Bilhah and Zilpah Listserv Postings
As many of you know, at our next minyan meeting on Sunday, December 2nd, we will be voting on whether to include Bilhah and Zilpah in the communal recitation of the Amidah. In advance of that meeting, the study group’s findings are posted below. These were shared at services a few weeks ago, but we appreciate that not everyone was able to attend.
I would like to encourage the community to discuss this on the listserv and on this bloc so as to share your perspectives. Earlier, I had asked people to e-mail their comments to me, and that had the unintended consequence of making me the sole recipient of everyone’s views. I would like to rectify that now.
This exploration grew out of one of our principles: a commitment to liturgical innovation and the right of the service leader, within very broad guidelines, to introduce new materials in order to expand learning, deepen spirituality, or heighten attention to issues. For example, the traditional Aleynu says, "Who has not made us like other peoples of the world or families of the earth, and not made our lot like theirs or our fate like any others'." When the community decided to use the Reconstructionist version that replaces the phrase with "who gave us true teaching and planted eternal life in our midst," we originally paused to allow time for those reciting the traditional Aleynu to finish because it takes longer to say. Over time, that pause fell by the wayside when no one seemed to be doing the traditional Aleynu.
The intention of the study group has been to use this question as an impetus for Jewish learning and to create an avenue for communal discussion and to deepen our connections to each other.
As a brief background, Bilhah and Zilpah are the “handmaidens” of Leah and Rahel who birthed sons considered leaders of four tribes of Israel. The sons born to Zilpah (Leah’s shifhah) are Gad and Asher; the sons born to Bilhah (Rahel’s shifhah) are Dan and Naftali. The reason we chose to focus on the possibility of including them in the recitation of the imahot is that their children account for one third of the tribes of Israel.
Below are the opening comments from the d’var we shared:
Through study and consultation with many members of our community, we have identified a number of reasons both to include and not to include their names in the listing of the imahot. As we formulated our approach to learning, we agreed that, despite what our personal inclinations might be, we would be open to hearing whatever our search brought to us. We do not have a recommendation one way or the other but have come to the conclusion that including them or not including them in the community recitation of the Avot v'Imahot section of the Amidah is a matter of personal and community conviction. And as a matter of process, more important than coming up with an answer, is using this exploration as a way to get to know each other in a deeper way and build community.
We chose four avenues for data collection: rabbinic text (Michelle Greenfield), the Hebrew words by which Bilhah and Zilpah are referenced - “amah” or “shifchah” plus the concept of pilegesh (Chana Dickter), the processes of other communities that have wrestled with this issue, and feedback from our community as we included Bilhah and Zilpah in the community recitation of the Avot v'Imahot section of the Amidah (Naomi Klayman). Further, the chapter, Attitudes, Beliefs, and Values from David Teutch’s book, AGuide to Jewish Practice was a valuable resource for us as we grappled with the question of how this inclusion might or might not support our communal values.
This study was not meant to be exhaustive, but rather an initial exploration, limited by our time and energy.
Rabbinic Text Search
A review of Rabbinic sources (talmud and midrash) on the Imahot and on Bilhah and Zilpah led us to sources which, not surprisingly, contradict each other.
Although there is a strong early tradition of there being four mothers, we also found a Midrashic tradition (attested to in Song of Songs Rabbah as well as other sources) that specifically claims there are 6 mothers, including Bilhah and Zilpah on the list. In these midrashim, the inclusion or exclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah is likely not driven by values. It would seem as though when the rabbis were looking for things that added up to four, there were four mothers. When they wanted seven, they added the four mothers and three fathers. And when they wanted six, Bilhah and Zilpah were included.
Other sources contribute to a sense that these two women were important in the life of Joseph. Midrash on Geneses 37:2 imagined them as having been Joseph’s caretakers, as his mother had died. There is even a Midrash that imagines Joseph referring to Bilhah as his mother.
No texts were found about Bilhah and Zilpah's faith or religion, though one obscure Midrash does imagine them as the product of a relationship between Lavan and one if his maidservants which, in a system of Patrilineal descent gives them the same status as Rachel and Leah.
