(WOMENSENEWS)–Like members of all the world’s major religions–which are steeped in patriarchal hierarchies, rituals and language–Jewish feminists in the 1970s sought ways to bring a new consciousness to an ancient faith. In 1972, Sally Priesand was ordained as the first female rabbi, a first step in breaking down barriers to women in positions of authority within the religion. But structural change was only the beginning.
Three years later, one of the religion’s most widely celebrated rituals was transformed. It happened in Israel, where U.S. novelist E.M. Broner was planning a Passover seder with friends, including social worker Nomi Nimrod and parliament member Marcia Freedman. Where, they asked, were the women’s voices and the women’s stories in the annual retelling of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt?
In most Jewish homes, the seder ceremony was an extended family affair, held on the first and second nights of the eight-day holiday, with attendant customs requiring women to clean for many days before and to prepare the elaborate meals. Reading of the traditional text was presided over by the male head of the household with questions asked by four symbolic sons, which allowed the Exodus story to be revealed through a series of replies. But in Israel in 1975 Broner, Nimrod and Freedman replaced the sons with daughters in the ceremony, added women’s prayers and found language in which to describe God without assigning maleness.
In 1976, the first feminist seder was celebrated in New York City by a group organized by Broner. In the ongoing transformation of the biblical tale, the text they created included not only Moses as hero and leader of the Exodus but also his mother Yochaved, who committed civil disobedience by bearing a child and then hiding him from the Egyptians; Shifra and Puah, the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s decree to kill all Jewish male infants; and Miriam, Moses’ sister, who watched over him and eventually led the celebration of freedom by singing, dancing and playing music.
As the feminist seder spread around the country and to other parts of the world, groups added their own texts or ritual objects to the ceremony. A cup honoring Miriam now sits on many a seder table. In New York, the original "seder sisters," still going strong, added a second cup to honor one of its own, the late Rep. Bella Abzug, who died in 1998. With its popularity increasing, many communities have taken to holding feminist seders in large public spaces, drawing thousands of participants, who rise to their feet to sing, dance and play tambourines as part of the ceremony.
Whatever the particulars of the celebration, the theme of liberation remains the same. As Rabbi Joy Levitt of the Jewish Community Center in New York said at one seder she conducted, the ritual commemorates "the continuing, evolving story of liberation of women everywhere. The message of the seder is that I can’t be free unless you are. And my responsibility is to work for your freedom just as your responsibility is to work for mine."
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change." She can be reached at [email protected].
For more information:
Jewish Women’s Archive, "Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution":
Miriam’s Cup: A New Ritual for the Passover Seder":
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