In 1984, a group of eight young feminists at Oberlin College created “A Women’s HaggadahLit. "Telling.” The haggadah is the book used at the seder table on Passover to tell the story of the Exodus, the central commandment of the holiday. It is rich in song, prayer, and legend. There are many different version of the Haggadah produced throughout Jewish history..” We studied traditional haggadah texts, the Reform and Conservative movement haggadot and the few women’s haggadot that we could find. While we were inspired by the intention of those early feminist haggadot, we felt that they lacked the kind of connection to Jewish tradition and Hebrew that we wanted for ourselves and our community. The more conventional and traditional haggadot, of course, were sexist in their language about people and God and they lacked any references to the women of the Exodus narrative that we have come to expect in liberal haggadot today.
There was great excitement and trepidation in the room as 200 women began the sederLit. Order. The festive meal conducted on Passover night, in a specific order with specific rituals to symbolize aspects of the Exodus from Egypt. It is conducted following the haggadah, a book for this purpose. The mystics of Sefat also created a seder for Tu B'shvat, the new year of the trees. with these words: “We sit in here together in darkness, preparing to begin our women’s seder (with the lighting of the candles). In doing so, we are stepping into a familiar ritual: telling the story of our going out from Egypt. But tonight we are stepping into the unknown as well, for we are taking the risk of telling new stories and of finding old stories that were lost. We are inviting ourselves into a tradition which is our own and yet has not always made us feel welcome; and we are inviting Judaism to have a place in our lives.”
When we look at our haggadah, now, we are thrilled and amazed as we consider how much feminist scholarship and ritual innovation has transformed Judaism. However, two decades ago, it was not always so clear how to integrate Judaism with feminism. The challenge brought us tremendous growth but also great confusion, difficult loss, and sometimes deep alienation from family or upbringing.
One of the most challenging aspects of our process was to find a way, liturgically, to address homophobia in Judaism and to symbolically create a place for lesbians and gays in Judaism. We included in the haggadah a short story written by Susan Fielding (now ShifraShifra is one of the two Hebrew midwives mentioned in Exodus 1 who refuses Pharaoh's orders to kill the boy children, instead enabling them to live. She, along with her partner Puah, is instrumental in beginning the process leading to the Exodus. Shifra is often identified as Jochebed, Moses' mother. LilithIn the midrash (rabbinic story about the Torah story), Lilith is imagined as Adam's first wife. Because she wanted equality, she wss ultimately banished, and God provided Adam with a more obedient wife. Lilith, according to tradition, lives on as a kind of demon, causing men to have wet dreams and stealing infant boys from their cribs. Today, Lilith has been reclaimed by Jewish feminists as a symbol of women's equality. Freewoman) about a young Jewish lesbian who is told by her hasidic rebbe that “there is as much place for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for hametz at the seder table” (hametz is bread and other food not kosherFit to use or consume under Jewish ritual law. "Kosher" often refers to the food which it is permissible to eat according to Jewish dietary law, but can also mean the suitableness of a Torah scross or mezuzah for proper ritual use. For more on dietary laws, see kashrut. for PassoverPassover is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people's liberation from slavery and Exodus from Egypt. Its Hebrew name is Pesakh. Its name derives from the tenth plague, in which God "passed over" the homes of the Jewish firstborn, slaying only the Egyptian firstborn. Passover is celebrated for a week, and many diaspora Jews celebrate for eight days. The holiday begins at home at a seder meal and ritual the first (and sometimes second) night. Jews tell the story of the Exodus using a text called the haggadah, and eat specific food (matzah, maror, haroset, etc).). The story was based on a New York City news clipping Susan had read about the reaction of a hasidic rebbe to lesbianism.
We loved the story and very much wanted it in our haggadah, but we struggled with how to respond to it ritually. We were a diverse group of women, in our sexual orientations, our religious backgrounds and practices, and our approaches to reconciling Judaism with feminism. Through much discussion, we clarified our concerns and values. We wanted to assert that there is a place for lesbians in Judaism, that we are, in fact, here. But we did not want to allow a homophobic rabbi or anyone else to define lesbians as unkosher, as outsiders. Furthermore, we wanted to have a kosher seder, to maintain the practice of eating only unleavened bread for Passover.
In a collective moment of inspiration, we came up with a beautiful solution to our dilemma. We decided to create a new seder plate, with an additional place on it, “a Makom (place) on our seder plate for all who have been condemned and excluded because of fear or ignorance.” In making this space to include the outcast, the haggadah explains, “we also make room in ourselves for more understanding. Through opening our minds, we pray that the distinctions we make between the sacred and the profane will grow out of intelligence and compassion.” (See the Makom ritual from the haggadah here.)
We chose this solution partly because Makom is also one of the names of God. Making a place for all is a holy act. We created a blessing to acknowledge and sanctify the act of making the place/Makom on the seder plate and at our seder: “Blessed are You Who helps us to discard fears, and gives us strength to repair mistakes; Who teaches us how to make distinctions, and enables us to make connections.”
Susannah Heschel (editor of On Being A Jewish Feminist) came to Oberlin soon afterward to speak about Jewish feminism. We were inspired by the work she was doing and discussed “A Women’s Haggadah” with her. She was obviously inspired by what we were doing. And thus began a fascinating process of ritual construction and reconstruction.
We built upon the power of the symbol of the seder plate, creating a ritual meant to highlight the need for inclusion of lesbians within Judaism while preserving the sanctity of Jewish ritual and the concepts of kadosh (holy) and chol (profane). Our ritual was misremembered (Heschel thought we actually placed hametzLit. Leavening Any food made of grain and water which has fermented and risen and is thus prohibited to be eaten during Passover.' on the seder plate), the boundaries between kadosh and chol that we sought to preserve were blurred and a new ritual emerged.
Heschel put an orange on the seder plate to symbolize the inclusion for gays and lesbians but the clear and bold statement that she was trying to make became tempered as others adapted it to symbolize the inclusion of all women within Judaism. What emerged was a more inclusive (all women need to be included) and less threatening ritual statement that was more acceptable in some mainstream segments of the Jewish community.
In the haggadah section of Avadim Hayinu (We Were Slaves) we read “Whoever expands upon the story of the Exodus from Egypt is worthy of praise.” May this be our invitation to continually reconnect with our collective story as it has been told as well as to retell it it in new ways.
The other women involved in the creation of “A Women’s Haggadah” were: Susan Ann Fielding, Shari S. Garfinkel, Caroline Libresco, Amy B. Schechter, MiriamMiriam is the sister of Moses and Aaron. As Moses' and Aaron's sister she, according to midrash, prophesies Moses' role and helps secure it by watching over the young baby, seeing to it that Pharaoh's daughter takes him and that the baby is returned to his mother for nursing. During the Israelites' trek through the desert, a magical well given on her behalf travels with the Israelites, providing water, healing, and sustenance. Bronstein, RachelLavan's younger daughter and Jacob's beloved wife second wife (after he is initially tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah). Rachel grieves throughout her life that she is barren while Leah is so fertile. Ultimately, Rachel gives birth to Joseph and dies in childbirth with Benjamin. Rachel is remembered as compassionate (she is said to still weep for her children), and infertile women often invoke Rachel as a kind of intercessor and visit her tomb on the road to Bethlehem. Lerner.