Do We Still Need an Orange on the Seder Plate?
Passover will soon be here, and sociologists tell us that more Jews will participate in some form of Passover seder than will participate in any other religious event during the year.
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 will 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.” Despite that, the myth of the orange representing women on the bimah remains a prevailing reason behind many families’ and communities’ inclusion of an orange on their seder plate.]
Today, it is impossible to think of meaningful non-Orthodox Jewish life without the enormous contributions that female rabbis (and LGBT 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.
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 so far as 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 his 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. Their bravery rings across the millennia as an answer to those Nazis who claimed they had no choice but to kill Jews because they were “only following orders.” 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 and herself receiving the name Bityah, which means “daughter of the Lord” (Va-yikrah Rabbah 1:3; B, Megillah 13A).
The final female hero of Passover is Zipporah, Moses’ wife. She circumcised their son Eleazar when Moses, apparently, had neglected to do so (Exodus 4:24-26). The passage does really not 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.