Pesach, or Passover, begins tomorrow at sunset. It has always seemed strange to me that a festival centered on liberation begins with a focus on housework and cleanliness to the point where one is almost a slave to the process of chametz (leavened food) removal. Not only that, but the spiritual interpretation of what the chametz represents adds to this conundrum.
The Rabbis of the Talmud teach us that chametz represents egotism and arrogance. The divine instruction to eat only unleavened bread for the festival of Pesach is a call to cultivate humility because they believe that our inflated sense of self-worth causes harm to other human beings as we value ourselves and our lives more than them. As we remove the chametz from our homes, we are also supposed to be removing the self-centeredness, arrogance and egotism within ourselves. Cultivating humility redirects our attention to all those parts of our lives that have suffered by being too self-centered, including our relationship with the Holy One.
On the whole, I can see the spiritual value in making sure we are properly attuned to others and to G-d in our lives, and I appreciate the opportunity to turn ordinary housework into a spiritual practice. In fact, that is one of the things I love most about Judaism: its ability to elevate the mundane and give it spiritual significance. However, the practice also brings a sour taste to my mouth. It is no secret that most homes are made kosher for Pesach by women.
There are two fundamental issues at stake here. First, women are socialized to put others and their families ahead of themselves and often lack the appropriate amount of self-worth and pride in who they are. Then, to make Pesach, they are asked to become even more humble. Second, women shoulder most if not all of the burden of these household preparations. In fact, many men, in the more observant streams of Judaism, wouldn’t know where to begin this process.
Blu Greenberg, in her book How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, illustrates this point well, “Traditional Jewish women know exactly the procedures outlined above. And while many men know the law in theory, they are not familiar with it in practice. Nor do they have any idea of the time, energy and planning it takes to clean closets, move furniture, store utensils, boil, kasher, shop, inspect labels, cook, bake…I recall when the wife of an illustrious and brilliant rabbi was taken ill, two weeks before Pesach, and had to be confined to a hospital bed. The rabbi had to move out of their house with their three children for the duration because he could not possibly ‘make Pesach’, this despite the fact that it was he to whom a hundred women had turned with questions on koshering for Pesach,” (418). She continues, “My mother used to say that the Jewish housewife was the only one who didn’t go out of bondage on Pesach,” (418-419). Greenberg follows up with a number of suggestions to make the practical preparations more egalitarian, the housework more acknowledged and the experience less onerous for women. This is important. It is also important to acknowledge that when men do the housework, focusing on egotism and arrogance may be appropriate spiritual practices. However, for women and feminist men, she does not offer a practical theological alternative for chametz as arrogance and egotism. This is necessary.
I would like to suggest a theological alternative using material she provides in her book. Greenberg writes, “In slavery, they ate the hard, broken crusts which the master allowed them. In the Exodus, the Jews voluntarily accepted a most Spartan regimen as they set out on their tenuous journey – because they had before them a vision of liberation,” (401-402). If the chametz then represents our lives before we could choose and the matzah our lives freely chosen, then the chametz we find in our homes should serve as a reminder of the people who do not have mastery over their own lives, who have not yet left Mitzrayim (Egypt) and who cannot voluntarily choose the matzah. The Russian take-over of Crimea is a perfect example. That referendum was not a free decision any way you think about it. Likewise, slavery exists in many forms today. There is human trafficking, immigrants jailed only because they do not have the proper papers , women who cannot leave their homes without male accompaniment, sweatshops, child laborers, bonded laborers, the destruction of nature for human ends and child marriage. In other words, the chametz in our homes reminds us just how much liberation the world needs and spending time removing it from our homes also gives us ample time for reflection.
We still have the matzah for which to account. Just as feminism requires theory, it also requires action. Judaism rests on similar mores. Just acknowledging slavery does not change the situation and it does not embrace the radical ideals of liberation and freedom that Pesach cherishes. In my opinion, the most important Pesach truth concerns how G-d works in the world: G-d’s liberating actions require human cooperation. The Israelites would have never left Egypt and traveled safely through the wilderness without the help of Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
As a free people, we need to liberate others. We need to choose to act. This action is the matzah about which Greenberg writes. I would start with something you could see as reasonable to accomplish in the coming year. Maybe you commit to recycling more or volunteering to answer calls at the local domestic violence hotline. Maybe you purchase only sweatshop-free clothing or attend rallies in support of liberation, feminism, freedom or environmental concerns. Perhaps you buy only cruelty-free kosher eggs or vote for a candidate who wants fairer immigration laws.
