UPDATED: November 24, 2019
In this portion, Bilhah, maid to Rachel, bears Dan and Naphtali, while Zilpah, maid to Leah, bears Gad and Asher. As when Sarah arranged for Abraham to father a child with her maid Hagar (Genesis/Breishit 16:2), the product of such a union was considered a child of the master-woman/wife rather than of the maid who conceived, carried, bore and nursed the baby.
In recent decades, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah have been added, in a number of non-Orthodox prayerbooks, to the first blessing of the Amidah — the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy — after Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Bilhah and Zilpah did not join the list of “Matriarchs,” however, in the official prayerooks of the Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements.
Jews continue to question the place of Bilhah and Zilpah in this list. Not including them gives “tacit approval to the idea that woman is property,” goes one argument. Recognizing these women as Matriachs, according to others, would do honor to the many couples — including gays and lesbians — for whom full-status marriage has not been an option. On the other hand, it is argued that it is inappropriate to include women who were not active partners with in the covenant and prophets in their own right in “the ancestors” blessing of the Amidah.
Here, for example, is question and response on this topic from the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) as the Union for Reform Judaism was preparing its 2007 Mishkan T’fillah prayerbook. Similar issues were discussed as the Reform movement in the United Kingdom prepared its 2008 Seder Ha-T’fillot prayerbook (link no longer available).
Mishkan T’fillah was eventually published without Bilhah and Zilpah; I believe this is also the case with Seder Ha-T’fillot, but I have not seen the latter myself. On the other hand, Siddur B’chol L’vav’cha, which arrived earlier [in 2009], does include these mothers (congregational and ordering information). Siddur Sha’ar Zahav also provides more alternatives for the Amidah “ancestors” blessing.
The Jewish Women’s Archive includes an article on the maids’ place in Jewish prayer.
See also Torat Bilhah: The Torah of a Disposable Woman by Wil Gafney, who argues for including Hagar as well.
The website “Evolve: Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations” includes thoughts from David Mosenkis on “Why I include Bilhah and Zilpah in the Imahot.” After reading earlier this year (2019), I added my own comment:
For several years, I included Bilhah and Zilpah as imahot for the reasons described above. Eventually, though, I worried that I was, in my attempt at inclusion, erasing them in the same way that decades of attempts at “color-blind” society effectively erased the differences in realities around color in this country. The attempt at equalizing Bilhah and Zilpah, by including them along with Sarah and Rachel and Leah in the Amidah, can have the effect of flattening out the women’s experiences, so that the subservience of the two is discounted. Now, in the individual Amidah, I pause and leave a space for acknowledging a wider, more varied group of ancestors, who contributed in some way to my standing before God at that moment. Have not really figured out how to succinctly express this when leading….Cantor Sue Roemer, z”l, used to hum a blank, so to speak, after listing the seven: “Elohei hmm-hmm, Elohei hmm-hmm.”
See Source Materials for full siddur citations.
The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.