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Feminism at the Seder Table

March 30, 2010

Image courtesy of Ilene Rosenblum/washingtonpost.com

Last night marked the start of Passover, my favorite Jewish holiday. I love Passover because, at its core, it is a celebration of social justice. Commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, the holiday is about freedom from oppression, in all forms. (It is no wonder, therefore, that non-Zionist Passover seders are becoming more common in progressive Jewish communities.) The themes of Passover are so universal that some people who don’t identify as Jewish choose to participate in the holiday; this year, President Obama and his family hosted a seder for the third year in a row.

Of course, something that promotes “social justice” in theory does not always translate to “feminism” in practice. Traditional Judaism does have patriarchal roots, and those origins are not entirely missing from Passover rituals. For instance, Dina notes that the Haggadah never mentions Miriam, who is believed to have played a major role in the exodus from Egypt. The traditional Passover ritual does address issues of freedom and justice and equality, but rarely (if ever) in the context of women or gender equality.

As a result, new traditions have been adopted by progressive, feminist and queer circles as part of their Passover celebrations.

In 1976, Esther Broner and Nomi Nimrod wrote The Women’s Haggadah. Their Haggadah followed the standard order of the seder, but it was updated to substitute women in the place of the men widely discussed in the traditional Haggadah. Since then, other specifically-feminist Haggadot have been published.

In the 1980s, professor Susannah Heschel developed the tradition of including an orange on the seder plate to honor LGBT Jews:

…at her next seder, she chose an orange as a symbol of inclusion of gays and lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. She offered the orange as a symbol of the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life. In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out – a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia of Judaism.

As the 1980s progressed, Stephanie Loo Ritari created the ritual of Miriam’s Cup. Based on the tradition of Elijah’s Cup, Miriam’s Cup is filled with water in recognition of her role in crossing the Red Sea. Miriam’s significance (particularly as it relates to Elijah’s significance) is explained as part of the ritual:

Miriam’s life is a contrast to the life of Elijah, and both teach us important lessons. Elijah was a hermit, who spent part of his life alone in the desert. He was a visionary and prophet, often very critical of the Jewish people, and focused on the messianic era. On the other hand, Miriam lived among her people in the desert, following the path of hesed, or loving kindness. She constantly comforted the Israelites throughout their long journey, encouraging them when they lost faith. Therefore, Elijah’s cup is a symbol of future messianic redemption, while Miriam’s cup is a symbol of hope and renewal in the present life. We must achieve balance in our own lives, not only preparing our souls for redemption, but rejuvenating our souls in the present. Thus, we need both Elijah’s cup and Miriam’s cup at our seder table.

Despite its male-centric liturgy, the Passover seder is completely compatible with progressive social justice and feminism. Although the customs listed above are relatively new, they are widely practiced. And due to the individualized, customizable nature of most Jewish traditions, there may be other feminist rituals being developed now. As feminism and other social justice movements strengthen and evolve, cultural institutions (religious and secular alike) must strengthen and evolve as well. The Passover seder is just one of those institutions, and it is one in which feminism is always welcome.

Do you have any feminist, queer-friendly, or otherwise socially-conscious Passover traditions, other than those listed above? Tell us about them in the comments!

4 Comments
  1. March 30, 2010 10:05 am

    Awsome post don’t forget the four daughters:
    http://ariellecohen.wordpress.com/2010/03/29/passover/

    • Carrie Polansky permalink
      March 30, 2010 10:36 am

      Thanks for the link, Arielle! I wasn’t familiar with the four daughters, but it’s a beautiful tradition. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Trebor permalink
    March 31, 2010 7:07 pm

    There are several female heroines from the Bible that fought against oppression, in particular Deborah.

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