Passover is a time for learning, storytelling, and appreciating our freedom in relation to years’ past.
Yet, for the most part, the texts we read in the traditional Haggadah are dominated by men — we discuss the leadership of Moses, we compare the four sons, and retell the conversations between ancient Talmudic male rabbis.
So it’s time for a feminist update.
While there are various feminist haggadot out there, which I thoroughly recommend purchasing (V’hee Sheamda, Women At The Seder: A Passover Haggadah, and a shameless plug for JOFA’s Handbook to enhance your seder), I would like to suggest four feminist objectives to raise your glasses to this Passover:
Lean In, Lean Back, Rise Up, and Redeem
Lean In: We all know that we are supposed to lean to the left while enjoying our four glasses of wine during the Seder. Right? In fact, it is not so simple. We see in the Talmud that people questioned whether or not women should have the right to lean at a Seder. After all, are women free? Do we have choice? Do we have autonomy? According to the Talmud Pesachim 108a: “A woman who is with her husband is not required to recline, but if she is an important woman, she is required to recline.” In other words, a woman seems to have the choice to lean or not to lean, but if she is important, she must recline.
Historically, importance was most probably designated for those of financial means and/or knowledge of Jewish texts. Those tended to go hand in hand as those who had the means also had enough time to set aside for learning. In today’s world, what do we make of this text? Should we want to be obligated just like the men? Should we celebrate the fact that we seem to have choice in this custom? Only a person can determine if she is empowered, if she is independent and truly free. Let’s discuss THIS at our Seders.
Lean Out: While many of us have joined ‘Lean In’ Circles initiated by Sheryl Sandberg, we also see the dangers of putting the onus on fixing gender imbalance, gender discrimination, etc. on those who are disadvantaged.
Are we “important” per the Talmud’s language, if it means that we have to go above and beyond at every stage of our careers? Should we need to be the best in order to have authority and agency? Let’s consider leaning back at times, rather than only leaning in, this holiday.
I was moved by Sandberg’s classmate Rosa Brooks’ on-point response to Lean In: Recline, Don’t Lean In: Why I Hate Sheryl Sandberg. (To be clear, I am a major Sheryl Sandberg fan, but Brooks’ points and narrative strongly resonated with me.): “Ladies, if we want to rule the world — or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions — we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us. We need to fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.”
We are at a stage where we should not need to name exceptional individuals in order to vouch for an entire sex, race, gender or class. We all deserve the opportunity to lean back.
Let’s embrace the aim of Passover, that of freedom. If we are truly free, we do not have to always lean in. We can lean back. We can say no sometimes. We can commit ourselves to self-care. We can spend time with our families instead of being workaholics. At the seder, we can literally lean back and reflect on when we do not want the onus of “importance.”
Rise Up: A critical element of Jewish practice, and certainly that of Passover is remembrance. On Passover we recall verbally and also engage experientially with the horrors our ancestors experienced, followed by their redemption. We do not forget, and are required to empathically relate to the experience of our predecessors.
This Seder, let’s remember Jewish history’s strong women who have stood up for women’s rights — Deborah, Yalta, Bella Abzug, Rebecca Gratz, Emma Lazarus, Rose Schneiderman, and of course Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to name a few of our heroines.
Consider printing out this article from the Jewish Women’s Archive, about the role of women in the anti-Nazi resistance, and reading it together at the table.
Redeem: What does redemption look like? Is it equality — and is it even possible? Will equal distribution of wealth and resources, level the playing field?
When it comes to the many goals of feminists, consider taking some time during the Seder to tell stories of what we want our communities to look like. While remembrance is the focal point of the seder, we are also meant to think about the future. We are meant to use our privileged freedom to think about the possibilities of what a better tomorrow might look like.
If we can take a moment to dream, let’s dream big. Let’s envision — and articulate — our redemption.
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg is the Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.