4-22-2016passoverFINAL-MP
4-22-2016passoverFINAL-MP

Do we still need an orange on the seder plate

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The seder is the most successful pedagogical tool in Jewish history, largely because it stimulates all of our senses: sight, touch, taste, sound and smell.

In addition to the traditional symbols, many families and communities include an orange on their seder plates.

The most prominent myth behind this custom is that, years ago, a man confronted professor Susannah Heschel and told her, “The idea of women rabbis makes as much sense as an orange on a seder plate.”

Professor Heschel herself has repudiated that myth, writing that she actually began placing an orange on the seder plate to affirm the often-marginalized lesbian and gay members of our communities. As we eat segments of the orange, Heschel wrote, “We spit out the seeds that symbolize that hatred and indignities gays and lesbians endure.”

Today, it is impossible to think of meaningful non-Orthodox Jewish life without the enormous contributions that female rabbis (and LGBTQ rabbis) have made since the ordination of Sally Priesand in 1972.

But I believe our focus at the seder should be on telling our story. Though that story can and should reference other struggles for liberation, our seder plate is full enough without symbols that do not explicitly reference our liberation from bondage.

Personally, I would prefer to retire the orange and spend serious time at the seder discussing the vital role women played in the Exodus story and what they teach us today.

Passover Reflections,
11×15” Mixed Media Collage
© Nina Bonos, 2016 www.ninabonos.com

Instead of an orange, I want my daughters and granddaughter to know that without the actions of no fewer than six women heroes, Moses never would have gotten far enough to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” I want every seder participant to know that without these six women, the Exodus could not have taken place and we would have no Passover to celebrate.

Shifra and Puah were humble midwives, ordered by Pharaoh to kill every baby boy that emerged from a Jewish mother’s womb. Though the most powerful man on earth — one worshipped as a god — gave them a direct order, the midwives answered to a higher authority than Pharaoh. Shifra and Puah teach us we always have a choice.

Yocheved, Moses’ mother, hid her baby in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree and placed him in a wicker basket, floating him among the reeds of the Nile. What courage that took — but her gamble paid off.

Miriam, Moses’ sister, watched the basket from afar. When Pharaoh’s daughter drew it out of the water, Miriam ran to her and suggested the baby’s own mother as his nurse. In doing so, she saved her brother’s life.

The heroic role of Pharaoh’s daughter shouldn’t escape our attention, either. She defied her father’s decree and saved Moses, receiving the privilege of giving Moses his name.

The final female hero of Passover is Zipporah, Moses’ wife. She circumcised their son Eliezer when Moses, apparently, had neglected to do so. The passage doesn’t really fit into the flow of the story, so the rabbis could have interpreted it any way they wished, deeming it either crucial or inconsequential. They chose to teach us that God would have killed Moses had Zipporah not intervened and circumcised their son.

The heroism of the women who made Passover possible is a strong and accurate answer to those who claim that women always play a secondary or subordinate role in Jewish thinking. An orange does not make their case. Telling their story does.

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, Conn. This piece originally appeared on reformjudaism.org.

 

Yes, we still need an orange on the seder plate

My colleague, Rabbi Steven Fuchs, thinks it’s time to retire the orange from progressive seder plates.

In order to explain the custom, he writes: “In addition to the traditional symbols, many families and communities include an orange on their seder plates. The most prominent myth behind this custom is that, years ago, a man confronted professor Susannah Heschel and told her, ‘The idea of women rabbis makes as much sense as an orange on a seder plate.’ ”

Rabbi Fuchs reminds readers that professor Heschel has actually debunked this story and explains that her real intention was to put the orange on the plate in honor of gay and lesbian Jews who have been marginalized.

All true.

But then Rabbi Fuchs suggests that the time has come to eliminate this symbol.

He writes: “I believe our focus at the seder should be on telling our story. Though that story can and should reference other struggles for liberation, our seder plate is full enough without symbols that do not explicitly reference our liberation from bondage.”

And this is where I disagree. Yes. The focus at the seder should be on telling “our story.”

But how can we tell that one story, that story of long ago, without connecting it directly to the many other stories that we have? How can we make this tale of slavery relevant and understandable to each generation, to each individual participant at the table, if we don’t remind ourselves of continued oppression in our midst?

I deny the idea that we have “arrived” in terms of gender equality, especially when taken on a worldwide level. I deny the idea that the presence of women on the North American Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist bimah is “enough” when held up to other movements, other countries (read: Israel) and other aspects of society.

Telling the story of the brave women who participated in the story of the Exodus is good. It is an important step in restoring equality to our storytelling. But merely to place those women back into the story without acknowledging how long it took to get them there? Merely to place them into the story without pointing out that their presence alone is a milestone for our people? I think this is missing the point of telling the tale of liberation.

Yes, I agree. “Our story” is important. But the seder has retained its relevance for generations exactly because we have taken the once-upon-a-time story and made it our own in every generation. I agree that the orange does not need to merely refer to women on the bimah, and it doesn’t even need to refer only to the LGBTQ community. But instead, it stands as a reminder of all people that, at some point in their history, might have felt they didn’t belong. I like that my orange has to jockey for a spot, teetering on the edge of one of the other seder plate spaces. The orange never quite fits — and yes! That is exactly the point.

The orange will remain on my seder plate as a sign that we are always striving to help everyone to feel included, a sign that we are always looking out for those who might not feel that they belong, and a sign that we are full of juicy vitality: always growing, always changing and always aware, keenly aware, that our history of bondage requires us to tell those stories.

Rabbi Phyllis Sommer is the associate rabbi at Am Shalom in Glencoe, Ill., who blogs at Ima On and Off the Bima (imabimah.blogspot.com). When her son Sam was diagnosed with cancer at age 6, she also began blogging at Superman Sam (supermansamuel.blogspot.com). This piece originally appeared on reformjudaism.org.

 

With painted watercolor and handmade papers, Passover Reflections presents traditional Passover symbols influenced by the beauty and vibrance of Sonoma Wine Country where Judaica Artist, Nina Bonos, lives and paints. The background is an embossed, handmade paper resembling matzoh texture, set off with gold diamond shapes. Candlesticks and kiddush cup interpret those from the Artist’s personal collection. Red at top left and bottom right recalls lamb’s blood on the doorposts of Jewish homes from the Passover story. To view more of Nina’s work, please visit: ninabonos.com