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From Silenced Slavery to Bare Freedom: Women’s Voices at the Passover Seder

Dr. Einat Ramon
| 13/04/2006
Pesah
Symbols and Rituals
Women & Gender

In 1975 a group of leaders of the feminist movement in the U.S., Jewish by birth but not necessarily by political identification, celebrated the first women’s seder in New York. Over the years, this annual gathering, held at the beginning of Nissan or on Chol Hamoed Passover, has expanded to numerous similar gatherings throughout the world.

The idea behind a Women’s Seder is to examine the parallels between enslavement and liberation of the Jews to that of women, while recognizing where the two stories diverge. The question arises: Did Jewish women experience the same liberation as Jewish men? What do we learn from the absence of the female voice from the story of the Exodus that we recount each year?

As with any religious ceremony, the women’s seder has also formed its own symbols and traditions: Placing an orange on the seder plate as a vernal and succulent symbol of women’s belonging and full participation in community and synagogue leadership; “Miriam’s Cup,” a full cup of water placed on the table symbolizing the well of Miriam that, according to midrash, accompanied B’nei Yisrael on their desert trek; and reading the section on the “Four Daughters,” found in all feminist Haggadahs, in dialogue with the Four Sons of the Haggadah. This last custom often finds its way into a traditional family Seder.

Following is my version of the “Four Daughters:”

Four Daughters

The Torah speaks of four Daughters: one possessing wisdom of the heart, one rebellious, one simple and pure, and one who cannot ask questions.

1. The daughter possessing wisdom of the heart , what does she say? “Father, your decree is harsher than Pharoah’s.The decree of the wicked Pharoah may or may not have been fulfilled, but you who are righteous, your decree surely is realized.” The father heeded his daughter (Miriam). So we too follow in her steps with drums and dancing, spreading her prohecy amongst the nations.

2. The rebellious daughter , what does she s ay?  “R ecognize” the ways of enslavement and the tyranny of man’s rule over man. Although she rebels against authority it is said: She was more righteous than he, and we enjoy no freedom until we have left our unjust ways.

3. The simple and pure daughter , what does she say? “Wherever you go, so shall I go, and where you rest your head so there will I rest mine. Your people are mine, and your God my God” (Ruth, 1:16). We shall indeed fortify her in her loyalty to those she loved, and it was said to her: “May God make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel.”

4. And the daughter who cannot ask – only her silent weeping is heard, as it is written, “and she wept for her father and mother.” We will be her mouthpiece and she will be for us a judge. We will return her to her mother’s house and to her who conceived her, and we will proclaim “liberty in the land for all its inhabitants.”

Commentary:

Each of the Four Daughters expresses a unique path from bondage to freedom in a national and human sense. They learn from examining their parents’ lives and from the struggle of their nation, while their parents themselves are exposed to new spiritual layers as a result of their daughter’s education.

Wise of Heart: According to the Midrash, young Miriam persuaded her father Amram and the other enslaved men of Israel not to separate from their wives despite Pharoah’s decree to destroy all male newborns. When her mother Yocheved gave birth to a boy, the two worked together to save the new son/brother. Miriam recognized the historical significance of this naissant struggle, as she did at the splitting of the Red Sea, and thus led her people to redemption (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 12).

Rebellious: Tamar’s complex relationship with her father-in-law, Judah son of Jacob our forefather, expresses a rebellion whose result was critical to the continuation of the tribe of Judah and the Jewish people. With her deeds, Tamar barricaded herself against her loss of freedom as an imprisoned widow. She eventually achieves the yibum (levirate marriage) to which she is entitled, and becomes the “founding mother” of the Davidic dynasty, symbol of messianic redemption (Tamar, Genesis 38:26).

Simple and Pure: Ruth the Moabitess remained true to her mother-in-law Naomi, and her ingenuous loyalty is absolute. This wonderful emotional closeness that Ruth so adamantly demonstrates rescues both of them from poverty and internal bondage (Ruth 4:11).

The One Who Cannot Ask: This last of the four daughters lacks sufficient freedom to taste even slightly the redemption and thus remains weeping in utter slavery. Although the ‘beautiful captive’ from war is allowed to grieve for her parents before she is taken (Deuteronomy 21:13), she is a reminder of the reality of silenced bondage, which continues to exist in our midst in various ways. The silent weeping that erupts from this dark reality is a call to action for the cause of freedom and liberty of every man and woman (Leviticus 25:10), born in the image of God, in order to live securely in their homes, among their people and loving family (Song of Songs 3:4).


Originally written for the pluralistic haggada “Halaila Hazeh ” edited by Mishael Zion.

Einat Ramon Dean, Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, Jerusalem Senior Lecturer, Jewish Thought and Women’s Studies, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem.

Einat Ramon is a senior lecturer in Jewish thought and Jewish Women’s Studies at Schechter and one of the founders of professional spiritual care in Israel (she is the writer of Israeli spiritual caregivers’ standards and ethical code.)  In 2012 she founded the Marpeh program – the only academic program for the training of spiritual caregivers in the context of pluralistic Jewish studies, where she teaches and supervises chaplaincy students and Israeli pastoral education supervisors-in-training. Dr. Ramon writes academic and popular books and articles about contemporary Hassidic spirituality, the philosophy and methods of spiritual care , Zionist and North American Jewish thought, and modern Jewish women’s theology and ethics— particularly concerning family and bioethics issues. She is a third generation native Jerusalemite, received her doctorate in Religious Studies from Stanford University, she is married to (Reform) Rabbi Arik Ascherman and is a mother of two.

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