Culture, Religion, Sex & Gender

Blogging the Omer: Day 5 Another Orange on the seder plate

Hod of Chesed
We’re all (by now) familiar with the story of the Orange on the seder plate. Not only the famous midrash (note I am not calling it fact) of Susannah Heschel and the man who claimed women should not be Jewish leaders, but also the misty origins of said story in the a woman telling lesbians that female homosexuality is a minor sin, like putting bread on the seder plate. Nevermind why the relentless deconstruction of this midrash is an example of why modern midrash sucks (I’ll talk about that some other time).
Instead, take a look at a post by Mel of Stirrup Queens and Sperm Count Jesters. Normally her blog is about infertility and its side issues from the perspective of an observant Jew. In this post, she writes about Thomas Beatie, the pregnant man and how putting an apple on the seder plate, for her, revived the original facts of the orange midrash…

representing reproductive rights for all people because truthfully, just as the changed story of Heschel’s speech has a man shouting about women belonging on the bimah as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate, empty symbolic gestures do not have a space at my table. It is apples and oranges; I am taking back the fruit. If I believe in reproductive rights for myself–and believe me, I want my reproductive rights well-covered–I need to believe in reproductive rights for all who act out of love or my shouting for myself becomes merely symbolic, self-serving, meaningless.
Mother Jones, in August 2006, ran a survey of fertility clinic directors. Only 59% believed everyone has a right to a child. 48% said they would likely turn away a gay couple seeking a surrogate. 20% would turn away a single woman. 17% would turn away a lesbian couple. If you want reproductive rights for yourself–and I’m fairly certain that no fertility clinic director would wish to be told that they cannot or must have a child–we should be concerned about others. Because I’m not just talking about those experiencing infertility who need to utilize assisted conception when I speak about reproductive rights–every single person on this earth should be in control of whether or not they reproduce or parent. Put an apple on the seder plate for that.

9 thoughts on “Blogging the Omer: Day 5 Another Orange on the seder plate

  1. Here’s the story from Heschel herself. The original bread on the seder plate was intended as solidarity with lesbians (albeit misguided in my, and Heschel’s, opinion), not criticism of lesbians.
    Anyway, I don’t understand the significance of the apple. The original post writes “the original fruit that gave birth to all questions”. Is this a reference to the fruit of the tree of knowledge? If so, then identifying this fruit as an apple isn’t a Jewish idea, and comes from Christian art. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 70ab) offers the opinions that the tree was a vine (grapes), wheat, and a fig tree (with whose leaves they covered themselves).
    Meanwhile, over at JSpot, Rabbi Jill Jacobs asks whether the seder plate is getting too crowded.

  2. Do tell why you think modern midrash sucks. I think the relentless retelling of that story, and the emergence of its various versions is a fascinating study in the role that narrative plays in the creation of meaning. My understanding is that the those folks who were physically present to hear what Susanah Heschel said at Oberlin way back when have differing recollections of what she said. I can’t remember who… but I heard someone report that the original “Rabbi who said” — whatever he said… was from a short story, and that the newspaper article which purported to report on this rabbi existed in the short story but not in “reality.” Just as I don’t think the historical facts of the exodus from Egypt, if that ever happened, are important, so too do I not judge the merit of this evolving orange narrative with the “facts.” It’s not that I dismiss the difference between fact and narrative — it’s just that I think there is meaning in both.
    BTW, I’m blogging the omer also. It’s a great discipline. Best of luck with it.

  3. yo KRG,
    lay off the haterade, friend.
    why so hard against “modern midrash?”
    besides that, you didn’t even mention an example of “modern midrash,” you just talked about a disputed story re: innovative ritual.
    are you against innovative ritual, or are you against disputed stories?

  4. Shai and IH,
    What I mean by modern midrash sucks is that most modern midrash isn’t midrash at all, it’s storytelling, which is a perfectly respectable, but different, creature.
    ALl those collections of stories by certain people who fancy themselves creators of midrash – aren’t. They’re collections of stories. It’s possible that some of them may become midrash over time (although I doubt it, because of the difference in the way midrash is told and the way modern stories are passed along) but they aren’t currently.
    Midrash is a lot more like folk tales, in that it isn’t something which needs to be examined for faithfulness to facts, moreover it isn’t written (especially not written) by a person, but grows naturally over time into some kind of explanatory narrative, but that narrative’s characters aren’t necessarily related to the real persons which are featured in it. Thus, “Susannah Heschel” isn’t really Susannah Heschel, and the fact that the original factual story is that lesbians put bread on the seder plate isn’t necessarily relevant to piece which has become a folk telling about why we put an orange on the seder plate.
    Thus, what I mean by “modern midrash sucks” is that people who say they are “writing midrash” in fact aren’t doing anything of the sort, and the insistence on finding out what the “facts” of the story are, neuter the actual midrash in this particular case.
    It may well be (in fact almost certainly is) true that the reason that “lesbians” became “women leaders” is because -in part- people are and remain uncomfortable with homosexuality. It is also, however, because women remain relatively powerless in many parts of Judaism, still don’t get paid as much when they are leaders, are less likely to be hired as leaders, or to serve in volunteer leader positions, whether that’s the president of the shull or Jewish organizations. The fact is that a midrash arose to account for people’s experience, and the attempt to “keep it on track” is a harmful process in this case – at least insofar as midrash is concerned. Midrash can’t be made on purpose, it can only arise. Thus focusing on the truth of midrash only sends it astray. AS time passes there will be other midrash about Jewish lesbians – probably, It just won’t be this one.