Other Synagogue Practices
Three synagogues/minyanim were identified in North America that include Bilhah and Zilpah in the Avot section of the Amidah at some point in a service. What is unique about Dorshei Derekh, is that we are the only community that I have found so far that is subjecting this decision to a communal process; the others made a de facto decision by a few people with little process. I know there are other prayer communities that I have not been able to contact, and perhaps there are others that have gone through a similar process.
Congregation Bet Simchat Torah, an LGBT synagogue in NYC appointed a study/work group to develop their own siddur. The group included the assistant rabbi at that time, Ayelet S. Cohen. The group decided to include Bilhah and Zilpah in the Friday night recitation of the Amidah. No discussion of weighing the implications was reported, but this is what appears at the footnote:
“As a community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight Jews, we have experienced the ways in which families are excluded and erased from Jewish community and family life. Because of the way we love, some of us have lost our children or have been excised from their lives; many of us will never be legally recognized as the parents of the children we have raised. Likewise, many of us are the children of parents who are not legally recognized. Yet despite this, we know that our relationships are holy and our families are real. Therefore, we acknowledge all our ancestors, Avraham, Yitschak, Ya’akov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, her handmaiden Bilhah, Leah, and her handmaiden Zilpah. Our ancestors descended from all of them, whether their relationships were celebr4ated or not, whether they were regarded as equal or not.”
Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park, added Bilhah and Zilpah to the minhah service. When Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom was developing their siddur, he decided to add them to the minchah service without consultation with the community. Their names are included or excluded at the discretion of the service leader, and that is announced just prior to the recitation of the Amidah. Rabbi Rosenbloom first became aware of the possibility of included their names at a female baby-naming service conducted by Rabbi Lenny Gordon.
Ahavat Olam, a progressive synagogue in Vancouver, CA, includes Bilhah and Zilpah in the Shabbat morning recitation of the Amidah. Rabbi David Mivasair explained that he shares leading services with one other person. When that other person included Bilhah and Zilpah in the Amidah, Rabbi Mivasair decided to continue that tradition. This was not discussed by the community.
Compiled Reflections on Values
Avadim hayinu bemitzrayim (We were slaves in Egypt [Deuteronomy 6:21]). "create empathy with all who are down-trodden, victimized or in pain, and support for them." Some of the rejection of Bilhah and Zilpah is due to class and race issues. - Supports inclusion
B’tzelem Elohim (Human beings are created in the image of God) "no human being should be treated merely as an object" Bilhah and Zilpah should not be treated merely as objects (wombs/surrogates) but as putting their lives on the line for Israel in enduring pregnancies for the propagation of the tribes. - Supports inclusion
Darkhey shalom: "utilizing ... resources in ways that create harmony. ... Applies to conflicts between religious groups", A change to the status quo has the potential to incite conflict within our community. - Could support exclusion
Diversity "We benefit from our exposure to different ideas, cultures and ways of being in the world." Recognizing the diversity of mother role - Supports inclusion.
Egalitarianism Although it speaks of equal treatment only for "women and men, homosexual and heterosexual, and people of all races and ethnicities. This principle to extend to socio-economic class. It recognizes the infinite worth of every human life, especially as mothers of Israel. It also sends a message of inclusion and respect to all members of our community. – Supports inclusion.
Emet (Truth and integrity) Provides the truth about our origins, recognizing all six mothers, voiding the untruth of omission. – Supports inclusion
Inclusion and Pluralism "Welcoming all into our communities regardless of ... family status". Supports embracing a wider range of people, strengthening the community and encouraging it to serve all its members. – Supports inclusion.
Kehila (Commitment to community) and Klal Yisrael (Unity and survival of the Jewish people) and Sh’lom bayit (Peace at home) Some in our community take offense at this and would find it distracting. However, the same could be said of other minority groups that we feel compelled to include and other ways that we have expanded our prayers, such as the Imahot and "yo shvay tayvel" at the end of kaddish. - Supports exclusion
K’vod hab’riyot (Human dignity) : "we are bound to respect the dignity of each human being and act in a way consistent with that dignity." - Supports inclusion.
Pluralism: "We embrace pluralism not as a necessary evil but as a source for creating vigor in Jewish life". Bringing the rare practice of including B&Z enhances pluralism. – Supports inclusion.
