On Monday night, the first night of Pesach, many of us will sit around a table telling stories. The primary narrative of the evening — the exodus of the Jews from Egypt — is pretty much the same at every gathering, as is the basic framework of the haggadah from which we’ll tell the story. Drink wine, dip greens, break matzah, eat bitter herbs, make Hillel sandwich, drink wine, drink wine. Dayenu! And so on.
But the diversity of our personal narratives impacts how we each understand this story. We all carry a legacy of distinct experiences and backgrounds that shapes how we understand what it means to be enslaved. For women especially, remembering the exodus can be complex. Women start to become insignificant immediately following the exodus as stories of military might become the stuff of which Torah is made. In her book “The Nakedness of the Fathers,” Alicia Suskin Ostriker explains that it is in “the life of Moses that we see the women disappear. We see the flash of their backs as they dive, like dolphins, beneath the agitated surface of the text.”
A daughter is her father’s possession and a woman cannot initiate divorce or inherit property. Brides who are not virgins and women caught in adultery are stoned to death. Women are unclean before, during and after menstruation, as well as after childbirth, and their “secretions are the paradigm for every kind of pustulance or running sore, diseases requiring isolation and ritual cleansing,” says Ostriker, who also reminds us that leprosy is “figuratively a female disease: the reason Miriam but not Aaron is punished by it.”
So much for being delivered from slavery. It’s no surprise that women are excluded from some of Judaism’s most important rituals given the compelling case for separation made by the biblical narrative. When it comes to Passover and remembering our “deliverance,” the question is how to preserve the significance of the narrative while being intellectually honest. It would be great if our haggadot could reflect not only the original story of Moses and the Israelites but also the uniqueness of our experiences.
And now it looks like we can do just that. In a recent interview with NPR, Eileen Levinson, creator of Haggadot.com, a website that allows anyone to create their own Haggadah, talked about the importance not only of retelling the story of Exodus, but also telling it in a way that makes us feel as if we’ve personally come out of slavery.
Levinson reminds us that Jews have been making their own haggadot for a long time, but now it’s a lot easier. There are templates on the site, or you can go totally rogue and do your own thing. If you’re not feeling particularly imaginative, scroll through the hundreds of uploads — paintings, poems, Torah portions, personal reflections, scholarly essays, videos. My husband and I used haggadot.com last year and our haggadah included everything from feminist poetry to videos like this.
With over 50,000 users, 4,500 registered members and over 2,000 unique pieces of content on topics ranging from feminism and social justice to environmental issues and addiction, Haggadot.com is gaining popularity. Levinson says that her goal is “not to proselytize any particular views of Judaism. It’s actually the opposite: to counteract the dominant, sometimes extreme voices that can take over Jewish life, and reclaim it for the rest of us. Haggadot.com is a platform for any Jew from any background… [It’s] a place to celebrate, discover, and participate in one of my favorite conversations, the Passover Seder.”
Passover is the ideal moment to contemplate freedom for all people and to engage in meaningful dialogues about what freedom truly means. It’s a time to remember, first and foremost, but it’s also a time to wrestle with our shared and personal narratives in a way that enriches our lives. Haggadot.com is a great way to do just that.