Matriarchs in Liturgical Setting

I don’t add Imahot when I daven the Amida.

Okay, so, there’s terminology. My guess is that the vast majority of people who might read this will know already what all of those words mean. But, I guess the nice/kind/polite thing to do would be to try to notice define terms that may be jargony and opaque to folks not in the know. I’m not going to be able to do that with everything. But meantime, here it is, fast and sloppy.

Imahot means Matriarchs in Hebrew. Daven means “pray” in Yiddish. The Amida is the central prayer in Jewish liturgy. It is basically fixed in content, though there are variations for different days, but the first section is always the text that invokes the Patriarchs, or Avot in Hebrew (Abraham Isaac and Jacob) and their relationship(s)/covenant(s) with God. In the past few decades there has been a move in some communities to include the names of the Matriarchs in this section as well. What names are those? We’ll get to that.*

In my mind, in the liturgical and scriptural narrative, the relationship between the Avot and God represents something (or some things) specific and archetypical, like for instance in a Joseph Campbell sort of way, and that those symbolic relationships mean something in the context of this specific prayer.

What exactly are those archetypical roles? I won’t pretend that I can answer that question in any definite way. There are multiple possible  answers. One way to look at it is through a Kabbalistic lens wherein each patriarch represents a specific attribute. Another is to connect them with the mythical establishment of the three daily prayer times, and draw meaning from that, and the Midrashic narrative context given for those events. Another is to glean from the narrative itself what they represent: The Covenantal Partner, The Sacrifice, and The Conduit; The Originator, The Progeny, and The Disseminator; The Innovator, The Acceptor, The Wrestler; Three stages of life, Three stages of faith, Three stages or forms of relationship in various respects. I think that there is probably real power in that particular grouping.

My feeling is that perhaps, instead of inserting the Imahot into the beginning of the Amida, the relationship between God and the Imahot can and should be invoked for other liturgical contexts based on their own various narrative and archetypical roles.  I struggle with that though because it still puts women in one category and men in another which may or may not be harmful to the communal psyche.

Things get really difficult for me here. The fact of the whole tradition being patriarchal is something that really breaks my brain about my Judaism sometimes. That is a deeper element of my reluctance to add the Imahot to the Amida specifically: It doesn’t fix or change everything that underlies the development of the liturgy and the texts and the laws and everything else upon which Judaism is built. That makes me sad, and angry, and scared, because as Jewish women, no matter what we do, we are only building on top of a system that doesn’t see us, at least not as active participants.

I posted about this on Facebook and elicited some wonderful insights and perspectives from some very wise friends. These two appeared one after the other:

My kavanah in the first paragraph of the amidah is in essence to be able to approach the divine not just as myself but as the child of those who have tried this before. I can’t say that my father has more weight in this than my mother; I can’t say that being a child of the avot is more important to my ability to approach God than being a child of the imahot. I have never said an amidah without them — this is how I learned it as a five year old by heart. I’ve kept it to just Sarah Rivkah Rachel and Leah (though I’d be inclined to include others) to be an inheritor of the praying tradition of Jewish women who have invoked these four for generations in tehinot and other liturgies.


I don’t say imahot.. As an observant Jew, the way tradition regarded women in the past can’t be fixed post facto and adding some names to the amida doesn’t make up for the absence of women’s names throughout most of Jewish history. So just as with the rest of my engagement with traditional Judaism, i have to come to terms with these facts of history, I see amida as a representative of the many places where women’s potential contributions to the development of my tradition are lacking.


I relate very strongly to the techinas idea, mentioned in the first of the two above quotes. Techines, or techinot, are supplicatory prayers, and there has been a long tradition of women’s using and innovating supplications in their vernacular. These supplications often invoked the Imahot and related specifically to the real concerns of women in their day-to-day lives. The women of the Bible became, in a sense, the spiritual patronesses of the women in their eras… they shared their struggles as women, issues of family, fertility, illness, death, poverty, purity, nutrition, the messy stuff of life that falls on the shoulders of the keeper of the home. We are most of us no longer limited to “women’s realms,” but that doesn’t mean that those realms should be dismissed, or denigrated, or erased. Being a fully participating Jew should not have to mean becoming like a man, and what we think of as “real Judaism” should not be limited to the historical liturgical and ritual realms of men.