Shalshelet hakabbala (Preserving the chain of tradition) PROBLEMATIC as Bilhah and Zilpah are not seen as part of the dominant oral tradition in our prayer services. But then neither was including the imahot until we started doing it.
Tzedek: "We live in a just society only when every one of its members is treated justly." Inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah as equals with Rachel &Leah is a way of retroactively treating them justly as mothers. - Support inclusion.
Hebrew Text Study
In the text, Bilhah & Zilpah are referred to as both “amah” or “shifchah”. What types of relationships do these terms imply when used in the Torah? Another textual term is “pilegesh” How were these terms used and understood in the ancient Middle East?
The brief citations below are not intended for anything other than to provide a very broad, basic understanding for reference in future discussions. They were collected during a very pleasant hour spent lost in the internet.
1. Pilegesh/ פילגש : A pilegesh was recognized among the ancient Hebrews and enjoyed the same rights in the house as the legitimate wife. Since having children in Judaism was considered a great blessing, legitimate wives often gave their maids to their husbands so they could have children with them when those women themselves where childless. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 21a), the difference between a pilegesh and a full wife was that the latter received a ketubah and her marriage was preceded by a formal betrothal ("kiddushin"), which was not the case with the former. Any offspring created as a result of a union between a pilegesh and a man were on equal legal footing with children of the man and his (ketubah owning) wife. (no citation)
NB: anyone interested in pursuing such a relationship is welcome to visit www.pilagesh.org
2. The following is from a brief e-mail correspondence with Wil Gafney:
“Amah & shifchah are used completely interchangeably in the corpus and it is no longer possible to distinguish them. Both types of enslaved women and girls are sexually available to their owners for pleasure and/or reproduction. For that reason I chose "womb-slave" to emphasize that aspect of their servitude in those narratives in which they are so used. The translation is semantic (womb) and philological (slave).
Here are some references for Amah in the Tanakh: Judg 9:18; 19:19; 1 Sam 1:11, 16; 25:24–25, 28, 31, 41; 2 Sam 6:20, 22; 14:15–16; 20:17; 1 Kings 1:13, 17; 3:20; Nah 2:7; Psa 86:16; 116:16; Job 19:15; 31:13; Ruth 3:9; Ezra 2:65; Neh 7:67”
Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim, 29 Shevat 5764 - Torah: Exodus 21:1-24:18; Maftir: Exodus 30:11-16; Haftarah : II Kings 12:1-17
An amah is a girl sold to a man because of her family’s dire poverty She becomes a servant to that man. Because her status is anomalous – she is a part of the family but was acquired in the manner of slave – the Torah here lays out her special prerogatives. According to Professor Nahum Sarna, the “laws safeguard her rights and protect her from sexual exploitation.”
Biref4. Most intriguing was a summary from the book: Savina J. Teubal. Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Traditions of Hagar and Sarah. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1997, in which she posits that Hagar was a Naditu priest and argues that she may have been Pharaoh's daughter, or his royal wife or sister. Teubal argues that Hagar's function was childbearing, a rather important function that was of great significance for childless priests like Sarah. Drawing a distinction between "shifhah" and "amah" [slave, maid] terms that are both attributed to Hagar in the Bible, Teubal links the first term to the function of a woman who bore children for a barren priest and who served herself as a priest. That Hagar was childless before coming into Sarah's service provides the likelihood that she was a priest. Teubal argues that Hagar was Sarah's companion, a clan member of equal status rather than a slave or a servant as the later interpretation of "shifhah" and the term "amah" suggests.
· It is possible that Bilhah and Zilpah were initially excluded from the Imahot based on class and/or race prejudice.
· It is possible that Bilhah and Zilpah were initially excluded from the Imahot because their alliance to God is not evident or because they do not explicitly represent Jewish spiritual values.
· The inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah could be taking feminism too far, listing so many more mothers than fathers and could alienate some men in our community.
· The addition of Bilhah and Zilpah reminds us of the contributions of so many nameless and voiceless people over the millennia, especially women, who toil and care for their families and the children of others.
· We might put elipses after Rachel and Leah, and pause in the davvening to indicate that we can never name in the prayer all the ancestors in all the generations.
· The inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah could be distracting to the point of discouraging participating in our service.