The poet who's given women a place in the Haggadah

Marcia Falk's new Haggadah highlights the hidden, female aspects of the Exodus


The story of the Children of Israel’s exodus from Egypt begins when Miriam, daughter of Jochebed, saves her baby brother Moses and places him in a basket, which she then floats on the Nile to be picked up by the daughter of Pharaoh. Thus we could say that without Miriam and her female associates there would be no Jewish people.

We might also think from this that the female side of the story we read in the Haggadah — the text that we read each Passover festival — would feature women in all their glory. But a glance at the Haggadah reveals a picture that almost obliterates women.

According to traditional tropes, it is the youngest son who asks four questions, followed by responses from four different sons, five famous rabbis and the maggid (a male speaker) who relates parts of Jewish history, beginning with Abraham (but not Sarah) and so on.

Even though the women have probably cleaned and scrubbed the house to make it kosher for Pesach and made the festive meal for the evening, their role in the proceedings of the central text of the night is minimal, not to say non-existent.

Now with a new Haggadah called Night of Beginnings, Marcia Falk – a professor of both English and Hebrew literature and established poet and author – attempts to right this gender bias with a feminist version of the ancient text. She has already published feminist versions of the prayer book and other texts that update ancient sources to be more relevant to a modern audience.

Here, for example, her name for the Hebrew God is variously “the Ever-flowing Wellspring” or “the Source of Life.” In both formats it is certainly more visceral than the abstract noun that traditionalists prefer. Her metier is to utilise nature as her ground, bringing the pulsating presence of the Divine to the reader.

Falk’s earlier work of a poetic translation and commentary on the Song of Songs is partially brought here to be recited alongside the more traditional texts. Although her Haggadah is a truncated version of the traditional text, it preserves the outline of the original, amplified by some of her own inspired poetry, as well as more obviously feminist tropes, relevant biblical quotes, explanations of the text, and passages meant to illuminate the inner intention of all the participants.

The whole book is illustrated by the author with her own drawings and paintings of flowers. In addition, the central text is given in Hebrew, English and a transliteration for non-Hebrew speakers. All her commentaries are in English.

Falk quotes with approval an observation of Rabbi Akiva (one of the most important rabbis of the time when the Haggadah was being formulated). “Israel,” he avers, “was redeemed from Egypt on account of the righteous women of that generation.”

Thus she changes the original four sons who ask the questions at the beginning of the Seder, to two sons and two daughters and adds a “cup of Miriam” to the traditional four cups of wine that are imbibed over the course of the evening’s celebration, as well as Elijah’s cup.

Miriam’s cup, which is filled with spring-water, is there “to celebrate woman’s place in the tradition”.

Sensitive to the meanings that are given to the various rituals of the evening, Falk nevertheless adds her own insights: “The ritual of opening the door as we do metaphorically when we recite Ha Lachma Anya, makes porous the border between inner and outer — between our lives and the lives of others, between our selves and the greater whole of being. We open the door, and we open our hearts, fulfilling the commandment to empathise with those who are strangers to us: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9).”

What is a mere instruction for the participants becomes an invitation to all strangers to come and participate in the joys of this feast, just as Abraham and Sarah invited strangers in the Bible (Genesis chapter 18).

In a similar way, Falk emphasises the female, hidden side of the Exodus story and therefore of the Haggadah itself. One example is her take on the daughter of Pharaoh: “Despite her remarkable action, Pharaoh’s daughter’s name is also withheld from us and — unlike Miriam, who will be called by name at the apex of the story — she remains nameless to the end.

Indeed, we will not hear any more about Pharaoh’s daughter in the Book of Exodus, despite the large part we might assume an adoptive mother would have played in the development of Moshe’s character.”    

So both for traditionalists and newcomers, Falk’s Haggadah is as fine way as any to feel a spiritually uplifting burgeoning of spring, complete with a retelling of one of the central and universal narratives of our civilisation.

Night of Beginnings: A Passover Haggada, Marcia Falk, Jewish Publication Society, $19.95

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