The story of the Jewish people’s redemption from Egypt starts with the seemingly innocuous words: “A man from Levi went out and took a daughter of Levi” (Exodus 2:1). It is from this union that Moses will be born. Rashi explains that Moses’s father had separated from his mother due to Pharaoh’s harsh decrees, but Moses’s sister, Miriam, convinced her parents to reunite – and thus, Moses was born.
Rashi is building off of a rabbinic tradition that, after Pharaoh’s decrees, Jewish men tried separating from their wives to avoid procreating, but their wives convinced them to stay and to bring new Jewish babies into the world. In some ways, the Exodus is a story of women. When Pharaoh asks two women who serve as midwives to kill the Jewish babies and make it look like an accident, they refuse to carry out his genocidal demand.
Moses is saved thanks to three women.
Moses is saved thanks to three women: his mother who hides him, his sister who watches over him when he’s floating down the Nile, and Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopts him. On the way back to Egypt to deliver his famous “Let my people go” speech, Moses is saved from death by his wife. After the escape from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea, Miriam leads the Jewish women in song. Just as women started the process of exodus, so too, they bring it to a close.
No wonder that the Talmud declared that women are included in the miracle of the Exodus, and as such, are obligated in the positive commandments associated with it. The primary positive commandments of Passover are encompassed in the Seder, a ritual where we remember the Exodus, eat matzah, eat a food symbolizing the Passover sacrifice, and drink four cups of wine symbolizing the four stages of redemption.
What does it say about the Modern Orthodox world if there are mainstream communities where women are too afraid to speak out?
But it seems that in Modern Orthodox society, Seders are becoming a men’s-only affair. It’s a new custom for synagogues to have a “Man-Seder,” an event leading up to Passover, where men can eat meat, drink alcohol, and learn some Passover related Torah. Synagogues claim it is a bonding ritual that strengthens the ties between the men of the community. In a 2014 article, women who spoke to journalists to express concerns about the Man-Seder trend refused to use their names out of fear of communal backlash. What does it say about the Modern Orthodox world if there are mainstream communities where women are too afraid to speak out?
There are enough rituals in the Orthodox world that are reserved for men.
Of course, hosting social events is an important aspect of community-building, and a synagogue is entitled to have men-only and women-only events. But these Man-Seders are not accompanied by parallel Woman-Seders, which means that they are taking one of the few Jewish rituals in which men and women are both equally halachikally obligated, and turning it into a men’s domain. Having a Man-Seder without a parallel Woman-Seder sends the message that it’s important for men to learn more about the Seder, but not important for women to do so. There are enough rituals in the Orthodox world that are reserved for men: The synagogue could have an all-men’s night where men learn about the laws of teffilin, or of being a shaliach tzibur, or of reading Torah for the congregation. All of the rituals listed above are reserved for men only in most Modern Orthodox congregations.
But of course, the main focus of the Man-Seder is not the Torah learning, but the eating meat and drinking. By making these the focus of the Man-Seder, the Orthodox establishment is reinforcing the stereotype that men love meat and alcohol – and women don’t. Why can’t there be a vegetarian night for men, or a steak-and-whiskey night for women?
Having a Seder for men in the week before Pesach… sends the message that it’s ok for the men to go out and have fun, while their wives stay at home, scouring the shelves for chametz.
Then, there’s the timing of the Man-Seder, in the weeks leading up to Passover. These are usually the weeks when a wife is at her busiest, cleaning and readying the house for Passover. If we lived in a more egalitarian society, then this would not be primarily the wife’s job, but too often, it is. How many rabbis are teaching the men of their congregations – at the Man-Seder, or from the pulpit – that they are equally obligated to participate in the Pesach cleaning and other holiday prep? Having a Seder for men in the week before Pesach, without an accompanying message that men are equally obligated to clean for the holiday, sends the message that it’s ok for the men to go out and have fun, while their wives stay at home, scouring the shelves for chametz.
Recently, a venerable Jerusalem Modern Orthodox institution, which generally offer high-quality programming for women and for men, issued two flyers: One was for a pre-Pesach cooking event, for women. The other was for a Man-Seder, for men.
At the Seder, women could sit and expect to be judged by their cooking.
The women’s event was scheduled for the daytime and promised to teach women new Pesach recipes that would “wow” their families. The men’s event was scheduled for night-time – because men have jobs – and advertised a BBQ and alcohol, along with “new ideas to share at your Seder.”
The message was clear: At the Seder, women could sit and expect to be judged by their cooking. Men could sit and expect to be judged by their Torah learning. This message reinforces the belief that Jewish religious rituals are for men, and the domestic realm is for women. But this time, that belief is being reinforced with regards to a Jewish ritual in which women are actually halachikally obligated!
The way to respond to is by challenging [norms].
Surely the organizers of the events would respond that they’re simply responding to the needs of their community, where women cook for Pesach and want to learn new recipes, and men like to eat meat. It may be true that the norms underlying the events are more troubling than the events themselves. But the way to respond to is by challenging those norms. Why not have a Pesach cooking class open to men and to women, or even, an all-men’s cooking class? Why not have a mixed-gender pre-Pesach Seder for those who wish to learn new insights into the holiday? Why not an all-women’s BBQ parallel with the all-men’s event?
This spring, as Holiday of Freedom rolls around, it’s time to free ourselves from gender stereotypes. Next year, let’s have Man-Seders and Woman-Seders – or better yet, let’s just have Seders for all.
Shayna Abramson is a native Manhattanite living in Jerusalem, where she works as a grant and content writer and is pursuing an MA in Political Science from Hebrew University.
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