The invocation of Imahot in other contexts, contexts to which the Imahot are particularly narratively relevant, innovating new liturgy for the invocation of the prophetesses, who transgressed and transcended their traditional roles as women, makes more sense to me than trying to shove the Imahot into the androcentric liturgy, placed alongside the Avot, in a position that the Imahot themselves would not have understood given their context. This is where I relate to the second quote: we should not erase or gloss over where our mothers were to lend legitimacy to where we are and/or want to be. It is not that I want women to remain separate from men, and women’s stuff to be separated from men’s stuff forever. I certainly don’t want that which is normative to be equivalent to that which is male. But the men have a head start and an unfair home field advantage, as it were. Every time we add something on top of the existing system it feels artificial, not because it’s dumb or inauthentic, but because it is sitting on top of a system that actively looks up at it and says “What the hell are you?”

Lest you jump on me for denigrating the work done by feminists and allies to bring women into the androcentric world that we understand to be the “mainstream,” I don’t think that the work being done by egalitarian activists doesn’t, or won’t make real progress. At least, depending on what is meant by “real progress.” We already have made progress in that we’ve gotten women involved actively in the public mechanics of Judaism, which allows these ideas to even occur to us, and for these conversations to happen in the first place. However, I do think that too much of the cosmetic sort of change gives a sort of permission to not dig deeper, to not address the more core issues facing us as moderns, as feminists in a religion that developed over millennia from the active purging of the feminine divine, and asking hard questions about what we really mean when we say God, Judaism, Feminism, and what we actually believe, deep in the scary places of our faith and practice.

*Who are the Matriarchs and in what order will have to be another entry for another time. There is plenty to say on that topic.

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5 thoughts on “Matriarchs in Liturgical Setting

  1. kellywaj says:

    I’m enjoying reading your blog, and appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts so…thoughtfully. As someone who does include the Imahot in my recitation (like your first commenter, it’s how I was taught from the beginning), I do not expect my practice to be everyone else’s practice. We can have different responses to the same set of concerns, and to be engaged in the work of countering patriarchal (or colonial, or othersuch) structures within religion is more important than to be uniform in how we go about it. (Shortly after I joined the first synagogue I ever belonged to, there was a minor row as a new siddur came into used which attempted to unify the egalitarian version of the Reform liturgy, and the congregation was asked to change from “Sara, Rivka, Leah, Rachel,” to “Sara, Rivka, Rachel, Leah.” So consensus is ever elusive, and I would even say undesirable.) But, something specific you said caught my attention, and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to unpack it some more:

    “The invocation of Imahot in other contexts, contexts to which the Imahot are particularly narratively relevant, innovating new liturgy for the invocation of the prophetesses, who transgressed and transcended their traditional roles as women, makes more sense to me than trying to shove the Imahot into the androcentric liturgy, placed alongside the Avot, in a position that the Imahot themselves would not have understood given their context.”

    I’m going to spell out the points I find confusing/think that I disagree with here, but I want to say upfront that it is a request to hear more about your thinking and feeling on these points, not to try to convince you that you’re wrong:

    1. “contexts in which the Imahot are particularly narratively relevant” – the opening of the Amidah seems to me to be exactly the sort of place where our ancestral mothers are profoundly relevant. In this passage we bless the Holy One who (among other things) brings redemption to [their] children’s children. The virtues of the parents are being invoked on behalf of the children – the mothers, it would seem to me, should have a clear and equal share in this, as they most certainly have an equal claim as parents.

