I learned Hebrew using the Book of Ruth. I fell in love with the story as I fell in love with Hebrew itself. The book’s message could not be clearer: Those who throw their lot in with the Jewish people are welcome. In today’s diverse Jewish community, remembering that inclusive message matters more than ever.
We read Ruth at Shavuot, but that isn’t for another two months. Why talk about it now? Why bring Ruth into Passover? Yet that’s exactly what Rabbi Heidi Hoover did when she proposed adding Ruth’s Cup to the seder table. Her intention is to explicitly welcome all Jews “no matter what their skin, hair or eye color is; no matter what their name sounds like; no matter how they became Jewish — through birth or through conversion, as a child or as an adult.” It is a laudable goal.
But invoking Ruth on Passover weakens the place of Ruth in the Jewish year and dilutes the powerful narrative of Passover itself. Further, it misses the opportunity to acknowledge non-Jews and different kinds of Jews within the Passover story itself.
Passover has long been a holiday that reflects the issues of its time. The early rabbis developed four children from the Torah texts that mention parents teaching their children about the Exodus. Like much of rabbinic literature, the passages are ripped from context and given the meanings that the rabbis needed for their time: wise, wicked, simple and unable to ask.
As haggadahs flourished with the rise of printing, those children were reinterpreted in art again and again. Similarly, the four questions, only three of which are found in early rabbinic writings, have been rewritten for a multitude of circumstances. In the 20th century, some have added an orange to the seder plate for women and LGBTQ Jews. Some place a Miriam’s Cup filled with water next to Elijah’s Cup of wine. And with the rise of 21st century internet technology, the possibilities for individualization are ever expanding.
Yet changes to the seder and the haggadah usually draw from within the Passover story itself. Miriam’s connection to water exists within the text, so Miriam’s Cup is an appropriate way to highlight the role of women on Passover.
So if not Ruth, who stands for inclusion at the seder?
Zipporah does. The daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro, Zipporah married Moses and bore him two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. She and Moses were comfortably settled in Midian until the little incident with the burning bush. As with the foremothers, she packed up her family and followed Moses to Egypt on what must have seemed a crazy mission. And yet she went.
On the way, this happens (Exodus 4:24-26):
“At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!’ And when He let him alone, she added, ‘A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.’”
The rabbis had a field day interpreting the incident. And yet this much is clear: God is threatening Moses’ life. It is the non-Jewish Zipporah who performs the Jewish act of circumcision. And it is through her action that Moses’ life is spared. Giving Zipporah a place in the seder means recognizing the times that non-Jews or new Jews ensure the survival of Judaism.
Later, as the people travel through the wilderness, Miriam and Aaron gossip about Moses’ wife, saying: “He married a Kushite.” The term Kushite refers to the dark-skinned people of the ancient Kingdom of Kush. Here, it is used to make Zipporah into the Other, for which God punishes Aaron and Miriam. Giving Zipporah a place in the Seder means recognizing that Judaism’s central narrative includes both racist behavior and God’s response to that behavior.
Which leaves the question: What symbol? Not a cup: Between Elijah, Miriam, and wine cups for every guest, the seder table has enough cups. Not another item for the already crowded Seder plate. Perhaps there is no need for a physical object. Rather, perhaps we need to simply commit to include by remembering to tell Zipporah’s story. And remembering that it is because of her that Moses became Moshe Rabbeinu, our great teacher.