How Women Can Make the Seder their Own

I look at Hanna Rubina and I recognize the new, yet ancient way in which women can and should lead the seder.
Dr. Channa Pinchasi is a Research Fellow in the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. She is the Director of the Maskilot program and guides research teams at the Center for Judaism and the State Policy. Channa was the Deputy Director of Be’eri and Director of the Be’eri School for Teacher Education at the Institute for 7 years. She received her PhD in gender studies from Bar-Ilan

How Women Can Make the Seder their Own

Translated from Hebrew and originally posted on Ynet

Before we again read Rabbi Aviner reflecting on how it is possible to be ready for Passover in just half a day, and before we remind ourselves that dust is not chametz and that children are not the sacrifice for Passover – and, yet again, work up until the very last minute and arrive exhausted at the seder – I would like to devote a little thought to our role, the role of women, at the seder.

American Jewish feminism has offered women several possibilities with respect to Passover: There are those who add a bitter orange to the seder plate, and there are those who place a cup for Miriam beside Eliyahu’s cup, with water – to symbolize the water of the Nile on whose banks Miriam stood and watched over Moses, the water of the Red Sea where Miriam sang to the Lord after crossing, and the water from Miriam’s well that kept our forefathers alive in the desert. That’s a lot of life-giving water to fit in one cup.

Whatever the improvisation, these are merely add-ons. This Passover, I want all of us – women everywhere – to be a real part of the seder. Two images – one of the Exodus from Egypt and the other of the seder night – offer a new opportunity for me to come to the seder night as a person who belongs, is involved and is uplifted.

The Exodus from Egypt

The Torah speaks in the language of human beings and the story of the Exodus describes God as a man of bravery who redeemed us from slavery “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” In Shirat Hayam, it says explicitly that “God is a man of war”; the conflict between God and Pharaoh appears to be a clash between two masculine figures.

Nevertheless, take a moment to consider the frightening moment between the slaying of the firstborn and the Jews’ escape from Egypt; during this time the Jews had to remain locked in their homes: “And you will not leave your homes until morning.” The doorposts are smeared with blood. Then all at once, everyone is commanded to hastily flee their homes. These are the moments of greatest danger. Only once the Jews have reached the other side of the Red Sea is the redemption complete and a people born.

The description of the Exodus from Egypt is a description of birth – the exit from a closed womb, through a bloody opening, a narrow passage through the Red Sea and the haste and feeling of danger that dissipates only upon leaving the water. God is the midwife. On this reading, an image of female redemption is added to the image of male redemption. This new female is an essential image for me on the seder night, as it makes room in our religious and spiritual lives for the multilayered nature of human beings, male and female. It widens our understanding of the p’shat of the Torah to account for a broader understanding of what our people experienced. (For more, have a look at the wonderful book by Ilana Pardes called, The Biography of Ancient Israel.)

With the male and female aspects of the redemption more clear, we can take another look at the seder itself and discover how we as women can make it our own, just like the Exodus; we too can lead the seder as our grandfathers, fathers, and sons have done throughout the ages.

“The Day is Approaching,” Hanna Rubina and the Seder Night

Recall for a moment the piyut called “The Day is Approaching” from the Haggadah, written by the poet Yanai, who lived in Israel 1,400 years ago, and visualize Hanna Rubina singing the last stanza. The first lady of Israeli theater, Hanna Rubina, one of the founder’s of Israel’s Habima Theater, is a central figure of modern Israeli culture. The piyut creates a powerful image that is firmly grounded in our world, even today. It inspires fear of the catastrophe that will accompany the approaching redemption: “The day is approaching which is not day and not night.” But even before that Rubina prays for Israel in the language of Yanai and with a galut accent: “Place guards on your city all day and all night.” How appropriate – even today. In my eyes, the yearnings are clearly expressed in the admission that, “For yours is the day, as well as the night,” from which the plea goes out that perhaps “You will light up the darkness of night as the light of day.”

I invite you to consider an alternative view of the Seder night. Watch Hanna Rubina sing ” The Day is Approaching ” in this video clip.

Give yourself a minute. Watch how she embodies longing and prayer. The seder completely belongs to her. Ignore for a second the artificial situation, the dated looking footage of the seder night. Let yourself be swept up and consider the fact that this is a secular woman, a great actress; she is from out there, the Diaspora. We can see how she sings this piyut from deep within, evoking the memories of a faraway place, yet at the same time she is completely here – in Israel, our Israel. At times, it seems to me that I see in her the ingathering of the Jews itself, pleading for all our souls from within real longing and freedom. Are you – like me – drawn to watch her again and again?

I look at Hanna Rubina and I recognize the new, yet ancient way in which women can and should lead the seder. Seated at the head of the table, singing “The Day is Approaching,”, and the whole Haggadah as well. Because of Hanna Rubina and thousands of women like her, and because of the femininity of Redemption itself, The Day is Approaching.

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