Acknowledging Forgotten Foremothers

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By Rabbi Beth Janus
Parshat Vayetzei

What if I told you that in addition to the three forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the four foremothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, there are two other women we should be celebrating and honoring as part of our original ancestors?

Jacob, with his Herculean strength, single-handedly lifts a gargantuan heavy rock off a well where shepherds are congregating. He does this because of his instant attraction to Rachel, whom he sees for the first time as she approaches the well with her sheep. He kisses her, weeps with emotion and goes home with her. Jacob meets Rachel’s father, Laban, and moves in. Jacob then strikes a deal with Laban that he will work for seven years and in return he will marry his love, Rachel.


The night of the wedding Laban somehow tricks Jacob into marrying Leah, though he still thinks he is marrying Rachel. When Jacob figures out he married the wrong woman, he agrees to work seven more years to marry Rachel. Fourteen years of work is worth it for the privilege of marrying Rachel.

Then the babies start coming. First Leah has a few. Rachel has fertility troubles, so she gives her handmaiden Bilhah to Jacob as a surrogate for herself. This works and Bilhah has two sons. When Leah stops having children, she gives her handmaiden Zilpah as a wife to Jacob in order to produce even more boys. Eventually, Rachel births two sons on her own. By the end, we have 12 sons born to Jacob through these four women. These sons become the 12 tribes of Israel, which are the basis of the transformation of Judaism from one family into the Jewish nation.

Usually we speak about our three patriarchs, and our four matriarchs. We do not often mention the two other women who mothered four of these sons. This was not always our tradition, though. There are several midrashes that write about the six matriarchs. For example, in Numbers Rabbah, a work written in the 12th century, “Six corresponds to the six matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah.” The Torah text itself lists Bilhah and Zilpah alongside Leah and Rachel when listing all the sons of Jacob and their mothers in Genesis 35:23-26.

In Reform Judaism, we embrace an idea called audacious hospitality. It’s defined as “a transformative spiritual practice rooted in the belief that we will be a stronger, more vibrant Jewish community when we fully welcome and incorporate the diversity that is the reality of modern Jewish life.”
Audacious hospitality emulates our first patriarch, Abraham, who was known for his hospitality through his ushering in of strangers who wandered by his desert tent. The goal of audacious hospitality is to contemplate who is not showing up in our communities and ponder why that is. Who are we excluding, either on purpose or by mistake? To whom do we need to be reaching out? Who else should we be including in our tent?

By honoring and including Bilhah and Zilpah as two of our foremothers, we rectify their exclusion. It is correct to honor them for their sake, but it also can push us to be more accepting of others. It reminds us to pause and think about others for whom we might need to be audaciously hospitable.

For example, we know that we must open our doors more widely for the Jews of color in our midst who often are dismissed. Many communities are actively figuring out how to do that. All marginalized Jews should feel the full embrace of Klal Yisrael. By putting Bilhah and Zilpah back in the place of our original mothers, we expand our community and enrich ourselves. These two women symbolize different perspectives, which enable us to see Judaism from another angle.

Perhaps equally as important, we tell the truth of where we come from. Our story does include Bilhah and Zilpah. We would not have 12 tribes without them. The Torah felt they were vital enough to our history to include them. It’s time to follow the Torah’s example.

Rabbi Beth Janus is a community rabbi who sings with people living with dementia, teaches people of all ages, and officiates at life cycle events. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.

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