When discussing Judaism it’s generally broken down into three levels of adherence: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Technically, I’m Jewish. Having only been to a synagogue a few times in my life and never having had a Bat Mitzvah, I feel safe in saying technically. The overall level of observance and philosophy I adhere to puts me about three or four levels down from Reform. It’s sort of like that t-shirt, “I’m not Full-Blooded Jew, I’m Jew-ish”. That’s not exactly how this works, but you get the point; by technical religious law I’m Jewish but I suck out loud at it. Back in 2009 I wrote a little ditty about it that shared a comic strip from one of my favorite webcomics “Least I Could Do”.
Each year my husband and I would switch off with another couple, featuring another “bad Jew”, hosting a Passover seder (a special ritual dinner done for Passover with the word seder coming from the Hebrew word for order, referring to the order of the ritual). Now that my parents have moved back to the area they’ve joined into the rotation, and although not Orthodox they’re more experienced and polished with the seder observances, but they seemed to have decided to suffer us fools gladly.
As I said, the Passover meal is a ritual, to the point where you essentially use an instruction manual to guide you through the meal. It’s called a Haggadah. It helps you retell the story of Exodus, tell you what prayers to recite, sometimes they’ll suggest songs and activities, and more. There is no one Haggadah. The first year we decided to do a Passover dinner with our friends the only Haggadah he could find was some sort of “scholar’s” Haggadah, that seder took FOREVER! After that year I asked my family to get me copies of the ones we’d always used for the next gift giving occasion. And so the next year I was prepping our first year hosting Passover using “A Family Haggadah II” by Shoshana Silberman.
I had never actually sat and read the Haggadah’s commentary before, but when I did I stumbled across something that became an immediate tradition in our household and then our friend’s. The Passover table features a seder plate containing symbolic foods that are displayed and eaten during the course of the meal. (For example, bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery that the Jewish people endured in Egypt. That kind of thing.) When reading “The Seder Plate” section of Silberman’s Haggadah I found this:
Some families have adopted the custom of placing an orange on the seder plate. This originated from an incident that occurred when women were just beginning to become rabbis. Susannah Heschel, lecturing in Florida, spoke about the emerging equality of women in Jewish life. After her talk, an irate man rose and shouted, “A woman belongs on the bimah (pulpit) like an orange on the seder plate!” By placing an orange on the seder plate, we assert that women belong wherever Jews carry on a sacred life.
And so each year, despite having to look up what goes on the seder plate (Hey, I said I was a bad Jew!) I always remember I need an orange. I suppose it’s fun to feel like I’m flipping a citrusy middle finger to the narrow minded, and that’s why I liked it initially. However I think the reason it resonates with me this year, and perhaps why this year I felt compelled to share it with you (Considering this will be what, six Passovers since I’ve had this website?), is I think I needed a reminder that Judeo-Christian religions are capable of evolution and change.
In watching the news lately I have been so bombarded by religious politicians that appear to be absolutely intractable in beliefs that are growing more outdated by the minute. It is just nice to think that a religion as old as Judaism has a bunch of people putting oranges on seder plates, a ridiculous idea (If you own an actual formal seder plate there is no spot to even make an orange fit!), but they do it anyway because of what it means to them. In doing so, they share that belief with their friends and family and they carry that home with them to share with others.
In a bit of postscript, I stumbled across this info on Wikipedia:
Since the early 1980s, a custom has arisen (especially among more liberal and feminist Jews) to include an orange upon the Seder plate. This custom is often falsely explained as having arisen in response to a man who confronted a Jewish feminist who was giving a speech and opposed the right of women to become rabbis, supposedly declaring that women had as much place on the bimah as an orange had on the seder plate. However, Susannah Heschel, a Jewish scholar who began this custom, has explained it as a symbol of the fruitfulness of all Jews, including women and gay people. After hearing that some college students were placing crusts of bread on their seder plates as a protest against the exclusion of homosexuals from Judaism, Heschel substituted the fruit (originally a tangerine) on the plate instead.
If this is the true origin, it still works for me, because a person who doesn’t believe that a woman or homosexual is entitled to a fruitful life (including Jewish spirituality if they choose it) belongs at my seder dinner like an orange on the seder plate. And you can quote me on that.