Bil Browning

Passover: The Orange on the Seder Plate

Filed By Bil Browning | April 19, 2011 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Jewish tradition, LGBT rights, orange on seder plate, Passover

While Jewish people celebrate Passover this week, there's an LGBT angle to the feasting. Maybe progressive Jews include an orange on the seder plate.

During the meal, several items are laid out on a plate to symbolize various aspects of the Jewish history. Urban myth suggests that the orange, a three decades old addition to the thousands of years old tradition, Seder platewas added to show solidarity with women by Professor Susannah Heschel of Dartmouth, a progressive feminist Jewish studies scholar and daughter of one of the most famous rabbis in American Jewish history.

According to the story, she heard an orthodox rabbi say "a woman belongs on the bimah [in a leadership position in the congregation] as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate." Not true, says Professor Haschel.

So what does the orange signify? LGBT rights.

According to an e-mail Professor Heschel sent out a few years ago:

"In the early 1980s, the Hillel Foundation invited me to speak on a panel at Oberlin College. While on campus, I came across a Haggadah that had been written by some Oberlin students to express feminist concerns. One ritual they devised was placing a crust of bread on the Seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians, a statement of defiance against a rebbetzin's pronouncement that, 'There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.' At the next Passover, I placed an orange on our family's Seder plate. During the first part of the Seder, I asked everyone to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit, and eat it as a gesture of solidarity with Jewish lesbians and gay men, and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. Bread on the Seder plate brings an end to Pesach-- it renders everything chametz (not kosher for Passover).

"And it suggests that being lesbian is being transgressive, violating Judaism. I felt that an orange was suggestive of something else: the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life. In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out--a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia of Judaism. When lecturing, I often mentioned my custom as one of many new feminist rituals that have been developed in the last twenty years. Somehow, though, the typical patriarchal maneuver occurred: My idea of an orange and my intention of affirming lesbians and gay men were transformed. Now the story circulates that a man said to me that a woman belongs on the bimah as an orange on the Seder plate. A woman's words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is simply erased. Isn't that precisely what's happened over the centuries to women's ideas? And isn't this precisely the erasure of their existence that gay and lesbian Jews continue to endure, to this day?"

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Laurie Edwards | April 19, 2011 11:44 AM

I respect Professor Heschel's views and her scholarship, but unfortunately her opinion is diametrically opposed to what Orthodox and Conservative Judaism teach. She's simply ignoring the Law and ascribing unprovable motives to those who follow it in order to make acceptable to the Jewish faith what they have determined is NOT acceptable.

I disagree utterly with the position of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism on the subject of gays and lesbians, but come on: Putting an orange on the seder plate doesn't mean a damned thing. All this babbling Professor Heschel is doing, trying to talk around Judaism's long-held position, makes zero sense.

I see it more as Susannah challenging the law - not ignoring the law - which has been done in other instances, such as carrying money on Shabbat. In the latter case, the law was challenged and changed. And US Orthodox and Conservative stances on sexual orientation are changing, mostly due to challenges such as this one.

Umn. Show me a Hasid or orthodox individual that carries money on shabbat and I'll show you a reform (maybe a liberal conservative).

For all the well-meaning of liberal Jewish groups (the Arbeter Ring Hagaddah is touching), the Torah quite clearly says that male homosexual relations and transitioning (or at least cross-dressing, I doubt they made a distinction (Deut. 22:5)) are prohibited and deemed abominations (to'evot). And the Talmud prescribes lashes for female homosexual relations.

I have a hard time conceiving of religion without orthodoxy. Practice is a work in progress, yes, but to accept that one will never practice something (much less refuse to practice something as symbolized by the orange on the Seder plate) seems... odd.

Judaism takes many forms, and Orthodox and Conservative Jewish figures do not make the only "Law". An orange on the seder plate has become a widespread Jewish feminist tradition for many years, a beautiful example of how religions can grow and change, embracing tradition as well as modernity.

Also, being on the bimah is not a leadership position per se -- the bimah is the pulpit from which services are conducted.

Judaism takes many forms, and Orthodox and Conservative Jewish figures do not make the only "Law". An orange on the seder plate has become a widespread Jewish feminist tradition for many years, a beautiful example of how religions can grow and change, embracing tradition as well as modernity.

Also, being on the bimah is not a leadership position per se -- the bimah is the pulpit from which services are conducted.

Interesting story. I didn't even know what a seder plate was.