Opinion: Why not an egalitarian Seder?

The choreography of the Haggada is antithetical to its dominant theme of freedom and equality

March 29, 2007 11:32
4 minute read.
seder plate 88

seder plate 88. (photo credit: )


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We had a week of inclement weather a short while ago. Stuck in the house because of a broken arm sustained when I tripped while taking my daily walk, I looked through the numerous videos and DVDs that I have bought in recent years - with the intention of watching them on a dreary day, but never finding the time to do so. I chose the DVD of Little Women, which is based on 19th-century author Louisa May Alcott's novel by the same title. Having four daughters of my own, Alcott's story of the trials and tribulations of the four March girls naturally intrigued me. The surprising element of the 1994 movie version of Little Women was its feminist thrust. Despite the Marches' commitment to a revolutionary lifestyle, the novel did not cater to female independence. Yet, in the film adaptation, Marmee preaches pure feminism to her children. In one of her many woman-to-woman talks with her daughters, she makes it clear that despite their obvious intelligence, resourcefulness and creativity, they would be prevented from achieving certain advancements in life because of their gender. I could not help but recognize the penetrating truth in Marmee's wisdom - women are generally disadvantaged, or even oppressed, because of pure sexism. And most men, wittingly or unwittingly, see to it that this discriminatory reality is maintained. As I contemplated the words "oppression" and "women," I thought about the approaching holiday of Pessah, especially Pessah evening when we sit down for our Seder meal and read the Haggada, which recounts a particular Jewish narrative with a universal message about slavery and freedom, subjugation and equality, oppression and liberation - all exclusively through a male's eyes. During the Seder, we recall the dramatic tale of the Exodus. It was against the background of our collective suffering as slaves in Egypt that our Jewish national identity was born. The maturation process that took place in the desert and culminated at Mount Sinai produced a code of moral commandments that established a divine standard of social behavior to serve us as a people and a nation: "You shall not render an unfair decision; do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your neighbor fairly" (Leviticus 19:15). This divine message of fair and equal treatment is a direct result of the Jewish experience of oppression. The universal application of that experience is predicated on the verse in the creation story: "And God created 'ha'adam' in God's image... male and female, God created them" (Genesis 1:27). AN ORTHODOX understanding of the tradition does not include the equality of the sexes as a religious principle in matters of mitzvot. The Haggada is a reflection of this male-dominated worldview. According to custom, it is the master of the house (the father) who conducts the Seder; it is the youngest male who asks the four questions; and, it is the four sons who occupy a dominant role. With the exception of the song "Who Knows One" and its reference to the four matriarchs of Israel (not mentioned earlier in the heart of the Haggada when our male ancestors are mentioned), you would barely know that we had female forebears. The choreography of the Haggada, in its male-oriented exposition of the retelling of our passage from slavery to liberty, is antithetical to the dominant theme of the Exodus story - a theme that definitively bespeaks freedom, which by definition includes a racial and gender-free approach to life. It is time to replay the Haggada so that it reflects the true inclusiveness that Pessah represents. It is time for affirmative action to correct decades of discrimination. By this I do not mean that we should adopt the current fad in feminist circles that insists on giving Miriam - Moses's sister - a prominent place at the Seder table. If one is a true egalitarian, if Moses's name is excluded from the Seder night, why should Miriam's be included? As a start, the youngest female might ask the four questions. Her first question might be: "Why is this night different from all other nights? Because on all other nights only boys asked the four questions." The remaining three questions could be excerpted from The Women's Haggadah by E.M. Broner and Naomi Nimrod: Why have our mothers on this night been bitter? Because they did the preparation, but not the ritual. They did the serving, but not the conducting. They read of the fathers, but not of the mothers. Why on this night do we dip twice? Because of the natural and unnatural cycle of blood... because we were led out of Egypt by the jingle of timbrel, the echo of song. When shall we lean back comfortably? We shall not recline until we find dignity. But, the ultimate question we should all ask is: Why cannot a woman, a man's equal, participate fully in a Seder that celebrates liberation? After all, the most historically compelling words that we read in the Haggada that tie us to the continuity of the Jewish people are: "In every generation a Jew is obligated to consider as if he or she personally went out of Egypt." I am grateful that I have four daughters. Their participation in our family Seder graces our household with the divine and eternal message of Pessah - one of social justice, human dignity, freedom and equality.

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