Why I Include Bilhah and Zilpah in the Imahot

Why include all six matriarchs in the Amidah? Why include the matriarchs at all? David Mosenkis looks at the way narratives dominated by a ruling group overpower the essential contributions to Jewish lineage and civilization by non-dominant populations.

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אלהי אברהםאלהי יצחקאלהי יעקב

אלהי שרהאלהי רבקהאלהי רחלאלהי לאהאלהי בלהאלהי זלפה

The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel, the God of Leah, the God of Bilhah, the God of Zilpah

(Avot v’Imot, Amidah liturgy)

As a young man, I didn’t understand why some people wanted to change the ancient words of the Amidah to include matriarchs as well as patriarchs.  After all, our tradition focused on God’s relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not with their wives. Why should we pretend, in the name of a perfectly reasonable modern sensibility about women’s equality, that women back then made any significant contribution to our spiritual heritage?  

As a member of a dominant group, it can be hard to notice when perpetuating tradition reinforces values that I do not hold.  As a middle class white person in 21st century America, accustomed to rules and culture designed for my welfare, it can be hard to notice that there are other groups, notably people of color and poor people, who are often treated as less important, in ways both obvious and subtle.  By including the names of only patriarchs, the traditional Amidah text ignores the spiritual contributions of our matriarchs. Some of these contributions are even enshrined in our classic sources, so omitting the matriarchs actually exacerbates the ongoing marginalization of women.  

In a similar way, when I omit Bilhah and Zilpah, the mothers of 4 of the 12 Israelite tribes, missing in the liturgy due to their subordinate status, I collude in the marginalization of those whom society has assigned a lower status.  By including Bilhah and Zilpah in the Amidah and Misheberakh prayers along with their better known mistresses, Leah and Rachel, I give prominent expression to a concept of 6 matriarchs that is already present, albeit as a minority articulation, in classic rabbinic literature.  As a person in the privileged group, I have a responsibility to oppose valuing members of dominant groups more than others. I hope the small act of naming our forgotten matriarchs can raise awareness of marginalized people in our time.

David Mosenkis is a member of Reconstructionist Minyan Dorshei Derekh in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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