Building on an old tradition Female view of Exodus: Women's Seder at Passover offers new ways to express the significant role of women in Judaism.


Tonight, as she has done nearly all her life, Fritzi Hallock will attend a traditional Passover Seder at an uncle's house. At home tomorrow, the Green Spring Valley real estate consultant will put on a second Seder meal -- this one more reflective of the female contribution to the Exodus.

"The issue of being Jewish and being a woman, and trying to find a place between them that feels comfortable is ongoing for me," said Ms. Hallock, one of some 130 women who attended a recent "Women's Seder" to experience the Exodus from a female point of view.

"I don't want to throw anything out as I look for my role in Judaism," said Ms. Hallock, who is determined to create new Passover traditions for her 2-year-old daughter. "The Women's Seder offered ways to begin expressing that, especially with the story of Miriam."

Sponsored by The Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and held at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the Seder was held a week before Passover so that participants could take what they learned back to their families.

The leading female role in the Passover belongs to Miriam, the older sister of Moses and a prophet who as a child announces that her mother would bear a son who would redeem the Israelites.

Tradition holds that on the day Moses was born, a great light filled his family's house, prompting Miriam's father to kiss her head and say: "Your prophecy was fulfilled."

And when the infant grew up to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, it was the Jewish women -- at the back of the Exodus, taking care of children, the aged and the sick -- whom the sages credit with earning their people's freedom.

The Talmud says: "Through the merits of the righteous women of that generation, the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt."

It was the virtue of these women during their time in slavery that rabbinic tradition credits with preserving the Jewish people for emancipation and eventual nationhood.

Jews survived distinctly as Jews not only because those women refused sex with non-Jews in Egypt, but because they convinced their husbands to have intercourse with them despite Pharaoh's decree that all newborn Jewish males be killed.

Such courage -- generations before Moses brought the covenant down from Mount Sinai -- is testimony to faith in their invisible God.

The courage of Miriam

Miriam showed such courage from the time of her childhood.

When the infant Moses was set adrift in a basket down the Nile to save him from Pharaoh's death sentence, it was the 9-year-old Miriam who followed the baby's course down the river. Once Moses was scooped from the river by Pharaoh's daughter, it was Miriam who arranged to have her own mother nurse the child.

And it was Miriam who is said to have decried her father's decision to cease sexual relations with his wife because of the death sentence against all newborn Jewish males.

Talmudic commentaries describe her telling her father: "Your conduct is worse than Pharaoh's. He sentenced only male children, but you have pronounced sentence on all children."

When Miriam's father returned to his wife, other Hebrew men are said to have followed his example.

While renowned for her resourcefulness, wisdom, leadership, outspokenness and beauty, Miriam is mentioned only briefly in the Scriptures (the rest of the world's knowledge of her comes from rabbinic commentary).

To honor her, the Women's Seder raised a special cup for Miriam, symbolic of the fresh, sweet water of "Miriam's Well" that Jews believe accompanied their ancestors on the 40-year journey through the desert before reaching the Promised Land.

At the Seder, the telling of the Exodus story -- which Jews are commanded to do by the Torah -- was related from the perspective of a fictional woman from ancient times.

"When our friends and I see our men suffering, we go out to comfort them. We take them food, we take them water, we bathe them, we insist on having sexual relations at the day's end. We refuse to lose faith in the future," the woman says. "Pharaoh's fatal mistake is that he underestimates us, the Israelite women. Intuitively, we know that we are responsible for the future of our people."

Contemporary female Jews

The sentiment has endured to this day. A newly completed study of American Jewish women commissioned by Brandeis University found that contemporary female Jews see themselves, more than any other role, as "transmitters and interpreters" of the faith for their children.

Attending the Women's Seder were mothers, daughters and granddaughters across the spectrum of Jewish observance from Reform to Orthodox.

Susan Strauss, present with her mother and young daughter, said: "Even though the men always lead the Seder, I got my sense of Judaism through my mother."

Said her mother, Ruth Rovner: "And I got mine from my mother and grandmother."

Four cups of wine

One suggestion they heard was to lend new meaning to four cups of wine raised at the Seder meal: for the women of the Exodus, such as Miriam; the women of Jewish history, such as Golda Meir; contemporary women of valor, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and the Jewish women of each generation, the ones we live and work with everyday.

The four Passover questions asked at Seder also took a new turn.

(Traditionally, the first question is "Why is this night different from all other nights?" with the answer: "On all other nights we eat bread and matzo, tonight we eat only matzo" to commemorate the haste with which the Jews left Egypt, fleeing slavery before their bread had time to rise.)

'Who are our Pharaohs?'

A re-phrased question was: "What still enslaves us as Jewish women and who are our Pharaohs?"

To which Deborah Mitnick of Mount Washington answered:

"We are our own Pharaohs. Hopefully I've evolved from this, but there was a time when I took on the persona of whatever I thought people wanted me to be. Now I feel empowered to be what I want to be."

Pub Date: 4/03/96

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad