, using the Haggadah to guide us in tradition and recounting the Hebrews’ liberation.
Jonathan Safran Foer recently explained in The New York Times that he was working on rewriting the Haggadah, partially because the widely used version revolves around marketing Maxwell House coffee; but mostly because he wants to have a better understanding of the tradition that he practices.
The Maxwell House Haggadah was reprinted in the 1990s to create a more inclusive Haggadah by eliminating masculine pronouns in the directions (a good marketing strategy). However, it continues to tell the traditional story of the Exodus, void of major female characters and suggests Jewish households are composed of heterosexual, married couples.
Some questions that arise concerning Foer’s Haggadah include, Will the revisions include a feminine perspective? Or, for that matter, will it include perspectives of others that are less represented in traditional Judaism?
Women in the Exodus
At least five women are mentioned throughout the book of Exodus, and they all appear at the very beginning of the book. The first two women mentioned are midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who defy the Pharaoh’s orders to kill Israelite boys; letting them live instead.
Moses’ mother, Yocheved, hid her son in the reeds by the bank of the Nile. The Pharaoh’s daughter saves the baby, and Moses’ sister, Miriam, presents Yocheved to act as his nurse.
All these women deliberately disobey the Pharaoh’s ordinances and play significant roles in the unfolding of the Israelites’ escape. How are they portrayed in the Haggadah?
Women in the Traditional Haggadah
Though women play a large role in the exodus story, they are hardly acknowledged in the Haggadah. Defenders of tradition explain that the Haggadah is meant to recognize God’s role in liberating the Israelites, not the role of humans – man or woman. But tradition still makes reference to eleven biblical men and ten different rabbis. In most traditional Haggadahs, there is mention of only one woman, Hadassah (or Esther). Miriam is referred to only in song.
Push for Feminist Seder
After preparing for passover, women sat and listened as a story of liberation largely excluded them.
Dr. Judith Plaskow, a professor of Religious studies at Manhattan College, knew that this exclusion would lead to change: “The need for a feminist Judaism begins with hearing silence. It begins with noting the absence of women’s history and experiences shaping forces in the Jewish tradition.”
The feminist movement coincided with the questioning of Passover traditions, resulting in a feminist Haggadah that was published by Aviva Cantor Zuckoff in 1974.
Seder’s Telling Tangerine
The Jewish feminist scholar, Susannah Heschel, encouraged a more accepting Seder, not only for women, but for other groups marginalized by traditional Judaism as well. In the tradition of the Exodus, Heschel shared her story of the orange on the Seder plate:
Many believe that a man told her, “Women belong on the podium of the Synagogue as much as an orange on the Seder plate,” but she actually began using an orange in Seder symbolism after learning about a feminist Haggadah that used bread crusts to represent lesbians in the early 1980s. (A Rabbi once exclaimed there’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for bread crust on the Seder plate.)
Heschel liked the idea of representing lesbians and gay men in the Seder, but did not want homosexuality to be considered a violation – like leavened bread on a Seder plate. Instead, she used a tangerine (and later, oranges). To encourage acceptance of lesbians, gay men and widows, she had her guests take segments of the tangerine and spit out the seeds, physically repudiating homophobia (the seeds).
Miriam’s Cup Continues the Seder Saga
Heschel’s new tradition caught on and, ten years later, more liberal Seder’s began to include, in addition to an orange, Miriam’s cup. The water-filled goblet represents Miriam’s ability to conjure water for the Israelites as they wandered the desert and women’s role in the Exodus.
Though women, lesbians, gay men and widows are beginning to be represented in the Seder and Haggadah, there is still room for growth.
Perhaps Foer will contribute to a Haggadah that is more inclusive, or maybe a female editor will need to tackle this issue. In the end, I can only think, Orange you glad they didn’t choose banana?