Seder, the Coronavirus, and Feminism

By Michelle Shain

For a Jewish feminist, why is this Passover different from all other Passovers?

In the traditional text of the Haggadah, when explicating the verse “And we cried out to the Lord, God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression” (Deuteronomy 26:7), we find this interpretation:

“And saw our affliction” – this is the separation of husband and wife.

I have always loved this bit of text, because it hints at a rich rabbinic tradition about the Jewish women of the enslaved generations. Versions of the story appear in the Talmud (Sotah 11b) and in Midrash Tanchuma (Pekudei, Siman 9); Rashi also relates a version in his commentary on Exodus 38:3. We are told that Pharaoh forced the Jewish men to sleep in the fields, away from their wives, to prevent them from being together and conceiving children. In response, the women would go to the Nile and fill jugs with water and little fish – a known aphrodisiac. The women would warm the water, sell some of the fish in order to buy wine, and cook the rest of the fish. Then they would go to their husbands in the fields, bathe them, ply them with fish and wine, and entice them with copper mirrors. In this way, couples could be together and conceive. The rabbis say that God redeemed us from Egypt because of the merit of these righteous women. Their mirrors later become part of the Tabernacle: the copper altar and its copper grating and utensils.

In previous years, I embraced this midrash, loving the idea that women played this critical role in our experience of redemption, and that their contribution was recognized in a meaningful and public way. I didn’t think much about the portrayal of the husbands: weary, languishing, perhaps despondent. I didn’t think about how the women took up the greater part of a burden that should have been shared.

This year, I have been thinking a lot about husbands and shared burdens. As I watch the world coping with stay-at-home orders through the window of electronic and social media, I’m observing that in most two-parent families – not all, but most – it’s the mothers who are shouldering the greater part of the burden that the coronavirus has thrust upon us. It’s the mothers who are making meals, washing dishes, holding babies, entertaining toddlers, supervising eLearning, and drying tears. And it’s the mothers who are meal-planning and cleaning and cooking for Passover, often sorrowfully, without the familiar comfort of family and friends. New data from the Pew Research Center confirms my impressions: women are more likely than men to say their personal lives have changed in a major way as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

In 1989, a UC Berkeley sociologist named Arlie Hochschild published a book called The Second Shift. She explored how married men and women were divvying up the labor performed at home, in addition to their paid work in the formal labor market. Hochschild found that in spite of women’s entrance into the paid labor force, in most families, women were still doing most of the household and childcare duties – a “second shift.” For Jewish families, some scholars argue, there is also a “third shift” of managing and negotiating Judaism.

Little has changed in the 30 years since Hochschild published her groundbreaking study. A recent time-use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that among parents living with children, mothers spend an average of 68 minutes per day on meal preparation, vs. 23 minutes for fathers. And that was all before the coronavirus outbreak. Helen Lewis recently argued convincingly that the pandemic will magnify existing inequalities.

“And saw our affliction” – this year, I won’t read it only as the separation of husband and wife. This year, I will also read it as the inequality of the second shift. I will remember what is written in the Talmud: “Based on the merit of righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.” And then I will look hard at the men in my life, and I will ask: based on whose merit will we be redeemed from the ravages of the coronavirus?

Michelle Shain is a social scientist whose primary research focus is the intersection of religion, gender and family formation. She has a PhD from Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management.