Feminist Rituals in the Passover Seder
Like most religions, Judaism developed within a patriarchal society. Men recorded and interpreted religious law and wrote the traditional prayers. Contemporary Jewish women face a dilemma-how can they forge a Jewish religious identity consistent with feminist values? The Passover Exodus story of oppression and liberation echoes feminist struggles. Like the Israelites, women need to step outside familiar subservient roles in society and attempt a riskier life of independence and responsibility. Thus, Passover is the ideal holiday to highlight past and present concerns about the inclusion and equality of women in Jewish traditions and community.
Jewish feminists have supplemented and enhanced the Passover seder by:
1) holding additional, women-only seders,
2) writing alternate feminist haggadot,
3) sharing a leadership role in conducting the seder,
4) replacing male-biased language and content in traditional haggadot,
5) discussing the role of women in the Exodus story,
6) dedicating each cup of wine to Jewish women who can serve as role models for women's equality, and
7) developing meaningful new rituals and songs.
New rituals include the addition of "Miriam's cup," filled with water to symbolize Miriam's miraculous well (learn more about the origin of Miriam's cup and the Legend of Miriam's Well). The well was given by God in honor of Miriam, the prophetess, and nurtured the Israelites throughout their journey in the desert. In addition, an orange sometimes is placed on the seder plate, as a gesture of solidarity with Jewish lesbians and gay men, and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community (read more about the origin of the orange on the seder plate from Susannah Heschel).
The first feminist seder was organized by Esther Broner, Marcia Freedman, and Nomi Nimrod in Haifa in 1975. Inspired by this experience, Ms. Broner and Nimrod wrote The Women's Haggadah, first used in New York and Haifa in 1976. The Women's Haggadah follows the tradition Seder order, but alters the elements to insert the lives of biblical and rabbinic women in the story, to speak of past and current oppression of women, and to enhance the spiritual journey of self-discovery. Subsequently, women throughout the United States organized seders, often composing their own text.
New Haggadot have evolved from these feminist seders. Some of these currently in print are listed in the bibliography accompanying this text. Feminist haggadot emphasize the independence and strength of women, pay tribute to defiant, rather than submissive behavior, teach about the unsung heroines of the biblical and rabbinic period, and recall personal matriarchal ancestors. From these Haggadot, our daughters can remember the oppression of their foremothers, as if it had happened to them.
Attending a feminist seder is a unique and uplifting experience. Still, there is a need to incorporate new rituals that add women's content and experience into the family seder. A new ritual for Miriam's cup can enhance Passover seder traditions (see "Ritual"). We can remember and honor a notable Jewish woman each year by presenting her story (see "Biography"). Dancing or singing with timbres in honor of Miriam recalls the joy of freedom after crossing the Red Sea (see "Music").
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