From slavery to freedom

One woman’s journey from secular feminism to religious Judaism.

Bible 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bible 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As we look forward to a happy Passover, we recall that it teaches us that freedom is a God-given miracle and that it is also a never-ending process.
Each year we leave Egypt – only to find ourselves back there again.
Jewish Second Wave feminists (1967-1973), shut out as authorities in Jewish religious life, had turned their considerable energies into achieving political, legal and economic goals for women in the secular world.
But, quickly enough, some of us began to reclaim Judaism in feminist terms: We studied to become rabbis and cantors, and we created a grassroots, feminist version of Jewish rituals.
I met the late Esther Broner in Haifa in 1975. She and Naomi Nimrod had written a mini-feminist Haggadah.
It was bold and endearing. Esther courted me so assiduously that by the following year, I decided to host and together with Esther, co-found, the Manhattan feminist Passover Seder. We held the first one in my apartment.
I invited some New York City feminists to join us – women whom Esther had never met. I chose Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Gloria Steinem, Lily Rivlin (who, like me, was on the radical Left where Israel was concerned), Bea Kreloff, and Edith Isaac-Rose, both downtown artists and left-wing activists.
Each year, for 18 years, Esther and I discussed the “format.” Esther always wanted to do something different.
For 15 years, Lily and I devised a closing ritual which gathered our energy and bound us together.
Each year, more and more “celebrities” were invited (Bella Abzug, Grace Paley). Each year, Letty devised ways of promoting our existence in the media. Articles were written about us, our group photos appeared, Esther was secretly writing a book, The Telling, about us (full disclosure: She respected and adored me on the page), Lily filmed one of our seders.
Jewish women were hungry for what we modeled and women’s Passover seders sprang up everywhere.
The Torah teaches that slavery shortens the human spirit and renders collective resistance difficult, perhaps impossible. It is precisely because the Israelites suffer from impatience and shortened vision that Moses seems dangerous to them. They fear and resent him. After Moses kills the taskmaster, it is the fearful, resentful Jews, not the Egyptians or the taskmaster’s compatriots, who want to turn him in. This is why Moses flees Egypt.
Although Moses – the liberator – is a central figure in the Passover story, he is not mentioned even once in the haggadah. Our well-meaning feminist seders elevated Miriam, and other long-disappeared biblical heroines, thus minimizing or missing entirely the haggadah’s point, which is to emphasize God’s centrality to liberation. It is, perhaps, religiously childlike, this hunger to see one’s own gendered human image writ large. I once had this hunger, and I also insisted on satisfying it.
In the beginning, after so many centuries of God-thefather, and the tree of male begats, Jewish feminist women hungered for God-the-mother and for the missing tree of female begats. We needed to wrestle God-themother into being; it was the beginning of our exodus from fundamentalist misogyny within Judaism.
In the beginning, women who had been rendered invisible to themselves demanded that a human being just like themselves occupy center stage; they did not want to share the space with any man (Moses, Elijah, the rabbis of B’nei Brak). Thus, the earliest women’s seders were created In Our Own Image.
Once, we were as silent as slaves at our own seders; now, we were as free as Jews at our own feminist seder. This was no small achievement.
Although we were not slaves – we were educated, independent women with professions, reputations and ideals – in some ways we still resembled the newly freed Jewish slaves. Many feminist seder leaders (or “mothers”) used no religious sources but instead relied on feminist critiques of monotheism, wonderful feminist poetry, odd bits of learning, political tracts. Many also talked about their own achievements or made speeches about current events, not about God’s role in this miracle of redemption.
I fully partook in this self-glorification.
However, what we did – and what many feminist seder leaders continue to do – remains important. Introducing ourselves as our mother’s daughters, naming our mothers, and our female ancestors, was and still is psychologically powerful. We also recited plagues that were seemingly specific to women, (sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence), and discussed the daring civil disobedience undertaken by both the midwives and by Pharaoh’s own daughter.
On the other hand, looking back, I would characterize what we did as a combination of feminist consciousness- raising, group therapy, and a Broadway show – Judaism lite. And we did this mainly for and with feminists who were anti-religious or non-religious. Perhaps we were performing a mitzvah in bringing them closer to Judaism.
While there is nothing wrong with being primarily secular, political, and atheist, there is something very confusing about dressing up in religious garments and presenting oneself as rabbinical figures in order to do so.
We were not transforming a patriarchal ritual. We were, instead, creating a minor cult of our own celebrity.
Although I was as guilty as everyone else, I began to long for something sacred, private, not secular and so public.
I suggested, begged, demanded, that we invite fewer people, fewer celebrities; that we invite sons, husbands and male supporters; and that we stop focusing so much on ourselves. I was raining on the parade but for me, the thrill was gone. However, I dared not disconnect. These women represented the Jewish feminist world in New York. If I left, I feared I would have nowhere else to go.
On December 1, 1988, that changed. On that day, I was among the women who prayed with a Torah at Jerusalem’s Western Wall for the first time in history. I uncovered the Torah for us – an honor that will never be surpassed in my lifetime and that wedded me to the struggle for Jewish women’s religious rights and to the study of Torah. Early in 1989, I helped form the International Committee for Women of the Wall (WOW). This group, and its important religious and political struggles, provided me with a new Jewish feminist world in which to immerse myself.
I began to study Torah with Rivka Haut (the woman whose idea it was to pray in the women’s section at the Kotel). In nine years, I began to publish Torah lectures. I became religiously observant.
After 18 years, I left the seder group. After getting everyone to agree to keep our numbers small and to ban all media coverage, Esther told me she wanted NPR to tape us, live. If I did not agree to this, she said, I would be wrecking her career. (Unbeknownst to us all, Esther’s book was about to be published). I told her that I refused to worship this particular Golden Calf any longer and that my departure would be my final ritual for us. I understood that I had changed – and that they had not: our differences were religious differences.
This made me very sad, but my path was also clear.
I believe that such women-only seders definitely have their place. However, they are the first steps out of the Egypt of patriarchy, not the last steps that will bring us into the Promised Land.
Once, a lifetime ago, we were all laughing girls together, radiant with hope. I loved us all, I miss us still. One can forever miss Paradise before the Fall; one can also mourn one’s exile from simpler times and from illusion itself.
Leaving Egypt is hard to do. We are commanded to do so every year – and by the long route, no less.
AUTHOR’S NOTE, a few examples of alternative Haggadahs: In 1982, Aviva Cantor published The Egalitarian Haggada; in 1983 Dr. Dov Ben-Khayyim published The Telling: A Loving (and egalitarian) Hagadah for Passover; in 1986, the San Diego Women’s Institute published the San Diego Women’s Hagadah; in 1993-94, E. M.
Broner published The Women’s Haggadah; in 1996, Elaine Moise and Rebecca Schwartz published The Dancing with Miriam Haggadah: A Jewish Women’s Celebration of Passover; in 1997, Martha Shelley published Hagadah: A Celebration of Freedom, in 1999, Ruth Simkin published Like an Orange on a Seder Plate: Our Lesbian Haggadah; and in 2000, The Jewish Women’s Project at Ma’ayan published The Journey Continues: The Ma’ayan Passover Haggadah.
The writer is an emerita professor of psychology and women’s studies, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and the author of 15 books and thousands of articles, including studies of honor killing. Her latest book, An American Bride in Kabul, (2013), just won a National Jewish Book Award. She may be reached through her website: www.phyllis-