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Torah: Who are Bilhah and Zilpah and Why We Should Care

02/16/2023 03:32:51 PM


Rabbi Chaya Gusfield

Online study opportunity March 5 (see below)

Bilhah and Zilpah were both "given" to Jacob by Rachel and Leah as “handmaidens or concubines” to procreate on behalf of the sisters. The resulting four sons were heads of the tribes of Israel. (Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher) Bilhah and Zilpah as handmaidens were essentially slaves – and treated as property to be managed, rather than women with a right to consent. Additionally, they didn't receive rights to their children - the sons are claimed as children by their owners/mistresses.  (Genesis 30 ….)

These women are not generally included in the recitation of our matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) in the siddur (prayerbook) and yet they were the mothers of four of our tribes.  Sometimes they are referred to as the “second matriarchs” or “foreign wives” because they came from neighboring communities who did not share in the worship of our God.

The Or Shalom Minhag Committee supports the idea to study the issue of how to respectfully honor Bilhah and Zilpah in Or Shalom’s prayer life. Seraph White, longtime OS member, states, 

“We are at a time in our country where we are grappling with:

  1. The long-term impacts of the horrors of slavery in this country
  2. The loss of bodily rights for female-bodied and genderqueer people
  3. A pending Supreme Court case that will allow white people to steal Native children through adoption, continuing the cultural genocide against our Native brothers and sisters.”

We hope that once Or Shalom has a settled rabbi that there will be an open study session (or sessions) to consider this important question of how to include Bilhah and Zilpah.

I have noticed that the issue of inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah in prayer (in Reconstuctionist and other communities) revolves not around if, but how, we would include them.  Some communities include them in the first prayer of the Amidah as one of our matriarchs when honoring our ancestors, some in the misheberach (healing prayer), some in the Birkat Hamazon (the prayer after eating).  I know one rabbi who honors them during a Shabbat candelighting meditation.

I found a variety of opinions amongst my rabbinical colleagues. Do they belong in the Amidah where currently the patriarchs and matriarchs are considered to have the same God? Yet although our mothers, Bilhah and Zilpah may not have shared that God. Do we want to call upon them in the healing prayers as a way to also remember the healing they offered Jacob, Rachel and Leah?  Rather than go into depth here about the various possibilities for including them, some ideas still to discover or create, let’s get ready for an in-depth study session in the coming year.  The Reconstructionist Movement is very committed to congregational study as a way to make these kinds of decisions.  I know this will be an important endeavor and I hope for a rich and meaningful study.

One way to do begin is to attend a webinar on March 5 at 2:00 pm by Jewish Learning Works on zoom to learn more about them! Please consider attending.

Jewish Learning Works
Bilhah and Zilpah: Silenced Voices of Sister Wives and Concubine
Matriarchs (VIRTUAL)
Sunday, March 5, 2023, 2:00 PM PST-3:00 PM PST
Presented by Erica Riddick

This text study session will focus on the Torah characters of Bilhah and Zilpah and will explore their contested status and the power of naming. The conditions in which the reader finds these two women—not having autonomy over their bodies, being named and categorized by others, having their voices silenced, having identity and control exerted over their children, and being invisible in plain sight—are realities which still resonate in the lives of marginalized people today.

The source sheet used will contain Hebrew with English translation as well as secular auxiliary sources in English. This text study session is open to all levels of Hebrew comprehension and text study experience.

Erica Riddick is Special Projects Manager with Beloved Garden; the founding director of Jews of Color Sanctuary, creating infrastructure for Jews of Color in Cincinnati and the Midwest; the creator of the Bilhah Zilpah Project, elevating and reclaiming these Jewish matriarchs. She is currently a Jewish Women’s Archive Twersky Education Fellow and Jewish Studio Project Creative Facilitation Fellow. While studying at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, she was a 2022 Pardes Mahloket Matters Fellow. She was the 2021 National Havurah Committee Hollander Social Justice Fellow, and a 2018 URJ JewV’Nation Fellow. Her text studies use social justice and narrative lenses to create embodied learning/teaching that is also fun. She has been a Jewish educator at Mayyim Hayyim, Ammud Jews of Color Torah Academy, Temple Israel in Boston, and Mercaz Conservative High School in Cincinnati. She has been published in the Pardes Etz Chaim Journal, Indie Game Reading Room, and Jewish Women’s Archive’s monthly Educator Up.

Artwork by Rabbi Chaya Gusfield

Sat, July 20 2024 14 Tammuz 5784