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Women’s Seders: the vehicle for Jewish feminist liberation

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Passover Seder table
Passover Seder table

In 1976, Jewish feminists came together to celebrate a third night of Passover – a women’s only celebration — The Women’s Seder. It was hosted for the first time in the creator’s home, feminist and academic, E.M. Broner, who wanted to commemorate the female history that is often ignored in the story of Exodus. The Women’s Haggadah, co-written by Broner and Nomi Nimrod redefined the seder to focus on the female narrative. As Broner stated, “we wanted to take a major Jewish holiday, to continue interpreting it, to insert ourselves into it, to make ourselves historic.”

The direct correlation between female oppression in modern day society and Jewish oppression seen in the story of Passover, lead Jewish feminists to identify strongly with this specific narrative of oppression.

The central female figures in the story like, Shifra, Puah, Yocheved and Miriam are hardly given a voice, yet their defiance and strong will needed to be celebrated and recognized. The women’s seder centralized the biblical female figures, providing rituals to commemorate the strength of women at the seder table. By doing this, a space was created for women to come forward with their personal experiences of oppression as they found solace with the story of Exodus.

The four children become the four daughters, with the wise child becoming the chachama, meaning both “wise woman” and “midwife.” The word midwife evokes the story of the midwives Shifra and Puah who disobeyed the king of Egypt by not killing the male firstborns of the Hebrews. By defying his orders, it allowed the Hebrews to, “multiply and increase greatly.”

The lessons of Shifra and Puah can be shared with the wise daughter. As scholar Leora Eisenstadt said, the daughter is taught that, “questions are at the heart of movements for freedom, that questioning the powerful is the first seed of liberation.” This resonated with women, especially during Second Wave Feminism when many inequalities were present in both religious and secular, social and private spheres.

Another woman that is commemorated is Moses’ mother, Yocheved. She hides her son for three months and builds him a tevah – a protective ark – to float him on the Nile. The tevah is only seen one other time in the text during the story of Noah, becoming “the vehicle of salvation in waters of destruction.” Yocheved embodies the protective and nurturing maternal perspective, which is omitted from the seder rituals. However, her role in the story personifies female strength, which saves Moses, the savior of the Jewish people.

READ: GETTING READY TO OWN YOUR SEDER

The most important female figure in the story of Exodus is the prophet Miriam, who is not mentioned in the traditional haggadah. Miriam’s cup has become a commonplace ritual, that is not only present in women’s seders, but also in traditional seders. Her cup stands besides Elijah’s cup, as Miriam’s importance to the Israelites cannot be ignored.

The cup represents Miriam’s well, which is said to contain healing and sustaining waters. It followed Miriam for the 40 years of wandering in the desert and was credited to her merit as an individual. Symbolically, Jewish feminists interpreted the water as the substance that sustains all people through their journeys. The cup honours Miriam, highlighting her role in the Exodus story.

There is also the option of including a tambourine, which is used by Miriam and the Israelite women when they danced and sang on the shores of the Red Sea, as stated in the book of Exodus, “And Miriam the prophetess, took the timbrel in her hand and all the women went out after her with timbrels dancing.” What is interesting to note, is Miriam’s song is inclusive of all “shiru adonai” (Sing to the Lord) using a plural form of the verb to invite the entire community to sing, where Moses uses the singular “ashira l’adonai” (I will sing to the Lord). Miriam brings the entire Jewish community together into her celebration with the timbrels. This inclusivity is a major tenant in women’s seders, which brought together the marginalized to celebrate together in a space where they have often been excluded.

Women also lead their own rituals, reclaiming their role in Passover. Often, women were responsible for preparing and planning the Passover meal, readying the home for the holiday, which would take days of preparation. Yet their role in the seder was marginal. The Jewish feminist movement found this subservience problematic, especially on a holiday that discussed Jewish liberation.

The hypocrisy of Passover for women is exemplified in this Talmudic statement, “A women at her husband’s is not required to recline, and if she is an important woman, she is required to recline.” The first part of the statement says that the man is at the centre of the seder table, meaning a woman is not free in the eyes of God or in the eyes of Jews present. She is required to be present during the commemoration of her peoples’ liberation, yet she is also subservient to her husband. As feminist Leah Shakdiel wrote in, We Can’t be Free Until all Women are Important, “we are free as Jews, but not free as women.” The second part of the statement says “important woman” singling out certain women, instead of stating that “all” women are important.

Herein lies the struggle so many women identify with in the story of Passover: women’s subservience, which permeates into the Passover rituals and the perspective the traditional seders adopt. In order to address the issues that have been presented, women wanted to reclaim their place at the seder table through the creation of a new ritual: the women’s seder. Women no longer wanted to be invisible in Jewish culture. They wanted to recognize the female biblical figures incorporating them into their holiday rituals, forming new Jewish traditions, which should have always been in practice.

Another ritual that has been incorporated to allow for inclusivity is the orange. While the origin is unclear, it is speculated that a heckler stated to a Jewish feminist, “being a Jewish lesbian is like eating bread on Passover.” In response to this, early lesbian feminists haggadot proposed including a crust of bread on the seder plate, but then changed it to an orange to be less subversive, representing “transformation, not transgression.” The symbolic meaning of the orange is then interpreted to signify that something that is deemed as “other” has a place in Jewish tradition. When the orange segments are shared, it represents the “fruitfulness in our societies created by the diversity of our sexualities.”

These new traditions allow for both a female centric role in the story of Exodus but also for inclusive environments, which have often excluded female participation. In the context of the 1970s “women-only” groups were vital, as very few opportunities were afforded to women to take on leadership or participatory roles even in liberal forms of Judaism. Women were often in the “background” but never fully central.

These specific seders allowed women to sit and serve themselves, giving them the opportunity to become teachers and leaders in the service. Historically, in Judaism and the secular world, education was often denied to women, silencing their voice. In this setting women can reclaim their Jewish voice, allowing them the opportunity to share experiences and pose questions that might otherwise be considered “distractions” at traditional seders.

Because of this, the women’s seder became the catalyst for Jewish self-expression and liberation.

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