Commentary Magazine


A Feminist Seder

Of all the storybook characters who people my earliest memories, I remain fondest of that rotten bunch of children from the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books—the ones with ridiculous but endearing “character ailments.” And among all of these problem children—the Never-Want-To-Go-To-Bedder, the child with Won’t-Pick-Up-Toys-itis—my favorite is the impudent Answer-Backer, Miss Mary O’Toole, who, whenever her parents ask her to perform even the most minor task, blinks her eyes rapidly, swishes her hair impertinently, and loudly declares, “I’ll do it because I want to, but not because you tell me to!”

I encountered the impudent Miss O’Toole again—quite a few of her likeness, in fact—when I attended a feminist Passover seder this past April at my liberal-arts college. For example, when it came time to light the candles to mark the onset of the Passover festival, the various Misses O’Toole assembled in my college’s Jewish Center wrinkled up their faces and, reading from their prepared script, announced: “Lighting candles is traditionally a woman’s duty in Judaism. Tonight we light these festival candles not because we must by Jewish law—but in order to shed light on this seder table!”

But then, to borrow a well-known phrase from the Haggadah—the ancient text that is read at most seder tables—this was a night truly different from all other nights. To begin with, most of the assembled Mary O’Tooles had filed into the Jewish Center wearing yarmulkes, the ritual headgear traditionally worn by Jewish men. And the seder took place long after Passover—presumably because the actual holiday had fallen, inconveniently, during spring break. The recitation of the Ten Plagues had been altered as well, to become “The Ten Plagues That [Men] Have Brought Against Women.” These contemporary hardships, enumerated in the Feminist Haggadah set before me, included: “The Lack of Acceptance of Lesbianism,” “The Lack of Research Attention to Women’s Medical Needs,” “The Media Image of Women,” “Gender Wage Gaps and Feminization of Poverty,” “Threats to Abortion Rights,” “Lack of Female Role Models,” and “Our Exclusion from History.”

Still another turn of events was the gloss given to the traditional Four Questions usually put by children to the assembled company. Why was this night different from all other nights? “Because,” someone piped up, “tonight the women are not in the Kitchen!” Our text, more historical-minded, offered this: “Because on this night we especially recall the hardships of the Female slaves!” And everyone then chorused:

At all other seders we eat bitter herbs to recall the suffering of the slaves in Egypt, but at this seder we eat bitter herbs to taste the bitterness and frustration we feel at our exclusion from history!

Around the time these uplifting sentiments were being expressed, I had the effrontery to remark that I had a few questions about the questions. I was told in no uncertain terms “not to disrupt the liturgy.” “Liturgy?,” I queried just once, and then fell silent. For all the wondrous new freedoms filling the room that night, freedom from feminist orthodoxy was not to be one of them.

And so the seder pressed on, complete with aversion of Dayenu, the song giving thanks to God for deliverance, which on this occasion expressed our gratitude for the gift of Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin and the many others who (the company intoned) had bravely brought us “out from under patriarchal bondage.” Even the matzah, that humble symbol of purity, was not spared from feminist revisionism; because of its plainness and flatness, it was rediscovered as the perfect metaphor for “a woman, flat in the relief of history.”

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Are women “flat in the relief” of Jewish history? One would have thought that women loom very large indeed, most saliently as the prime conveyors of Jewish values from generation to generation. But, of course, in order to appreciate the role Jewish women have played historically—a role whose value, we are told in the book of Proverbs, is “beyond rubies”—one must respect the family and the role women play in it, which most feminists have not been eager to do. The accomplished wife and mother may be of value “beyond rubies” to God, her husband, and her family, but to most feminists, including the ones at my seder, she is worthless. Opening the oven of history, they proclaim themselves distressed to find only matzah there, when all along they have belittled women who know how to bake bread.

But perhaps I am being too apocalyptic. After all, even at colleges like mine, the monopoly on discourse of all kinds that has been long enjoyed by feminists appears to be coming—slowly—to an end, and with it, their exemption from scrutiny. Unfortunately, however, even after feminism has been discredited, the damage it has wrought will most certainly live on. In the case of Judaism, it seemed to me after attending the Passover seder, that damage might be greater than the otherwise laughable revisions of the Haggadah suggested. But was I wrong?

Feeling ill-equipped to answer this question, I called my father in Milwaukee for advice. He tends to be right about most things, and in any case it is always comforting to hear his thick Israeli accent. This time, though, our conversation did not exactly begin reassuringly; I got about halfway through explaining why the seder was pressing on my mind before he interrupted anxiously.

“Wendy-Sweetie! I must tell you,” he began in his best You-Areon-the-Brink-of-Taking-a-Wrong-and-Irreversible-Turn-in-Life-and-Thank-God-I-Caught-You-in-Time voice. “You’re making, I think, much too big of a deal about this whole thing to begin with. In Israel, when I was a schoolboy, we used to do parodies of seders all the time. It was very funny. We would make up little skits—Shmuel, Eli, Pinchas, and me. Sometimes Aaron too. In the story of the four sons, Shmuel was the wicked one, Eli was the stupid one, and Pinchas was the one who didn’t know how to ask any questions. And I wrote the script, so you can guess who was the wise one.” We both laughed, and then he continued:

“Wait, it gets more funny. And sometimes, the Four Questions would be like, ‘Why do we have to do algebra?,’ or ‘Who is the prettiest girl?,’ and the plagues would be the bell, gym, lab, and Shapiro, who was our principal. Now, of course, our teacher, if we were caught, would say, ‘Cut out that nonsense’ or something like that, but still, it was very funny while it lasted. So you see, my point is you should just laugh at this whole thing and stop worrying. It’s really very funny, actually. Where’s your sense of humor? Don’t you have better things to do with your time, anyway? Have you run out of books? I can send you more books. . . .”

