Monday, April 18, 2011

Feminist Passover Thoughts

Ah, Passover. I’ve always had mixed emotions about Passover. On one hand, there’s weeks of obsessive cleaning before the holiday comes, then eight days' worth of constant synagogue attendance and no good food. (Seriously. You’d think after 4,000 years someone would have figured out how to make better Passover food.) On the other hand, it’s a holiday I was always able to relate to, as it features several strong women characters, and it has a fascinating story behind it.

The first women in the Passover story are Shifra and Puah, the midwives that refused to listen to Pharaoh and kill all the Jewish baby boys. There are several different opinions as to their true identities. One commentator identifies them as Jochebed and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister; another feels that Shifra was indeed Jochebed, but that Puah was Elisheba, Aaron’s wife. Other commentaries feel that they were just random women, one opinion even saying that the two were Egyptian rather than Jewish. Whoever they were, they were amazingly strong: they could have easily been killed for their rebellion against the Pharaoh’s orders. To celebrate these amazing women, Brandeis University established the Shifra and Puah award in the 1970s for people who fought injustice. Not only did they save the children’s physical bodies, but they also nourished their souls, passing on Judaism to the next generation. They teach us an important lesson: without one half of the Jewish nation active, we cannot continue, whether that half is male or female.

Jochebed, Moses’ mother, is another important figure. Since the Egyptians wanted to kill all the Jewish baby boys, they tracked the pregnancies of all the Jewish women to ensure no infant boy would live. She gave birth earlier than expected. Taking advantage of the gift from God, she put Moses in a basket on the Nile and prayed that he would fall into good hands. We must learn from Jochebed that when God hands us an opportunity, we must use it to the fullest extent possible.

Pharaoh’s daughter, named Batya, was the one who found Moses in the Nile. There is an opinion that she was walking by the Nile in order to dip herself in the Nile as a mikvah (ritual bath), the last part of the conversion process. When she found Moses and saw he was circumcised, she knew he was a Jew. Because of her recent conversion, she knew it was God’s will that she adopt him, despite the fact that her father was an anti-Semite that wanted to destroy the Jews. Because she saved his life, and by extension the Jewish people, she is one of the nine people that entered the World to Come alive. From Batya we see that no matter how bad our family is, we must pursue what we perceive is the right way to go.

Moses’ sister Miriam is one of the most well-known women of Tanakh (the Jewish Bible). After Pharaoh declared that all the Jewish boys should be killed, Amram, her father, divorced Jochebed, since he didn’t want her to give birth to a son destined to die. Miriam criticized him, saying that his decree was harsher than Pharaoh’s: he was stopping the birth of girls, too! Because of her words, Amram and Jochebed remarried, conceiving Moses. Commentators say that she was as young as five when she said this to her father, a spiritual giant and leader of the generation. Once Moses was born, she watched him as he floated in his basket along the Nile. When she saw that Batya took him, she brought her mother to the palace, and Jochebed offered to be Moses’ wet nurse. Opinions differ as to whether Batya knew Jochebed was his biological mother or not. We hear nothing about Miriam until the Jews are freed from Egypt, and Moses begins singing the Song of the Sea. Miriam sang a parallel song for the women. Virtually every commentator has a different opinion as to how exactly Moses’ and Miriam’s songs worked. For example, one says that Moses sang a line and then Miriam repeated it for the women, and another opines that Moses sang the entire song, and then Miriam repeated it for the women. To celebrate this strong woman, many feminists put a Cup of Miriam on the Seder table. Miriam’s entire life shows us that women must be included in Judaism to the same extent that men are.

The fact that women are so involved in the Passover story shows us that women must be just as involved in the Seder and the holiday in general. We must participate in the retelling of the Jews’ redemption from Egypt, we must question, we must listen to the answers. If we don’t, then what has the feminist movement done? If we’re not as active as the men at the Seder table, if we don’t take advantage of the opportunities given to us, don’t follow the right path, and don’t push for continued inclusion, we are not continuing the legacy of the women of Passover. It is our inheritance. We must accept it with all of our hearts. If we don’t, we are lost.


  1. I've always been upset at the amount of time that many Jewish women spend in the kitchen during the Seder. Here’s a suggested way to get out of the kitchen and stay out.

    Since all of us were freed from slavery on Pesach, none of us should be a “galley slave” at a Seder. As the rabbis said, “Halaila hazeh, kulanu m’subin—On this night, we all recline.” So get out of the kitchen and take your rightful place, a seat at the Seder table.

  2. Here's a link correction for a suggested way to get out of the kitchen and stay out. I hope this link works, though it's a bit after the fact.