Celebrating Women’s Seders vs. Celebrating Women at the Seder
I have always found women’s seders perplexing, ever since my mother first dragged me to one when I was a teenager.
To me, Passover is a family holiday, and it felt wrong to exclude half of our family from the celebration. I also didn’t understand why, instead of telling the story of the Exodus, we toasted Bella Abzug and Henrietta Szold.
I also have a Litvak streak, which means that I am skeptical of too much dancing and drumming.
I’m still ambivalent about women’s seders. I understand now that women’s seders are not meant to replace the traditional seder. Rather, like the Freedom Seder and the Stonewall Seder, women’s seders use the haggadah as a model to celebrate an oppressed group’s ongoing struggle for freedom. I’m glad they exist, so I can use materials from alternative haggadot to make my seder more relevant to today’s struggles for freedom.
But one issue I still have with many women’s seders is that, in their focus on the heroism of modern women, they often gloss over the feminist potential in the Passover story itself.
In Reading Women of the Bible, Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, z”l, proposes that, without the actions of women—the Hebrew midwives, Miriam, Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Zipporah—the entire Exodus would have been impossible. And that’s without delving into the women of the midrash!
“The choices made by women in the course of their domestic lives determine the destiny of the entire people,” she writes. “Acting in their routine roles as midwives, mothers, daughters, and wives, women become the saviors of early Israel.”
Many seders give a nod to the women of the Exodus by adding a Miriam’s cup, after the midrashic legend of Miriam’s traveling well. But Frymer-Kensky’s work inspired me to include another set of biblical heroines in my seder.
In our rush to get to the birth of Moses, we often skip over the story of the midwives, whom Pharaoh orders to commit infanticide while assisting at the deliveries of Hebrew women. Fearing God, the midwives refuse, perhaps the first recorded act of civil disobedience. When asked to explain their actions, the midwives lie to Pharaoh, telling him the Hebrew women are “animals,” giving birth too quickly for them to fulfill their mission.
When called upon by those in power to harm the powerless, the midwives follow their own conscience, sowing seeds of redemption. What better story to tell as we gather around our seder table?
Here is a ritual I created to celebrate the Hebrew midwives at my seder:
Passover Ritual for the Midwives
Fill a mug with strong tea or coffee.
Moses is not the hero of our story. And Miriam is not the heroine. God is the Hero(ine) of our story.
The Bible records: “The Eternal freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.” (Deuteronomy 6:21).
The haggadah adds: “ ‘And the Eternal brought us forth from Egypt’… not by a messenger, but by Godself.”
We see God in the river flowing with blood, in the parting of waters, in the lightning at Sinai. We also see God in the courage of Moses, in the loyalty of Aaron, and the joyful dance of Miriam. We see God in the frustration of Amram, the resourcefulness of Yocheved, and in Bat-Paroh’s unconditional love for a stranger’s child. We see God in people who say “no” to tyranny. We see God in people who say “yes” to life.
Rabbi Akiva explains: “As the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11b).
The story of our Exodus begins with the defiant act of the midwives to the Hebrew women. Shifra and Puah transformed a situation in which death was mandated into one in which life was held sacred. In a place where Hebrews were treated like animals, Shifra and Puah cared for them as human beings worthy of the chance to live.
Tonight, in celebration of the midwives’ courage and defiance, we place a cup of strong tea or coffee on our Seder table.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “A woman is like a tea bag—you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.”
Many foods change when plunged into hot water: vegetables soften; eggs harden. Tea, however, changes the water that surrounds it.
In the end, we had no choice but to flee from Egypt. But Shifra and Puah strove to make the world better from where they stood, crouched next to the birthstool. As we celebrate our freedom tonight, let us celebrate those who did not wait for God to act, but rather—through their own actions—made themselves instruments of the Divine.
And now, we ask all those gathered here: How can we be instruments of God in the year to come?
How to cite this page
Berkowitz , Leah. "Celebrating Women’s Seders vs. Celebrating Women at the Seder." 19 April 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 5, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/celebrating-women-s-seders-vs-celebrating-women-at-seder>.