In the words of longtime Jewish feminist Francine Klagsbrun, “Women’s seders have become a phenomenon of our time…From New York to Nebraska, from Berlin to London, thousands of Jewish women throughout the world celebrate the 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). holiday every year with an evening of ceremony and remembrance led by women for women.”
Why—and how—a 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. primarily for women? What is a “women’s seder”?
The timing of a women’s seder—most frequently just before Passover (obviating the need for the food to be strictly 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 Passover), or on a night during Passover other than the first two evenings (when women might want to be or be expected to be participating in more typical seders with a mixed-gender group of family and friends)—already suggests its position in Jewish ritual life. The women’s seder stands a bit on the margin, critiquing, supplementing, and serving as an implicit commentary on the traditional seder experience with its 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. text. While for some women this is their most important—or in some cases only—significant connection to Passover, for the most part attendance at a women’s seder serves to add a feminist, woman-centered dimension to the observance of the universally Jewish holiday of Passover.
Is all this really necessary? Haven’t women become fully integrated as equals into all aspects of Jewish communal life, both religious and secular? Why a separate women’s gathering for this Jewish national celebration?
To answer these questions, we need to return to the very beginnings of Jewish national life, to the Exodus story in the TorahThe Five Books of Moses, and the foundation of all of Jewish life and lore. The Torah is considered the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and study of the Torah is a high mitzvah. The Torah itself a scroll that is hand lettered on parchment, elaborately dressed and decorated, and stored in a decorative ark. It is chanted aloud on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, according to a yearly cycle. Sometimes "Torah" is used as a colloquial term for Jewish learning and narrative in general.. The biblical tale of slavery and redemption is replete with stories of magnificently courageous women playing key roles in the saving and liberation of the Jewish people—and crossing national boundaries as they do it:
- The midwives, 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. and PuahPuah, like Shifra, is one of the Hebrew midwives mentioned in Exodus 1 who defies Pharaoh's orders to kill the boy babies. This first act of defiance was instrumental in leading to the Israelite exodus from Egypt. Puah is often identified in the midrash with Miriam, Moses' older sister., either Hebrew women themselves or Egyptian women attending them, defying Pharoah’s orders and helping male Hebrew babies live
- Pharoah’s daughter, adopting the baby she saves from the river Nile (did she know he was an Israelite?)
- 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., Moses’ sister, first (according to one midrashA rabbinic method of interpreting text, often through the telling of stories., or rabbinic legend) ensuring that her parents would reunite and produce her people’s human redeemer, then connecting Pharoah’s daughter with a nursemaid for the baby—Yocheved, his (and Miriam’s) mother
To read the biblical story of the Exodus with open eyes is to understand Passover as, among other things, a celebration of women’s heroism. But in the traditional haggadah, women are missing. True, MosesThe quintessential Jewish leader who spoke face to face with God, unlike any other prophet, and who freed the people from Egypt, led them through the desert for forty years, and received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. His Hebrew name is Moshe. is absent too, and the telling of the biblical story focuses on God’s intervention and liberation, not human agency—but in the many references to human beings throughout the haggadah, it is men and boys who are referred to, and women and girls who are invisible.
If it were simply the need for feminist critique that motivated the emergence and persistence of women’s seders, dayeinu—that would be enough. But there is more: the Passover story is, at its core, one of freedom from oppression, from the expectation that one group of people will be subservient to another. It is fundamentally a story of liberation—a story the telling of which feminists not only critique, as above, but also embrace, as elemental to our own journey as Jewish feminists.
The first feminist seder was organized by EstherHeroine of the Purim story and Megillat (the scroll of) Esther. She is married to the king by her cousin Mordecai and ultimately saves her people from execution. Broner, Marcia Freedman, and Naomi Nimrod in Haifa in 1975, and led to the production of the The Women’s Haggadah, which followed the traditional seder outline but used that structure to speak of Jewish women in our ancient past as well as contemporary Jewish women’s experience. Since then, feminist haggadot have continuously emerged—from the cobbled-together photocopied pages of a group of friends to the professionally published The Journey Continues by Ma’yan, pioneers and leaders in creating and developing large community women’s seders—paying tribute to women past and present, raising feminist questions, re-interpreting familiar rituals and prayers, and articulating a feminist vision of redemptions yet to come.
Women’s seders and other Jewish feminist practices in connection with Passover have had their impact on the shape of the seder experience as a whole in many homes and institutions. Already there is a generation of children who would be confused if there were no Miriam’s cup on the table, filled with water (and often paired with Elijah’s cup of wine)—a symbol of redemption and possibility. And in many homes the placement of an orange on the seder plate—whether to represent the importance of women’s full inclusion in Judaism, or to symbolize the need for gay and lesbian equality in Jewish life—is already de rigueur.
Finally, with so many feminist readings and interpretations available for every element of the haggadah and the seder meal, many family seders benefit from the rich resources that have emerged from the liturgy prepared for women’s seders and from the wider Jewish feminist engagement with Passover. Just as the emergence of the field of women’s history has not let “regular history” off the hook from including women thoroughly in its rendering of the past, so too, women’s seders help infuse other seders with a focus on women as well as men, and with a feminist voice.
Still, the Jewish feminist journey is far from over—and women’s gatherings are an important part of that journey. With song, with ritual, with story and prayer, Jewish women all over the world gather each Passover to name what is, and to dream of—and works toward—what is yet to be.