The True Meaning of the Orange on the Passover Seder Plate

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iStock_Orange_MediumMore than an estimated 10,000 haggadahs are in print – more than anyone could read in a lifetime.  Of those I have used, one of my favorites is the Feminist Haggadah.  I love how it emphasizes the crucial role that women played in the story of the Israelite’s journey from Egyptian slavery into freedom.

One of the  innovations in this and in many contemporary haggadahs, is the addition of an orange on the Seder plate.  Few people know that Susannah Heschel, the daughter of the great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, started this custom in the 1980s. How did she come up with this idea?  The myth says that a man once angrily denounced her when she gave a lecture, saying that a woman belongs on the bimah of a synagogue no more than an orange belongs on the Seder plate. So Heschel added an orange to the Seder plate in defiance of him and in celebration of the ordination of women.  As nice as this interpretation may be, it was not Heschel’s intent. According to Heschel, this incident never happened.  Here is the true story…

At an early point in the Seder, when stomachs were starting to growl, I asked each person to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit and eat the segment in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews and of widows, orphans, Jews who are adopted and all others who sometimes feel marginalized in the Jewish community…

She was not happy when she learned that the meaning of her new ritual had been subverted.

For years, I have known about women whose scientific discoveries were attributed to men, or who had to publish their work under a male pseudonym. That it happened to me makes me realize all the more how important it is to recognize how deep and strong patriarchy remains, and how important it is for us to celebrate the contributions of gay and lesbian Jews, and all those who need to be liberated from marginality to centrality …

… my custom had fallen victim to a folktale process in which my original intention was subverted. My idea of the orange was attributed to a man, and my goal of affirming lesbians and gay men was erased.

Read more in this Jewish Forward articleAn Orange on Plate for Women — And Spit Out Seeds of Hate

As with many Jewish rituals and customs, the symbolism of the orange has and will continue to take on new meanings as our culture and tradition evolves.  In the recently published New Union Haggadah, Revised Edition, created by the CCAR Press in cooperation with the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, the orange  “… has come to represent other voices not previously recognized in the life of our communities or family life.”  I think this retains Heschel’s core message, a message that will remain an integral and honored part of this and many other progressive haggadahs.  Here is the complete excerpt from the New Union Haggadah.

The leader lifts up the orange. 

Leader: 

The orange that we have added to the traditional symbolic foods on the seder plate is yet another new dimension to the traditions of Passover. Its unlikely presence in the midst of the other seder symbols has come to represent other voices not previously recognized in the life of our communities or family life: from women in roles of spiritual leadership, to the full diversity of those who gather around our seder tables.

Together: 

Let us give thanks for the blessings of everyone among us, for their love and guidance, and for their unique places in our lives—as we recommit ourselves to continuing the Exodus struggle for the freedom and liberation for all people everywhere!

One of the things I appreciate most about Classical Reform Judaism is the way it makes Passover and all of our holidays and services accessible to anyone who participates.  The rituals are primarily in English, the words reflect our modern culture and sensibilities, and they emphasize the universal ideals expressed by the Prophets.

To learn more about the Society for Classical Reform Judaism go to www.renewreform.org

 

 

Comments(2)

  • Micky Zucker
    April 1, 2018, 12:32 am  Reply

    Fascinating story. I’m going to see if I have an orange, now.

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