“בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם”
“In every generation, we are obligated to see ourselves as though we were taken out of Mitzrayim (Egypt).”
— PASSOVER HAGGADAH
The word for Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim — the Narrow Places, the tight spots. During the Passover season, as we retell our story of leaving slavery in Mitzrayim behind, each of us has the opportunity to look at those narrow places in which we are stuck and to liberate ourselves — bolstered by the knowledge that our worldwide community of Jews is engaged, together and as individuals, in that same journey. We learn anew that it is never too late to say goodbye to an intolerable situation and step into a place we have never been.
During this month of Nissan, we celebrate liberation. We observe one of our most important holidays, that of Pesach (Passover). During our celebration meal, our Seder, we retell the foundational story of our people: once we were slaves in the empire of Egypt, but we were liberated by G-d and now we are a free people.
We are invited to relive the narrative: to imagine that long night of terror, the final plague of death stalking the firstborn of Egypt, passing over our homes because we had sacrificed the lamb — our first mitzvah (holy commandment) as free people before we were ever taken out from Egypt.
We are invited to imagine ourselves walking away from familiar burdens and restrictions into the terrifying longed-for air of freedom. To look back across the sea covering the bodies of the oppressor’s army and realize the only way to go is forward.
Jewish women and nonbinary people who are living the second half of our lives have, not only the chance to free ourselves from habits of thought and behavior that confine us, but also the gift of looking at how far we have come. We have spectacular track records of walking out of tight spots into the unknown and creating new stories.
In 1972, Sally Priesand became the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in the US. (In those days of gendered bathrooms, there wasn’t even a bathroom for her at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary. Now, there are multi-gendered bathrooms for everyone and a lactation lounge as well! We have come quite a distance.)
Then in 1989, an American, Sheila Shulman, and a British woman, Elizabeth Tikva Sarah, were the first two open lesbians ordained as rabbis from Leo Baeck College, also a Reform institution. Also, in that year, Hebrew Union College changed its admission requirements to admit openly lesbian and gay candidates for ordination. Today, there are women rabbis of every Jewish denomination and open lesbian rabbis in all but the Orthodox world.
Jewish women at the intersections of oppressive systems face particular obstacles. It wasn’t until 2012 that Emily Aviva Kapor, who received private smicha (ordination), became the first openly transgender female rabbi. Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, the first Korean-American to receive rabbinic smicha, now serves as Senior Rabbi for Manhattan’s Central Synagogue. Rabbi Sandra Lawson, an army vet and the first Black, openly gay rabbi in the world, now serves as the first Director of Racial Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism, the organization of the Reconstructionist movement.
Jewish women of color over 40 — such as Yavilah McCoy, founder of Ayecha, a non-profit organization formed to serve and advocate for Jews of color, and Tonda Case, an activist and educator for such grassroots organizations as Bend the Arc — have given leadership to the modern Jewish world. They have brought the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, in theory and in practice, to Jewish communities and institutions in the U.S. and beyond.
Jewish feminist thinkers of our generations have helped to transform our world. Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again At Sinai and Rabbi Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism, first published in 1990 and 1998 respectively, demonstrated how Jewish women can take our places as fully realized Jews, not some ladies’ auxiliary. In 1995, Kate Bornstein, a Jewish gender-nonconforming person, emerged as one of the first popular writers about gender with their book, Gender Outlaw. As an author, performer and long-term cancer survivor, Bornstein continues to inspire and lead.
In fact, Jewish or not, Boomer women, Generation Xers and those of the Not-So-Silent Generation, have exited some very narrow places, and we risk losing their stories if we don’t recall them now. It is worth remembering that it was only in the 1960s that women gained the right to own a checking account without a husband’s permission, and it wasn’t until the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974 that women were able to get credit cards that did not require a husband’s signature. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited, for the first time, discrimination in hiring, promotion and firing on the basis of sex or race. But women, women of color in particular, are still fighting, in courts and on picket lines, for the law to be enforced.
It’s rarely easy to walk out of a narrow place when that is the only place one knows. And yet, the Jewish women of our generations have done it again and again. These days, we are forced to confront the reality that no victory is guaranteed permanence. We are seeing determined attempts to push us back into those confined spaces as our reproductive freedoms, safety from abuse, and equal status under the law are all under attack.
This Nissan, we retell the story of how Pharaoh, terrified after each plague, offered to free our people — and then rescinded his promise when the plague’s lesson started to wear off. We tell of how, in his fear, Pharaoh increased our burdens, hoping to break us. And we tell how each setback only made us stronger until our liberation came.
In the face of our own setbacks, we rededicate ourselves to living our story in words and in action — once we were slaves, but now we are free.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
Exodus 5:6-19, 12:3-14
Standing Again At Sinai by Judith Plaskow, 1990 HarperCollins, New York, NY
Engendering Judaism by Rachel Adler, 1998, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, PA
Looking Back: Jewish Lesbians Connect Across Generations, Lilith Magazine
The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections On the Exodus by Aviva Zornberg, 2001, Schocken Books, New York, NY
The Mark Of Liberation: First Steps, My Jewish Learning
The History of Women and Money in the United States in Honor of Women’s History Month, ONE Advisory Partners
Rabbis in the United States, Jewish Women's Archive
The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah by Sue Levi Elwell and Ruth Weisberg, 2002, Central Conference of American Rabbis, NY, New York
Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and The Rest Of Us by Kate Bornstein, 1994 Routledge New York, NY; revised and updated 2016, Vintage Books New York NY
Opinion: Why These Jewish Women Of Color Marched In The Women's March, Essence Magazine