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Four Matriarchs? Make that Six

It’s been only a scant 3500 years or so since the deaths of our biblical Matriarchs (:.”l). so it might come as a surprise to find equality-creep already affecting a few of our more liberal synagogues. In the Hebrew Amidah prayer [a core set of blessings], after the usual address to the “God of our Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” a davener might now find a newly inserted phrase addressed to that more bashful deity. He [sic] of our “Matriarchs—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” Some of us come face-to-face with this ontogeny routinely, so it no longer knocks our tefillin off.

A funny thing happens, though, on the way to the Fourum. As we begin gender-fixing the liturgy, we suddenly notice—as is the case with the application of any political Band-Aid—a whole new body of booboos that somehow just weren’t there before. The Four Matriarchs are a case in point, because there aren’t four of them, there are six. (See Numbers Rabbah 12:17, for example, where the rabbis refer matter-of-factly to our “Six Matriarchs.”) How did two get so emphatically forgotten?

The Six are: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah. Bilhah and Zilpah. The latter are Leah’s and Rachel’s “female attendants.” but they were included as Matriarchs not because of that—rather, because of their ova. Bilhah and Zilpah follow Jacob into his tent (presumably to see his sand etchings) and emerge with four tribal blastocysts: Bilhah births Dan and Naphtali; and Zilpah. Gad and Asher. These four sand eating toddlers represent one-third of the Twelve Tribes.

Six Matriarchs makes theological sense if we but step back and remember for a moment what makes the Twelve Tribes important anyway. Historical confederations aside, the Jewish tradition has continually used the iconology of Twelve Tribes to drum into our heads a core concept: our people’s invention of democracy. AH biological Jews arc descended from these original half-brothers, our tradition wants us to know. We all count, we all count equally. The Twelve Tribes are intended to sear into our hearts a Jewish ethical ideal of inclusivity.

A midrash (Exodus Rahhah 1:6) makes this point directly: When the Twelve Tribes are mentioned, why aren’t they always enumerated in the same order, the midrash asks rhetorically. And it answers: to teach the lesson of democracy—that we’re all equal, wife and handmaid (and by extension, born-Jew and convert), child of Leah, or child of Zilpah, of Rachel or of Bilhah.

We understand that leaving out the two matriarchs who are “female attendants” doesn’t sit well with feminist or Jewish values. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah are all from privileged, well-to-do stock (some argue that they are even royalty)—they’re not the nannies. Excising Bilhah and Zilpah institutionalizes as ‘kosher’ a kind of Upstairs/Downstairs.

When we rewrite the Amidah to include Bilhah and Zilpah (as we now must surely do), we introduce into our prayers a different ethic of decency. Carol Gilligan has said that, “Justice is the highest value in masculine morality, but women’s morality places a higher value on an ethic of care, whose premise is that no one should be hurt.” How does the inclusion of two handmaids speak to that?