Clean Sweep
A feminist finds spiritual meaning in what she had seen as drudgery.
03/25/2010 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week

When I was a child, I watched my mother turn our New York suburban home upside down during her zealous Pesach cleaning. Later, as a young feminist, I resented the fact that my mother (with the help of our house cleaner) did all the cleaning and cooking before the seders, while my father led the ritual aspect of these meals.

I saw my mother as enslaved to an exaggerated notion of the halachic requirement to rid one’s home of chametz, which I thought was totally antithetical to the notion of Pesach as a holiday of freedom.

I told myself that I would never be subject to this inequity; I would do the minimum amount of cleaning required by Jewish law and spend the rest of my pre-Passover preparation time studying to be able to contribute to the content of the seder; I would stress the intellectual and spiritual side of Pesach preparation rather than the mundane, physical side.

However, as I grew as a religious feminist, married, had children, and set up together with my husband Jacob our home in Israel, I realized that someone had to clean. Even if Jacob and I shared this work, I still had to focus much of my pre-Pesach preparation energy on cleaning.

Moreover, in an eight-person household, a proper intensive cleaning is definitely called for once a year. Jacob and I spend some time every day cleaning, and on Fridays, erev Shabbat, we spend a good few hours doing so — and even try to get some help from the kids — yet there is always more to do.

And so, the period before Pesach — when there is a religious imperative to clean and when in any event we are turning over the house from winter to summer — is a natural time to do a good “spring” (in Israel, there is no real spring season, rather a number of spring-like days throughout winter) cleaning.

I had another reason to embrace Pesach cleaning.

When I began serious study of feminist theory, I learned that in a society with a gendered division of labor there is often greater value placed on the work done by those of a higher social status — what men do is valued more highly than what women do simply because men do it. I had underestimated the halachic and spiritual significance of the work that my mother, her mother, and her mother’s mother had been doing for generations. I had devalued housework simply because it was women who were doing it.

When one does not infuse it with meaning, it becomes drudgery and a source of resentment.

My tendency to devalue housework was also tied in with the fact that women were overlooked as possible leaders of the seder. It seemed to me that the gender roles in this case — as in most cases in Jewish practice — were broken down on the lines of spiritual and leadership roles (for the men) vs. enabling and passive roles (for the women).

Yet it occurred to me that perhaps I was missing something. Perhaps I was being influenced by a general societal privileging of “bringing home the tofu” (we have a kosher vegetarian household) over cooking the tofu.

All mitzvot are important, no matter how they have been divvied up over the course of Jewish history along gender lines.

The realization that all of these tasks are equally important to the general goals of keeping the household (and society in general) running helped me to understand that the same rational applies to Jewish households and the greater Jewish community.

When women get more involved in the mitzvot and practices they have not traditionally considered their own, they need not abandon the customs of their mothers. When men become more involved in the spheres of Jewish life they have not traditionally engaged, like cleaning for Pesach, they need not abandon the customs of their fathers.

So there I was, doing a thorough spring cleaning before Pesach, much as my mother had done. And to my surprise, I did not find it as burdensome as I had imagined.

In fact, I found it spiritually powerful. As I sorted, wiped and scoured, I felt a cleansing taking place within me. Although I was engaged in an activity that I had seen as an expression of women’s servitude, I felt myself psychologically and spiritually liberated, like the Jewish slaves were after they left Egypt. And right beside me, Jacob was working as hard as I was to clean the house for Pesach — thank God.

In the spirit of the Zohar, a mystical commentary on the Bible, each year, as I clean, I compile a list of all my own personal spiritual and psychological chametz — foibles I hold on to that keep me from total unencumbered, unfettered faith, things that prevent me from being what I would like to or could be. Sometimes these foibles are more along the lines of revelations about ways in which I had been misguided or narrow in my thinking like the one described above, and these are easier to change. But sometimes they are more along the lines of psychological blocks or personality flaws that I struggle with year after year with little or no growth on the horizon.

It can be frustrating to see some of the same “items” on the list from year to year, but I am only human. And at least I am still going through the ritual. That alone is a sign of consciousness, mindfulness, and hope.

Then, when I burn the chametz on the eve of Pesach, I toss that list into the fire and watch it burn. This is a way, for me, of making sure that I don’t lose perspective on the broader meaning of this holiday of cleansing, liberation and the breaking down of hierarchy.

Rabbi Haviva Ner-David, a resident of Kibbutz Nannaton in northern Israel, is founding director of Reut: The Center for Modern Jewish Marriage and is the author of “Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination.”