On Oranges and Water Glasses: Two News Additions to the Seder Plate

The last few parashot readings included instructions on what to do with community members suffering from various skin ailments.  These strange diseases are often interpreted as representing the disease of gossip and slander (lashon ha ra), considered a serious sin in Judaism because, like gathering feathers dispersed in the wind, the damage caused by a thoughtless tongue can never be amended. In the Torah, the last hope for a cure to this “disease” is separation from the community.  Those afflicted are sent off on their own, presumably to heal in both mind and spirit, and then to return once they have been “cured.”  This separation offers the sinner a glimpse into the far worse fate of being cut off from their community.  Considered possibly the worst punishment a Jew can receive, to cut someone off from his or her community is nothing to be taken lightly in the Jewish world.

Yet today it happens all the time; sometimes purposefully, sometimes unintentionally.  How many observant LGBT Jews never live fulfilled lives in fear of being expelled from their communities?  How many Jewish women are forced to choose between their communities and pursuing education and careers?  How many hover, sequestered in the kitchen, while men make important decisions, often involving themselves and their families?  How many contributions to the Jewish world have been ignored because their providers were women or were gay?  How many role models overlooked? The answer is too many to ever know or count.

Yet slowly, slowly, more communities are moving towards inclusiveness.  We see it reflected on the seder plate, where more and more families choose to place an orange and a glass of water, both symbols of inclusion.

The origin of the orange is often explained with the following story:

When Susannah Heschel, a leading Jewish feminist scholar was   lecturing at a synagogue in Florida, an elderly rabbi stood up and declared that, ‘a woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the seder plate.’  Therefore, in order to show support for the changing and once ignored role of women in Judaism, we place an orange on the seder plate.

While this story appears to be more folklore than fact, the tradition was indeed started by Susannah Heschel for similar reasons. She chose an orange as a symbol of inclusion of not only woman, but gays, lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. She offered the orange as a symbol of the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life. In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out – a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia and sexism found within certain circles of Judaism.  The orange serves as a reminder that we are charged, as Jews, to allow ALL who are hungry to eat with us on Pesach.  Let’s hope this reminder spills into our daily life as well.

Secondly, there is another new addition to the modern seder plate:  a glass symbolizing Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, who was also a prophet. Miriam brought the Jews strength and bravery when she stepped into the Red Sea as it parted.  The first to go, she joyfully danced and played the tambourine as she crossed. In doing so, Miriam inspired those behind her to let go of the fear that bound them to slavery and cross the waters, in faith, to freedom. Miriam’s cup also reminds us of Miriam’s Well, a miraculous well of clear spring water that is said to have followed Miriam throughout the children of Israel’s wanderings. This well nurtured and sustained the Jews for the forty years they wandered in Sinai, much as the women of Israel have nourished and sustained their own communities throughout the generations.

As taken from miriamscup.com, an excellent resource on this new tradition, Miriam’s Cup honors the “important role of Jewish women in our tradition and history, whose stories have been too sparingly told.”  In this way, it honors all of the stories that we hope will be told in the future, as well as all of the stories that have been forgotten, the women who lived or told them victims of marginalization in their own communities.

The glass starts out empty on the table, but is filled, in turn, by the all the women present at the seder table, each pouring from her own glass.  Each woman contributes her own precious water, just as she contributes her own story to the fabric of her community.

These two new traditions make an already rich holiday even richer; let’s hope they become increasingly commonplace, and even more importantly, that what they stand for- the inclusion of LGBT and women in the Jewish world, becomes more and more apart of our global community.

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