Jewish culture has a long history of tolerance and social justice that I deeply admire. Of course, some Christian communities do as well – the United Church of Christ makes social justice one of its hallmarks. But Reform Judaism has always had a special place in my heart for its commitment to the oppressed and particularly its more recent work on issues of reproductive health and women’s empowerment.
So as Passover has drawn to a close this week, I think of the way this holiday is celebrated, and in particular of how feminist seders are becoming increasingly popular as women seek to recognize and commemorate the important contributions made by women in their history and culture.
Passover is a celebration of the story of Exodus, when the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery under the Egyptians, and Moses led them across the Red Sea. As many of us have heard this story, many of us aren’t aware of the role of the Prophetess Miriam and the other women in this important period.
Miriam is the sister of Moses and Aaron. It is she who follows the baby Moses in the basket as he floats down the river to escape death by Pharaoh’s soldiers. When Pharaoh’s wife finds the child but cannot nurse him, it is Miriam who asks her to have his own mother do so. Later, when the Israelites travel for forty years through the desert, Miriam’s piety and merit convince God to provide them with a "moving well," which stays with them all their days of travel so they never die of thirst.
It is Miriam’s Well that is represented then, when we see a new Cup on the Seder table alongside the Cup of Elijah, which carries wine. Miriam’s Cup, carrying water, symbolizes her caring for the Israelite people as they traveled, nurturing them and watching over them as they sought the Promised Land. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson explains the significance of her actions:
"Miriam’s place in Jewish legend points to two lessons we can carry with us through our own personal wildernesses. While male prophets emphasize the power of words, the centrality of rules of conduct, of sanctity and of justice, Miriam’s prophecy was one of deed. Rather than stirring speeches or administration of justice, Miriam focused on teaching her people how to sing in moments of joy, and she saw to their sustenance during their period of exposure and fragility."
This may be one of the few instances in which I don’t mind that a woman is being celebrated for her role as a caregiver.
Other recent additions to the Seder plate include an orange, a coffee bean, and an empty cup. The orange is meant to symbolize solidarity with the Jewish gay community in that while the fruit was not originally part of the Seder plate, there is always room for inclusion of all members of the community. The coffee bean symbolizes the "bitterness and stress of juggling professional and family life" (AMEN!), and the empty cup represents space – the importance for a woman in finding time and space to nurture herself.
As I mentioned in my last post about the highly misrepresented life of Mary Magdalene, women haven’t just been "playing a role" for centuries. We didn’t just sew the buttons on the uniforms of our men as they went off to combat. Women have made substantive contributions to our societies at times when women were considered little more than property.
It is these contributions, then, that we celebrate in our religious observances as we begin to realize the extent to which women’s involvement in our history has been ignored and overlooked.
In the meantime, a Happy Pesach to those who were celebrating, and may we continue to make room on the plate and at the table for all those who have made our cultures and communities as rich as they are.
For those interested in learning more about feminism and Judaism, I highly recommend writings by Dr. Rachel Adler. I also am a fan of the blog, From The Rib, which explores "thoughts on progressive Jewish feminism."