I started leading women’s Seders about 25 years ago, and I was late to the table, so to speak. My sister Jan Salzman, who is now a rabbi, got our family started with a homemade Haggadah, and my two sisters and I, our mother, aunts, and girlfriends left kids and husbands at home, and joined together for a third Seder, just for women. In fact, our daughters weren’t allowed at the table until they had become bat Mitzvahs. This was a women’s Seder,
It was a liberating experience to be without the men back then. We still prepared the meal, but we prepared and served it together. It was, for some of us, the first time we had all sat unrushed through an entire Seder.
I still lead women’s Seders today, although some of the language that refers to being equal in ritual practice may seem outdated in many communities. We are less and less fighting for our voices to be heard in Jewish life, at least in this country. There are still ritual issues to be addressed, such as the “agunah”, both here and abroad, the plight of the “chained wife”, whose husband refuses to give her a Jewish divorce, which keeps her chained to a marriage that may have already been ended through civil divorce, but from which she cannot leave in light of Jewish law. Sadly, the language about violence toward women, inequality in the workplace, and the glass ceilings are still apropos. Year after year, we still find something meaningful in the familiar words and rituals, even if it’s to remember how far we’ve come from those decades ago.
Over the years, there have been new twists to the liberation story, as reflected in the number of themed Haggadot available: Soviet Jewry, Social Justice, Interfaith, LGBT, and so many, many more. Because the story is so powerful, because the story is so true and profound at its core, others who are under the yoke of oppression find inspiration in it, too. Passover is about an entire group of people who are finally allowed to take part in their own destiny. Passover is about recognizing the continuing struggle for freedom. Passover is about telling and re-telling a story that still resonates through the generations, as we are told, “k’ilu hu yatza m’Mitzrayim”, as if we personally were brought out of Egypt. Passover is personal.
Recently, women have once again become the focus of another manifestation of the liberation story, and ironically, the struggle is taking place not only within the Jewish community, but at its heart, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. For over 20 years, members of an organization known as “Women of the Wall” have been gathering at the Kotel,on Rosh Chodesh, the first of the month, to pray. I have davened with these women, and I have never known such elation, fear, uneasiness, and pride all at the same time. But the attacks on the Women of the Wall have been getting more and more violent, more and more humiliating, and more and more intolerable.
For Rosh Chodesh Adar, just last month, the Women of the Wall were joined by some other well-known liberators: the soldiers who liberated the Wall in 1967. Back then, they fought to make the Wall accessible to Jews. Now in their 70’s, with their presence, they are still fighting to make it accessible to all Jews. When these Israeli heroes joined the women, the police were not to be seen. But after they left, acting on the authority of the increasingly radical Western Wall Heritage Fund, the police arrested and detained ten women who had the audacity to offer praise and gratitude to God while wearing the traditional garb of the prayerful – a talit. The police knew they couldn’t make these arrests in the presence of Israeli heroes, because the country would not have tolerated such an affront to its deservedly revered warriors. But as soon as they were gone? All bets were off, and ten women were carted off.
Rosh Chodesh Nisan, for the month of Passover, seems to have gone more smoothly. Perhaps a tide is turning? Perhaps some of Israel’s leaders are beginning to pass through from their own narrowness, their own Mitzrayim, into a more open land? Just like the Israelites at the shore of the Sea, about to cross into an unknown land, perhaps the leadership is also standing at the shore, and it will take the courage of Nachshon to step into the water. We wish for them to find that courage.
The struggle for liberation continues throughout the world, and Passover is the appropriate time to shine a light into those dark places. How much more so do we need to shine that light on our own community, for the right to pray and live as the Jews we are. The original Exodus took faith and action, and we need both again today. This year at your Seder table, may you be inspired and strengthened by the story of the struggle, and may we all work together to find the way to true liberation in our own time.