Updating the Women’s Seder

The “Rice-paper Haggadah” is commonly acknowledged to have been the first women’s haggadah, created in 1971 by women in Portland, Oregon. In 1977, Esther Broner and Naomi Nimrod wrote The Women’s Haggadah. It was organized like a traditional seder but contained readings that celebrated historical Jewish women and spoke to the contemporary Jewish women’s experience.

This summer, as part of my Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship, I was asked by Temple Sholom to re-imagine their women’s haggadah. It needed some technical upgrades, converting it to an electronic file and integrating the song sheet. In addition, the haggadah was in need of a more contemporary approach in order for it to reflect current cultural concerns. Lastly, the wish was for the new haggadah to enable seder participants a chance to more consciously reflect upon the meaning of Passover in their lives today.

Similar to Broner and Nimrod, I felt it was important to follow the traditional seder outline and use it as the backbone to express women’s ideals rather than try to artificially create a seder around contemporary women’s issues. The creative deviations and additions needed to be rooted in tradition so that the seder could be both relevant and fulfill the traditional role of a seder, telling the exodus story. Creative liturgy is best when it is a combination of celebrating what has been inherited and addressing the tensions with our modern reality. This liturgy expresses both the struggles and hopes of a social group. I feel that Temple Sholom’s revised women’s haggadah reflects a shared identity without straying too far from a more traditional haggadah. The women’s haggadah is rooted in tradition, enriched with the ideals of sisterhood, women’s rights and female empowerment. Through the steps outlined in the haggadah, women are empowered to find their own voice and take the next step towards their own “Promised Land.”

While the idea for a women’s seder originally stemmed from the Women’s Movement, this seder is still needed today. Unfortunately, we do not yet live in an egalitarian society where men and women are treated equally, and therefore, we still need to be conscious of this matter. Today, we continue to respond to and internalize the social issues of the past and present. Even if women’s equality was no longer an issue, people need kinship networks. No matter one’s gender, forming a web of supportive relationships will always be a necessity of life. The women’s seder provides an opportunity for women to strengthen their bonds of the past, present and future.

Alli Cohen was rabbinic fellow at Temple Sholom this past summer under the guidance of Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp.

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