HE warned that the task “might seem overwhelming”. It turned out to be devastating.
In last week’s Jewish Telegraph, Rabbi Benjy Rickman urged us to prepare for the seder by re-reading the haggadah and the commentaries beforehand.
He wrote: “We have told this story for generations and in each generation we must find our own connection to this ancient narrative.”
A connection? More like a thunderbolt. Having read the haggadah for more years than I care to count, it took Benjy’s words and the current #MeToo atmosphere to reveal the text in a new and quite shocking light . . .
There are patriarchs and rabbis galore; the four sons, of course, and many more men mentioned than required for several minyanim. But not a single woman.
The nearest reference is to “the four matriarchs” who only get a look-in in order to make up the numbers in the song Echad Mi Yodea (Who knows One?)
How could I never have noticed this before? Was I too drunk on Palwin? Too conditioned by a patriarchal childhood?
Taking a lead from my own rabbi, Fabian Sborovsky, I then followed Benjy’s directive and went back to the original narrative . . . in the chumash.
What a revelation! If it was not for at least five women, there wouldn’t be a narrative.
You all know the story. That nasty man Pharaoh decrees that all Jewish boys are to be killed at birth.
Enter the first strong woman, Jocheved, who hides her beautiful baby son for three months and, heartbreakingly I feel sure, places him in the carefully constructed cradle of bulrushes by the river (she was, of course, preceded by the brave midwives Shifra and Puah, who might have been her and her daughter, but we won’t go into that).
Enter the wonderful Miriam (no wonder so many girls still bear her name) who has the chutzpa to approach the daughter of Pharaoh with the offer of Jocheved as the baby’s nurse . . . an offer that the princess, happily, doesn’t refuse.
The ultimate heroine — heroine of heroines — is surely Pharaoh’s daughter, named elsewhere as Batya (daughter of God).
A midrash has it that God actually stretched her arm to make it long enough to reach the baby Moses in his cradle.
She has been eulogised as the very first Righteous Among the Gentiles.
She defied the evil decree of her father, ensured the education of her adopted son to befit him to lead a great nation and, it is said, eventually converted to Judaism.
Batya is a wonderful poster girl for feminism, inter-faith understanding, motherhood and the best values of Judaism itself.
Please give her a voice at your seder. Without her, there would have been no Exodus and no story to tell.
I AM sure there are those in the Reform movement — men as well
as women — who have recognised this sexism in the haggadah and have
rewritten the narrative accordingly.
There is one prayer, however, that has been eliminated from their haggadah.
It is not so much a prayer as a curse. Shefoch chamatecha el hagoyim (pour thy wrath upon the nations . . . pursue them in wrath and destroy them).
One can understand the worthy reason for its removal. It is discriminatory, vengeful, criminal — and wholly understandable.
Last Shabbat, special yahrzeit candles, each named for a victim of the Shoah, awaited congregants to take home and light as a personalised reminder of our long history of persecution.
Who can blame us for venting our wrath, symbolically, when we celebrate our survival despite the odds?
None of us wishes to actually kill anyone . . . but shouting our anger at those who threaten us makes us feel better, if not braver.
I shall never forget Anthony Sher purloining the verse to make his point as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
Perhaps we could have a slightly edited-down version to shout at Jeremy Corbyn.
I am not usually a fan of Rod Liddle, but couldn’t help but I was not surprised with his conclusion about Corbyn in The Sunday Times:
“I suspect that most Jewish people will take the view that if it walks like an antisemite and repeatedly quacks like an antisemite, then it probably is an antisemite.”