It’s apparently based on an urban legend (full explanation here), but as discussed in a thread below, the essence of Jewish spirituality (and some other traditions) is not whether a story is true in fact but whether it represents a deeper truth. And given the importance of symbolism in Judaism, it does seem unlikely that a devout Jewish practitioner would make the mistake of opening the issue up to symbolism so obvious.
But over the years, the legend changed. The story began to be told about a Jewish feminist who was speaking in Florida. She was “upbraided” by a man who said that women rabbis had as much of a role in Judaism as an orange on the seder plate. The tale is also told that the man said, “women had as much place on the bimah as oranges on the seder plate. ” Somewhere along the line, the “Jewish feminist” was named as Susannah Heschel but she denies either changing the symbolism from bread to orange nor of having been the feminist who had this experience in Florida.
The Seder plate traditionally incorporates austere ingredients to symbolize the suffering memorialized by the Seder, so the orange sets up a contrast that would probably not sit well with, well, the people who would feel the same way about a woman on the bimah. Even less you’d think would they appreciate spongecake on the plate.
So “real” or not, the practice has become common in Jewish Renewal and Reform practices, and integrated into their Haggadah (I believe there is no difference in form between the singular and plural, but feel free to correct me). And even within the new tradition there is conflict, as described in the blog Jewesses with Attitude:
We’ll never know exactly where it was that the oral transmission of the story substituted concern about lesbians for the transformative but less transgressive presence of women rabbis. But clearly, most people felt more comfortable with oranges and women rabbis, than with bread and lesbians at Passover. As the true origin of the story has resurfaced in recent years, some haggadahs have begun to acknowledge that gay/lesbian inclusion is also a part of the orange’s symbolism; many others do not.
There ought to be a special holiday to commemorate the importance of arguing in Jewish culture. It’s practically the equivalent of a sacrament.
There was a dialogue in one of the Star Trek series where two characters are debating whether Davy Crockett really died fighting at the Alamo or was captured and executed. The Klingon character (I think “Warf” was his name, or was it “Quark”?) interrupts with disdain exclaiming “it does not matter whether Davy Crockett’s legend is true. What matters is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett!” One of the other characters shrugs and says, “well, I guess that settles that.”
The same is true of Exodus, the oranges, and a hundred other legends invoked in spiritual and cultural tradition. Whether they happened is almost irrelevant. The power is in the story itself.
My sermon is concluded.