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No, I had not run out of books. I did keep thinking about the seder, though, partly because I was soon to be treated to an onslaught of abusive mail after my criticism of it appeared as an editorial in our campus conservative paper.1 One organizer of the seder went so far as to accuse me of “highly unethical conduct” because I “had come to the seder with [my] politics in [my] prayerbook.” They have a feminist seder, and I was the one with politics in my prayerbook.

I did, however, have one fruitful conversation with a religiously observant student on the board of the Jewish Association. How, I wanted to know, could he condone an exercise whose entire stated purpose was to challenge the authority of the halakhah, Jewish religious law? I was surprised when he agreed with me wholeheartedly on the merits, but went on to argue there was nothing he could do or say about the seder. As he put it to me, “the Talmud says if you criticize someone, it’s like killing them.”

So, I demanded to know, what if the feminists started to build a golden calf in the Jewish Center? “Wendy, you always come up with these extreme examples that have no relationship to reality,” was his response. Perhaps. But I suspect that if, 30 years ago, someone had suggested that the Ten Plagues would soon be revised to include the Lack of Acceptance of Lesbianism, he would have been laughed out of shul.

And there, it seemed to me, lay the danger: the slow erosion, by the combined forces of political correctness and the spirit of free-swinging deconstruction, of whatever could be legitimately thought of as the core of Judaism. And feminist seders were hardly the only sign of this process at work.

Thus, a month after the seder, our Jewish Association met to discuss how to get more people to attend Sabbath services. The proposals ran from less Hebrew, to more social events, to “outreach” with the various environmental, feminist, bisexual, gay, and lesbian groups on campus. If the crowds still failed to materialize, it was suggested, perhaps we might take a campus-wide poll, asking, in effect, “Is there anything about services, besides the Hebrew of course, that offends you, or makes you uncomfortable?” I could not resist proposing that we save ourselves time and bother by just throwing a party every Friday night and calling it services. Later I was told by a member of the board that my comment was “not appreciated.”

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“If . . . Jewish life is to have a claim to authenticity,” wrote Emil L. Fackenheim many years ago in these pages, “then there must be a sense in which the Jewish past has authority,”2 Today, the question is less whether Judaism is “authentic” than whether “authenticity” can be said to exist. Rare is the college student who has not been taught to treat concepts like tradition and authority with total irony—to be “exposed,” in academic parlance, as “storehouses for the interests of the privileged,” and to be replaced by the claims of whatever is the fashion of the moment.

But this does not mean that those who reject Jewish authority feel obliged to find some other name for what they do. On the contrary, in today’s anything-goes world, they can do whatever they want and insist it is somehow—perfectly—Jewish. And why not? Once one has cleansed oneself of the “illusion” of any determinate, identifiable Jewish tradition, an infinite variety of Judaisms abounds. Why not say “Dayenu” for Andrea Dworkin? Why not say “Shmayenu,” for that matter?

Of course, it will not come to that. Although deconstructing feminists insist that they mean to fill the bad old patriarchal space of tradition with a more accommodating sort of “creative Jewishness,” what they end up cramming into that space is their tradition, which, if anything, is a much more rigid and unaccommodating one than the one they (often ignorantly) disdain. Try asking these apostles of creativity if, next year, the feminist seder might alternate with a homophobic one.

And so it strikes me that the battles being fought out at my college’s Jewish Center, petty and risible as they seem, may be of a determining sort. After all, the difference between my father’s Passover parodies in Israel and the feminist seder at my college’s Jewish Center lies in a very simple detail: a parody presupposes something fixed to be parodied. Unfortunately, the feminists meant their seder not as a parody, but rather as something very serious indeed—so serious that it will, they hope, supplant “traditional” Jewish tradition.

Essentially, it comes down to this: those who want Judaism to revolve around their sexual preference, or their politics, or their weekend schedules, have their tradition—call it the Miss Mary O’Toole tradition—and those who want Judaism to revolve around God have theirs. As between the two, those who take their tradition the more seriously will win.


Footnotes

1 It seems my offending lines were: “Passover is fundamentally about the retelling of a story, which has been passed on from generation to generation. Since seder in Hebrew means ‘order,’ it is painfully ironic that the feminists were creating so much disorder with their slanted view of the Passover story. . . . We understand that the Passover seder is often a time to explore the meaning of freedom today, but it wasn't even Passover, and this wasn't—in the meaningful sense of an orderly, accurate depiction of the Passover story—a seder. While we are sure the organizers of the Feminist Seder had only the best of intentions, the result was a political rally at the expense of Judaism, under whose mantle it took place.”

2 “The Dilemma of Liberal Judaism,” October 1960.

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