Later, I found out I’d been lying. Or, if you want a softer, gentler conclusion, I can put it this way: I had unknowingly participated in hijacking the truth.
But the truth, as they say, can set you free.
The orange on the seder plate was not, contrary to popular mythology, put there as a protest against patriarchy. It is simply not true that some misogynistic dude told noted scholar and historian Susannah Heschel that a woman belonged on the bimah like an orange on the seder plate. You can find the story told in Heschel’s own words here: http://www.miriamscup.com/Heschel_orange.htm
Ask folks about the orange, though, and that’s what they will tell you. Just a few years back, I heard a group of about seventy very well-educated Jewish women make that claim. Once upon a time, I would have smiled and agreed.
It’s nice to acknowledge how far women have come, how much we have achieved. It’s a good moment when we have reason to congratulate ourselves.
When I found out how wrong I was, I was appalled.
Here’s the truth.
According to Susannah Heschel herself, the story begins back in the 1980’s, when she read a feminist Haggadah that suggested adding a crust of bread to the seder plate as a way to demonstrate understanding for the status of lesbians in the Jewish world. The idea was obvious enough: There would be just as much room for chametz on the seder plate as there was for lesbians and gays in Jewish life and community.
Heschel wasn’t convinced that this was the best way to demonstrate solidarity. Associating Jewish lesbians and gays with chametz defined the former as forbidden. After all, before Passover we do everything we can to ferret out and dispose of the chametz in our midst. We burn the last crumbs before the holiday begins. We declare ourselves free of chametz, and then, during the next eight days, we eschew all contact with leavened bread.
Heschel decided to place an orange on the seder plate to symbolize the inclusion of gays and lesbians. The orange symbolized the life-giving, fruitful energy they could bring as involved participants in Jewish communities. The seeds of the orange could be spat out to repudiate the homophobia that had long plagued Jewish life.
Why couldn’t we transmit the actual history of the orange on the seder plate? Why transmute and transform Heschel’s experience into a story of women’s victory over patriarchy?
As Heschel herself has written, her words were put into the mouth of a man. We ended up with a self-congratulatory cliché. These days, Jewish women are busy owning that bimah.
I know that there are still plenty of concerns about the status of Jewish women in our communities and institutions. But it might be time for us not just to retell the story, and to do so accurately, but to look closely at the kind of comfort we gave ourselves when we altered it. The heterosexual gloss we gave to a story about homosexual pain is worth examining.
The stories we believe and the stories we tell will reveal a story about who we are.
Next year, at Passover, put an orange on the seder plate. Spit out the seeds of homophobia. These must become bitter relics of the past, of a time heterosexuals should atone for.
Let the truth set us free.