Why put the patriarchs before the matriarchs?

How one congregation wrestled with the problem of egalitarian prayers

By Simon Rocker, May 21, 2010

In Jew Vs Jew, his book on religious divisions in American Jewry, Samuel Freedman recalled an incident that happened one Shabbat morning at a trendy egalitarian minyan in California in the late 80s. Men and women enjoyed an equal role while using a traditional liturgy.

When it came to the repetition of the Amidah, the woman leading the prayers that day made a small change to the customary wording. After the mention of the patriarchs in the first blessing, she added the matriarchs, too: "God of Sarah, God of Rebecca" etc. At which, Freedman reported, "a rustle rose from the pews, a wave of murmurs and grumbles". The innovation had not been authorised and it led to months of debate: was this a step to equality too far? In the ensuing controversy, some members even left the congregation.

Such friction must now seem a thing of the past within Progressive circles. When Britain's Reform movement published its new siddur in 2008, for example, the Four Mothers duly took their place a the Three Fathers in the Amidah. But discussion about the matriarchs is not quite yet over.

Instead of simply inserting the matriarchs after the patriarchs, the editors of the siddur did something different and printed the names opposite each other in two columns. So worshippers could either go down the first column, reciting the patriarchs, "God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob"; and then moving on to the second column of matriarchs, "God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel and God of Leah."

Alternatively, they could read across the columns, reciting the names of the patriarchs and matriarchs in pairs: "God of Abraham, God of Sarah", then "God of Isaac, God of Rebecca" etc.

But this turned out to be a conundrum for one congregation: which was the better way to say it? You might wonder why not leave the choice up to the individual - no problem when the prayer is said silently. But in Reform congregations, the opening blessings are often chanted collectively. So depending on who was leading the service, the congregants would have to pause before they knew which way it was going - patriarchs, then matriarchs, or patriach-matriarch in pairs. The resulting hesitation interrupted the flow of the prayers and might even lead to confusion with the rabbi going one way and the congregation the other.

The three rabbis of the community, North-Western Reform Synagogue, or Alyth Gardens as it is familiarly known, could not agree. So Rabbis Mark Goldsmith, Laura Janner-Klausner and Josh Levy tried a different approach; they held a public class setting out the various arguments, citing biblical and other texts and finally, in an act of rabbinic democracy, putting the matter to an audience vote.

No one objected to the inclusion of the matriarchs, although one man did admit: "Initially I felt uneasy about it, it just didn't sound right. After a few months, I'm beginning to feel more comfortable about it."

But some wondered whether there might not be more appropriate biblical female role models. Why not cite Miriam, Esther or Deborah? "It's pretty clear," Rabbi Goldsmith answered, "We mention the matriarchs because they are founding generations."

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner had a different issue. "My problem is with Leah because she comes after Rachel. It should be the other way round," she observed. Leah was the elder sister and married Jacob first - but she was seen as "ugly" whereas Rachel was beautiful and cherished more by her husband. What did the order say about our values?

And then how about Bilhah and Zilpah, Jacob's concubines and also mothers of some of his children, who do not get a look into the prayers at all?

For Rabbi Levy, the most traditionally minded of the trio, what was important is that rabbinic precedent exists for incorporating the matriarchs. In Jewish thinking, there is the idea of zechut avot, the merit of the fathers, which redounds to the credit of their descendants when they seek God's favour. "It would be problematic to add [the matriarchs] if there were not a corresponding value of zechut imahot, merit of the mothers, in rabbinic literature," he said.

But there are midrashic sources for zechut imahot (in the Mechilta d'Rabbi Ishmael): eg when Moses ascends the mountain ahead of the battle with Amalek in Exodus, according to the rabbinic commentary, he urges the Israelites to rely on "the deeds of the ancestors" which, the commentary glosses, means both "the deeds of the fathers" and "the deeds of the mothers".

For Rabbi Levy, there was no doubt which order should be followed in the Amidah: the patriarchs should be recited first, then the matriarchs. This is because the phrase "God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob" comes directly from the Torah itself: it is used by God when He reveals Himself to Moses at the burning bush and, moreoever, which Moses is then told to utter to the Israelites.

So, Rabbi Levy argued, to say "God of Abraham, God of Sarah" rather than "God of Abraham, God of Isaac" etc would interfere with the quotation of God's exact words from the Bible.

Other objections to reading the lines in the Amidah across rather than down were raised from the floor. If you couple "God of Abraham" and "God of Sarah", one woman felt, you might suggest that women are significant only by virtue of being wives. Going down rather than across is simply easier to sing in Hebrew, another said.

Though one teenager pointed out that the lines were usually read across in youth groups, the verticalists prevailed over the horizontalists. By a decisive margin, the audience settled it: patriarchs, then matriarchs.

Last updated: 2:29pm, May 21 2010