Slavery won’t end overnight. Not yet anyway. But we can lessen the practice through consciousness-raising and action. Remember, there are many people still in Mitzrayim. For me and my own spiritual practices, the juxtaposition of slavery and freedom better captures the meaning of Pesach more so than arrogance, egotism and cultivating humility ever will. Perhaps this rings true for you as well. May this Pesach be a rich, meaningful one sisters and brothers.
L’shanah haba’ah with less patriarchy and more freedom! Chag Semeach!
Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Merrimack College. Her most recent publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).
10 thoughts on “Pesach, Patriachy and the Unfinished Work of Liberation.”
Lovely post. Like your suggestions. I would also like to see an emphasis on the rebirth and renewal of life in spring, which may have been the underlying meaning of the rituals of cleaning, out with the old and in with the new. In Greece the women also clean the house thoroughly at this time of year, even though they are not commanded to do so by their religion. Even the swallows are renewing their nests as I write.
Thank you Carol for reminding me about the important references to spring and life’s renewal in Pesach. Both the egg on the Seder plate and the parsley represent spring, life’s renewal and circular pattern of time and season. That’s one of the reasons Pesach falls in the springtime. In fact, Arthur Waskow in his book “Seasons of our Joy,” discusses that Pesach probably originated as the combination of two early festivals: one as fertility celebration for shepherds whose flocks were lambing and the other as harvest festivals of early spring wheat and barley (see page 133).
Well done! In the past I have attended some interfaith Pesachs and I just loved the service (Moses narrative, the singing, theme of freedom and liberation). I love your suggestions for Pesach-beyond-Pesach– something all of us would do well to remember and implement!
Yes I agree!
Maybe you could look at being a woman in this tradition as special gift given to us. Women and men are very different. As women, we have been given different tasks for a reason. We should celebrate that fact. Spending to much time on things being fair or unfair is often time wasted. We should enjoy who we are and celebrate our opportunities.
Thank you for your comment, Mom :-). It’s so nice to have you reading my blog. In general, I would agree that differnce is not problematic and many differences between people, be it gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc., should be embraced and even celebrated. My issue with this difference is when society values one of the different catagories more than the others. My problem with housework only done by women is not that they are doing it but that they are assigned it because it is seen as less important and their (house)work therefore is less valued. If it was valued the same, why aren’t women paid for it? Why are men who do housework or are the primary caregivers of children effeminated by society? Both speak to what is traditionally been assigned to women, “female” work, as less than. This is the problem I have with difference: valuing one side of the difference more than the other.
It’s all men talking to other men about how nto be arrogant jerks. Obviously, if men are inventing this way of life, they should do all the cooking and prep work, and let their wives have leisure and time away from it all as a “sacred” practice. That would be a true spiritual revolution. Thank goddess I’m a lesbian and don’t have to be in any homes with men. This whole thing is one big YUCK. There is the male concept of the profane and the sacred, and profane is where lazy men who are domineering and arrogant live. Male is the default, and you never hear the phrase within feminism of “the sacred masculine” for this very reason.
Put the men to work, create a new rule that says women don’t have to do any of this work for 100 years, and in order for men to become Rabbis they need to be shipped off to homes and trained to do this work for a five year program. It can become a sin for men NOT to clean.
This whole thing just horrifies me.
I do not agree with your basic premise but I understand why you feel that way. I do not think turning the tables on anyone is the right way to approach change or affect liberation. If you don’t want to be treated a certain way, why would it be acceptable to treat others in that fashion? It does not produce dialogue or progress but rather resentment and anger. I also do not agree that men as a whole are responsible for society in its current state. I know many feminist men and women who are just as patriarchal as the most patriarchal man. The system is the problem much more so than any one individual person.
Reblogged this on Who GOD is Not and commented:
God is NOT about arrogance or the egotism it takes to enslave others with our judgments that put others beneath us as less worthy. When we believe God considers humanity to be unworthy or less worthy, that God condescends to love us, then we project that egoistic god out into the world.
Really enjoyed your article, Ivy! Thank you!
Forgive my not using “G-d” in my reblog. Happy Passover!