Leah vs Brian: Include the Matriarchs in Jewish Liturgy?

In egalitarian Judaism, some of our siddurim (prayer books) have introduced references to the Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) in prayers that mention Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Reform’s Mishkan Tefillah and the Conservative Movement’s Siddur Sim Shalom are two examples of this. Leah is referencing Siddur Sim Shalom.


Page 156a or 156b.

That’s the question. 

I consider myself a feminist. 

I am solidly on 156a. The version of the Amidah prayer without the Matriarchs.

I do not say the matriarchs. It does not even include all the matriarchs. The mothers of four of the twelve tribes are not represented. That is not feminism. That is putting on a show.

The rationale behind excluding Bilha and Zilpa is that they were handmaidens acting on behalf of Rachel and Leah, that they were not holy enough, that they didn’t have the right qualities, etc. What? So basically, they were either less than human or worthy enough to bear the future of Judaism but just worthy enough to be credited for it. 

I am trying to raise my daughters to include everyone in their discussions and activism. That means even looking at our own prayers. Yes, the original one only includes men, shouldn’t I say that is worse? No. Because when we only see the men we know there is a problem. We know we are being excluded. We know to think of the strong women, we know work needs to be done. However, when the token women are put there, we easily forget Bilha and Zilpa. We easily forget that they did not have a choice. We easily forget that they contributed to who we are. We easily forget that women can be forgotten. 

Intersectionality is growing as people are realizing it is the best way to connect with each other and to find a peaceful world. We ask for it outside of our religion. When a local women’s march claimed intersectionality but was excluding Jewish women, I fought. It is much easier to fight for intersectionality in the outside world then to look inside our own worlds. However, we sometimes have to look inside and see where we can improve. 

Today, there are so many Bilhas and Zilpas: Women that are raising children but not getting the credit they deserve, women that are forgotten, or worse– women being forced into marriages they do not want. How do we help them? When you say the Amidah next, think of how we can help all the Bilhas and Zilpas in the world. 

Prayer can be a call to action, depending on how you read it. Or which version you read. 


To be fair, I don’t daven out of Siddur Sim Shalom outside of synagogue.  I use the Ashkenazi Artscroll Siddur, so for the most part, I don’t routinely use the matriarchs in private davening.

Privately, it’s fine.  I’m a man; our liturgy is at its root a masculine exercise.  Masculine language, masculine priorities—all of these reflect our history in Diaspora as our worship being the province almost exclusively of men.  Private prayer, to me, is like voting—a self-centered act; an egocentric appeal to the Divine. If our traditions were more egalitarian in form, that’s what I would do, because tradition.

Communal prayer for me is a little different.  We’re collectively appealing to the Divine, and in egalitarian Judaism, just saying “v’imahot” doesn’t go far enough. I’ve gone with the rationale that because we are praying together, as men and women, we ought to use language that reflects the entirety of our collective voice.

But outside of that, we have very little evidence that our liturgical approach isn’t still centered on the male. We have whole groupings of prayer attributed to women, like Devorah, that ended up on the cutting room floor when our liturgy was set forth.

So may all your enemies perish, Hashem!  But may all who love you be like the sun when it rises in its strength!

Devorah (and Barak) – Judges 5:31

That’s some cool stuff. Beyond Miriam’s song, it feels like we should have more of this, and less of, like in Hallel, prayers for the confining parameters of womanhood (like not being barren).

The Lutzker Rav, Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin from Ukraine, spoke of Miriam’s song in his Insights in the Torah.  “Miriam did not sing a new song.  She and the women only repeated the song of Moses and the children of Israel with greater vivacity and emotion, with drums and dancing.”

More cowbell!

“It was the same song, with an intense concentration and sacred fervor surpassing that of the men.  Indeed, the women of that generation were more righteous than the men, and it was by their merit that our ancestors were redeemed.”

So the Lutzker Rav echoes and expands on what Rabbi Akiva says in Yalkut Shimoni.  This notion just doesn’t seem represented at all in our liturgy.

I think, given this, I end up agreeing with Leah.  Adding the matriarchs to one prayer, when from P’sukei D’Zimra to Hallel, the averred spiritual elevation of women, the deeds of women, and the promise of women is generally absent…what is really accomplished?  We know the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs, but I’d consider, the average Jew may know the secondary male figures, and yet not know Devorah, Yael, Bilha, and Zilpa.

I may or may not stop using 156b on Shabbos until we have a broader discussion about this.  It’s just not enough to satisfy what’s not there, and I think Leah’s right, that the call to action may reside outside of the liturgy.

Points for Further Discussion

In Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, the authors devote some time to Yiddish techines, usually vernacular personal prayers. Many of these were published in Yiddish language books in the 17th century. When this was picked up on the Yiddish press in Europe, it became a cottage industry for women, writing prayers and sermons for both men and women.

Many of them related to the domesticity of the Jewish feminine, appealing to the mitzvot of challah, niddah (family purity), and lighting candles for Shabbos and Yom Tov.

The Matriarchs are often invoked in these prayers, alongside the Patriarchs.

The recent lecture at our shul by Dr. Amy Milligan about The Jewish Home Beautiful, indicates that such works by American Conservative Judaism exist on a continuum with both the Orthodox and the Reform. These techines did appear in early German and English siddurim for the Reform movement as they moved towards an egalitarian approach, and women in various Chassidic groups still use published techines, in Yiddish, today.

However, the equality of women seems to remain unaddressed in many of these, historically, as we mention, they are focused on female Jewish life cycles, like childbirth, the home-bound mitzvot, and as we mentioned, domesticity.

In reviewing our traditions, past and present, what is the liturgical role of the Jewish woman, from Chassidim to Reform? What are we doing to address the working woman, the single mother, the woman who does not desire children, the women in leadership, in our liturgical approach? Since our liturgy, even the informal kind like techines, always reflects back at us the priorities of the Jewish people at that time, are we still missing the boat? If we dilute masculine and feminine in the name of egalitarianism, are we hobbling a prayerful approach?

All of these things are fascinating to consider.


Writer, President of Bangor's Congregation Beth Israel, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

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About Brian

Brian Kresge

Brian Kresge

Writer, President of Bangor's Congregation Beth Israel, soldier, programmer, father, musician, Heeb, living in the woods of Maine with three ladies and a dog.

About Leah

Leah Kresge

Leah Kresge

Director of Education for Congregation Beth Israel in Bangor, Maine, special educator and former school board member, mother to Amelia and Nezzie.

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