The Truth Shall Set Us Free

seder-plate-orange-150x150I believed it, too. I told that story, too.

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:

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.


Amendment One: Vote Against

At Pesach, I hold an orange aloft and ask: “Why is this on the  seder plate?”

Inevitably, someone will say that a man once said that a woman belongs on the bimah about as much as an orange on the seder plate. The response? Jewish communities began adding an orange to the seder plate.

That’s not how it happened.

It was scholar and feminist Susannah Heschel who presented the orange as a new Pesach symbol—as a symbol of the fruitfulness we gain when lesbians and gay men are accepted, welcomed and valued as contributing and active members of Jewish life. The orange is about the freedom we must offer every member of our community.

Because we must offer that freedom, I am praying (really) that the citizens of North Carolina reject Amendment One.

For thirty years I have met with GLBT students who struggle with the bitter reality that they are condemned and despised. I met with suicidal students who had tried every method they could find to become “normal,” students who would have done anything to be like the majority that rejected them.

Twenty years ago, when my son was born, I resolved to make it clear that whoever he turned out to be, whether he wanted to spend his life with a man or a woman, he could count on unqualified love and acceptance from me.

If parents can’t offer that much, they shouldn’t be parents.

Today I find people living in the state I love prepared to make a hash of hard-won legal protections domestic partners have earned in past decades – whether straight or homosexual. Parents could lose custody rights to their children. Domestic violence protection could be withdrawn from unmarried couples.

Does anyone want to increase the ability of one human to brutalize another?

Just imagine that you can no longer visit a beloved partner in the hospital, make decisions if your partner is incapacitated, dispose of his or her remains. What kind of world – what kind of people would prevent anyone from helping a loved one in illness or death?

The present legal state of affairs restricts marriage to one man and one woman. We should be working to overturn the existing law, not struggling against additional discriminatory amendments.

Our Torah has nothing to say against the love of two women. What it says about homosexuality is frequently read out of historical context and—as my students at UNCC discover—learning more deeply about that context can alter the reading significantly.

“You shall love your neighbor (your friend, your associate) as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). When a non-Jew asked Rabbi Hillel to tell him the very essence of Torah, Hillel alluded, Talmud tells us, to this very verse: If you wouldn’t want someone to do something to you, he explained, then don’t do it to someone else.

Jews know what it is to live with constraints on their movements, on their free expression, on their very lives. Heterosexual Jews ought to know that it is wrong – just plain wrong – to refuse GLBT citizens access to ceremonies, rituals, and rights that they enjoy.

Oranges belong on the seder plate and GLBT citizens belong in our communities and in our state – with the same rights as any other human being.


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