When Israelis like me visit Jewish communities in the US, one of the most inspiring things we see is the dramatic change in the status of women. Feminism, of course, has reached Israel, but it has not extended to the vast majority of roles and rituals of religious life. In most religious communities in Israel, only men can be rabbis and there are no women at all at the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. It is rare to find mixed seating at synagogues in Israel, women usually are not counted for minyan and of course they cannot read from the Torah or be cantors. The vast majority of prayer books in Israel mention only our male patriarchs, “God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” and, as you know, the vast majority of communities in the States added the four matriarchs, “and God of our mothers, God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”
But I maintain that mentioning the “four mothers” is, ironically, a symbolic reminder of a painful deletion and exclusion of women. Why? Because, according to the Torah, we don’t have four mothers, we have six!
A brief reminder: After Leah had four sons, barren Rachel was despondent and said to Jacob: “Give me children, or else I die.” Insensitive Jacob replied, “Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30)
Hurt and pained, “she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife; and Jacob went in unto her. And Bilhah conceived, and bore Jacob a son.” Bilhah gave birth to Dan and Naphtali. When Leah saw that she also had left off bearing, she decided to adopt Rachel’s idea and she gave to her husband her servant Zilpah, who gave birth to Gad and Asher.
We have six mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Bilhah, Zilpah and Rachel. The erasure of Bilhah and Zilpah from our national consciousness is, in my opinion, an egregious emblem of the exclusion of marginalized women in society. When people, especially women, become completely transparent, I know both Bilha and Zilpah live among us — and in anguish.
It is difficult to determine who is responsible for erasing our two mothers. The Torah is always careful to mention them (see Genesis 35:22-26), and most references to the matriarchs in old rabbinic literature, Midrash and Talmud, mention all six (see, for example, Shir haShirim Rabbah 6). Moreover, the Midrash argues that Jacob actually married them and took them to be his wives (Pesikta Zutarta, Genesis 30).
Perhaps the erasure of our mothers took root due to the famous Passover song “Who Knows,” in which we all sing “four mothers, three fathers… ” This poem, which was written in the 15th century and was introduced late in the Haggadah, is sung in many homes at the seder and may bear some of the responsibility.
We cannot talk about ethics and equality without Bilhah and Zilpah. Both Israelis and American Jews will do well to make the invisible mothers part of our life. Let’s decide to mention them from now on in prayer, let’s decide to mention them at the seder, and more importantly, let’s try to pay attention to those like Bilhah and Zilpah who live among us and who we do not see, and begin to give them their rightful place.
Lior Tal Sadeh is the Chief Content Officer (CCO) at Kolot, an Israeli Beit Midrash for leaders and influencers.