  5. Kol Raash Gadol, I disagree with your definition of midrash. The classical midrash didn’t just arise, it had specific authors (who are cited in the Talmud and in midrashic collections) and it certainly wasn’t a collection of folktales. It was written, or spoken in public poetic sermons, by a specific group of people with a specific agenda related to the text of the Torah and a specific mode of interpretation of that text. While the body of midrash did evolve and change over time as people added to it, its origins are definitely not “folk.” Many modern midrashim, though they have different agendas and different modes of interpretation, fit exactly that pattern.
    That having been said, midrash is a word used to describe a creative or additive interpretation of a sacred text. So unless anyone here thinks Susannah Heschel’s words are a sacred text (not to disrespect Susannah Heschel, whom I deeply admire), the category here is aggadah or legend/folk tale, not midrash.

  6. Not to distract from this fascinating conversation about midrash, which I really hope continues, but am I the only one who is NOT outraged at the proposition that not everyone in the world has a “right” to extraordinary aid in conceiving a child? Beyond the millions of children who would love to be adopted into our homes if, G-d forbid, we were unable to conceive, if I were the director of a fertility clinic I can think of lots of people I would be totally comfortable turning away – people with drug abuse or sexual abuse problems, people without the financial or emotional resources to raise a child, etc. The point is merely that we should avoid making extreme blanket statements like “everybody has the right to children”. Maybe everyone has that right, but after spending sometime working at Child and Family Services let me tell you that lots of people forfeit that right.

  7. To complexify this a bit… I don’t believe that Susannah Heschel’s version of the story should necessarily be considered authoritative.
    I can’t remember who it was, I know that’s not much of a footnote, but this person said, “I was there, Susannah’s Heschel’s recording of her version of the story is not what happened.” It’s actually not surprising to me that the “protagonist” of the story would have a different memory of all this than the students. I’m not saying who is “right” in terms of what happened. I just don’t think we should assume that the protagonist’s recollection should trump other’s.
    When we study rabbinic texts, Talmud, midrash, etc. we try to put ourselves inside conversations that took place a long time ago. We try to understand their process of meaning-making and then apply it, possibly to our own lives.
    In the case of whatever happened at Oberlin and then the following orange-at-the-seder plate contemporary custom and the following dispute of its origin, we find ourselves in the middle of a ritual’s evolution and the struggle to frame the meaning and origin of the ritual. So it’s like living in a Talmudic debate in real-time. How cool is that!
    Indeed it’s much more like contemporary Talmud than contemporary midrash. What it’s actual form is is less interesting to me than the phenomena itself.

  8. A book on this general topic that we should all read is Inventing Jewish Ritual by Vanessa Ochs. I haven’t actually read it yet, except for the chapter about the “kum kum lay lay” song, which is fantastic, and not only because I know most of the people mentioned. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it also has a chapter about the orange on the seder plate.

  9. Yeilah,
    I actually agree with you more than not: midrash aren’t the same thing as folktales (that isn’t what I meant, I meant that the narrative style is more like folktales then it is like modern writing of stories, with its focus on character descriptive detail, is), however although many of teh midrash (but by no means all) are identified with specific rabbis, it is actually unlikely that those midrash originated with those rabbis – even within the understanding of the midrash itself, what is usually identified is not the author of the midrash, but rather the one who is is recounting it (i.e. the person who is recounting the tradition from which it came, which may be many generations back).
    I will certainly grant you that Susannah Heschel’s words aren’t sacred text, which definitely leaves me with a rather liberal understanding here of midrash, however, I think that as Shai points out what we are seeing is the development of a ritual, which can be understood in a certain sense as a sacred text, in much the same way as a midrash such as the rabbis working out why we have a shank bone on the seder plate – the talmud itself doesn’t quite go with the understanding that most people have today in the haggadah – that it represents the sacrifice- the talmud offers that together with another explanation – that it is one of two dishes (two dishes are festive, as opposed to one, which is everyday, this is also where the tradition of two loaves of challah come from – because the Babylonians thought that you ought to have a loaf of bread with every dish -another long and fascinating conversation) eaten which can be even a bone in broth (or beets and rice, which is why the vegetarian option is a beet).
    What I’m really trying to point to, though is the probelm of being overly conscious. The rabis were very sophisticated, and anyone who reads the talmud honestly can see so. But they had the advantage (?) of having a tradition that values the old as authorititaive, so they would read backwards in an unselfconscious way: when they made up traditions and called them old, were they lying? I don’t think so, I think that it was the folk process (let’s put in scare quotes, since I don’t really mean “folk” in the way you are using it, Yeilah) at work which combined with a certain lack of self-consciousness tht allowed things to become tradition fairly quickly, without people insisting, “NO, it didn’t happen that way!”
    Because we live in a world where information is quickly accessible and transmissible, and because our goals are often more – let’s say blunt and openly admitted, as well as individualistically oriented- we undo our evolution while it is still forming, leaving us with, instead of midrash and ritual, stories and ceremonies, in my opinion, far inferior substitutes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.