Every year at the end of Passover, my mother takes a box of matzoh and puts it aside for a few weeks. Then, on the 14th day of Iyar, exactly a month after Passover eve, she takes it out and eats it — as do many other Jews around the world — to remember the holiday of Pesach Sheni, the Second Passover. This practice reflects the biblical story in which a group of Jews came to Moses very upset that they missed out on the first Passover in the desert because they had been in a state of impurity and were thus excluded from this seminal national event. Moses, baffled, approached God, who replied by creating the Pesach Sheni ritual. From then on, any Jew who was unable to take part in the Passover festival, whether for reasons of impurity or logistical/economic difficulty, celebrated Passover a month later, in a quintessential second chance.
In the spirit of Pesach Sheni’s powerful message of inclusion, this year for the first time, Pesach Sheni was marked on Monday, April 26 as the “Day for Religious Tolerance.” The celebration, initiated by Bat-Kol, the organization of religious lesbians, and Kolech, an Orthodox feminist organization in Israel, was explained by Bat-Kol activists Dina Berman Maykon and Tamar Gan-Zvi Bick:
What can be learned from this extraordinary mitzvah? As we read the story of Pesach Sheni we discover that consideration towards a minority is a Divine virtue, one that humans must learn from … The second thing we can learn from Pesach Sheni is that some things must start at the bottom. The initiative for the Pesach Sheni reform came from the ritually impure and from distant travelers, and not from the LORD. … In the past few years some of us have been crying out, “Why should we be excluded?” Religious gay men and women and aging single women would like to build Jewish homes, and take part in the mitzvah of procreation and to be, in the most basic sense, a part of the fabric of the nation; agunot would like to remarry within the strictures of Jewish law, and find a halachic solution to their problem; women would like to participate in mitzvot such as Torah study, and to be full participants in their communities and synagogues. These cries, like the cries of the ritually impure men, stem from a sincere and truthful desire to obey the laws of the Torah, out of a deep understanding of the meaning of belonging to the Jewish people, but without the ability to find their own place in the current tapestry of mitzvoth.… Pesach Sheni teaches us that creative solutions must be found, special and unique solutions of the kind that challenges even the most basic of assumptions. Pesach Sheni teaches us that there are parts of the Torah that the LORD requires us to write ourselves, that arise from the demands of the people, and that some halachot are written only in answer to a true and honest plea for inclusion within the nation and in the framework of the law.
Bat Kol, an organization founded in 2005 by a group of Orthodox lesbians, including Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s daughter Avigail Sperber, has been studying the relationship between Pesach Sheni and inclusion for several years. But it wasn’t until Kolech published Maykon and Ben-Zvi Bick’s essay two weeks ago that the topic began to cause a stir in the religious community.
The Pesach Sheni event, held in Jerusalem’s Germany Colony neighborhood in collaboration with half a dozen religious and social action organizations, consisted of panels, workshops and a film all relating to issues of boundaries and inclusion in religious life. About 100 people attended. In one workshop, a woman who serves as a German-Protestant minister in Jerusalem discussed the ways in which Christian communities give women leadership roles. In another workshop, Jewish gay and lesbian Israelis recounted their emotional journeys of inclusion and exclusion from Jewish communal life.
A particularly poignant description of the gathering came from Dr. Hannah Friedman of the Itim Institute at Tel Aviv. “I recently moved from a Gush Etzion settlement to Tel Aviv,” she wrote on the Kolech Web site, “and suddenly encountered all kinds of people I had never met before – gays and lesbians, singles, divorcees, single-mothers. When people ask me who the members of my new community are, I say, all those people who would have been rejected by the settlement admissions board.”