There is an apochryphal story told about Susannah Heschel, a Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. According to this urban legend, during the 1980s she was lecturing about Jewish feminism in a Miami synagogue when an elderly rabbi in the audience stood up and said, “A woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the seder plate.” To show solidarity with the aspirations of women who wanted more access to leadership roles in Jewish life, Heschel and other feminists began putting oranges on a seder plates at Passover.
In actuality, Heschel came up with the idea as a result of meeting Jewish activists who placed crusts of bread on their seder plates to symbolize the marginalization of women and the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the Jewish community. While she thought the idea to be a powerful one conceptually, as an observant Jew there was no way she was going to put hametz on her seder table! Instead, she opted to use an orange (actually, a tangerine the first year). Says Heschel, “Everyone at the seder got a section of it, and as we ate it we would spit out the seeds in solidarity with homosexuals — the seeds represented homophobia.”
Just recently I heard a suggestion to place an apple on the seder plate to symbolize the unfair and unsafe labor practices used in the manufacture of Apple computers in China. As we approach a holiday termed by our sages, z’man heiruteinu, the season of our freedom, we need to reflect on what freedom means to us as Jews in the early years of the 21st century. To what extent are we accessories to oppression by dint of our material acquisitions? In a consumer-driven, global economy is it even possible to shop without unwittingly supporting some transgression against the environment or the rights of workers in third-world countries? What does freedom mean when our behavior contributes to the ongoing enslavement of others?
Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel (Susannah’s father) once wrote, “The most commanding idea that Judaism dares to think is that freedom, not necessity, is the source of all being. As a free being the Jew must accept an enormous responsibility. The first thing a Jew is told is: You can’t let yourself go; get into harness, carry the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. He has been given life and death, good and evil, and is urged to choose, to discriminate. Yet freedom is not only the ability to choose and to act, but also the ability to will, to love. The predominant feature of Jewish teaching throughout the ages is a sense of constant obligation. We are not taught to feel accused, to bear a sense of boundless guilt. We are asked to feel elated, bred to meet the tasks that never end. Every child is a prince; every man is obliged to feel that the world was created for his sake. Man is not the measure of all things, but the means by which to accomplish all tasks.”
At services the first morning of Passover, I will talk about the ways in which we choose to enslave or liberate ourselves by our decisions as consumers. By living in the world, it may not be possible to avoid all taint of unwitting collusion in unethical labor practices; on the other hand, it is both cynical and spurious to maintain that it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Though very challenging, it may just be possible to eat the apple on the seder plate . . . without choking on the seeds.
In the meantime, you may want to check the link for Goodguide.com found on the right-hand side of this page; it offers food for thought as to one way way in which we can link consumption to conscience. This year we are enslaved by what we don’t know about the purchase we make, next year may awareness help us — and others — to achieve greater freedom. Hag sameah v’Kasher, a joyous and meaningful Passover to one and all!