    2. “a position that the Imahot themselves would not have understood given their context.” Could you say more about what you mean by this? I appreciate that it’s fanciful to project modern feminist consciousness onto women in a Bronze Age context, how are we to know what they would or would not have understood or expected? Would Leah have been any less flummoxed than Jacob to learn that folks were using a world-spanning system of magical wires to discuss whether to invoke one or both of them in a formal prayer that would have been as foreign to them as modern fashion or technology? Is the idea that they would not have expected to be placed on an equal footing with their husbands/fathers/sons? And if so, is that an expectation we should be abiding by?

    • Gella says:

      Thanks for your comment and questions, Kelly 🙂

      Okay, per your request, let me see if I can unpack this…

      1) Your understanding of the Amida, having learned it from the outset as being about the virtues of “the parents” being invoked on behalf of “their children” is a valid and good one. It is an excellent kavannah (intention/focus) for one to hold in prayer. Coming from it from a more historical point of view, however, I think that it is structurally and narratively incomplete, and ignores or erases the intertextuality of the composition and the covenantal narrative. The Avot portion of the Amida, as I understand it, is not merely invoking the virtues of the parents, but more specifically invoking the original covenantal partners, the three who had their signatures, as it were, on the contract. There were three Fathers who passed down the covenant in a straight line before it could be opened up to a family, a nation, almost as though it were a beit din. It would be nice to believe that the Imahot were equal partners in that covenant, but that is not what the narrative seems to indicate. The Imahot were participants, surely, tools, and even manipulators of the covenant, but they most certainly are not depicted as principals in any way. Is this something that we should be taking as an example for how we think of our Judaism today, that only men are true covenantal partners? Absolutely not… but I do think that the narrative should be preserved. We need to know where we came from in order to know where we are going and why… we need to know how deep the problems ran to know how deep they run, and to know where to build from.

      2) Again, this is an issue of narrative, and how I think of narrative personally. It is similar to what Neil Gaiman depicts in the Sandman series: the stories are always happening, the characters are always there, playing their roles, so long as the stories are told. In my mind, this extends to liturgy. When we invoke our stories, we are calling up those people as the stories contextualize them. It’s not that I believe that our Mothers would have been incapable of understanding or adapting had The God Of The Narrative called them alongside their husbands as principal partners in the covenant (though given where the covenant is signed and sealed, the lack of a pen-is not irrelevant). But the narrative from which this piece of liturgy is derived has them playing particular roles, and they are not analogous to those of the Avot. Leaving equality aside for the moment, it is just contextually problematic.

      Do I believe that, were the Imahot among us today, they would be strong women in leadership positions? I certainly would love to, and see no reason not to think so. But in order to cast them as such, we need new or reclaimed narratives, and in my opinion, new forms of liturgy deriving from them. As it is, the Imahot played important roles in the narratives that we have currently, and I think that it is more respectful to acknowledge that their ability to play those roles required of them the navigation of the world in which they lived, which required a different set of attributes from those of the Avot, a different sort of work, of ingenuity, of cunning, and that we shouldn’t place them as though they were in a position other than where they were. We don’t honor the heroes of our past who fought through their oppression by pretending that they stood alongside the honored leaders of their era. We tell their story for what it was, and we admire what they did to do what they did from where they were.

      I hope this makes some sense and answers your questions, at least somewhat. If you have pushback, I’d love to hear it and discuss further.

      • kellywaj says:

        Thank you for taking the time to respond – I enjoy the discussion, and I’ve already learned a lot.

        I wasn’t trying to say that the parents/children meaning was the true or exclusive one – I don’t know that I was ever taught anything specific about the meaning of the prayer beyond its translation. I was just trying to say that one of the things happening in the words of the prayer is talk about parents and children. I approach the liturgy mostly at the level of p’shat – not because I want to be ahistorical or to overwrite the past, but just because I haven’t studied enough yet to know the full background. But I do think that the plain meaning of the words and of their location in the liturgy (in the most-recited section of the central prayer) should matter. Or at least, they do matter to me – they figure into my calculus of what and how and why to pray.

        At the same time, I also agree that narrative matters, and I am grateful for your comparison of the Avot to a beit din – that is not a parallel I had encountered before, and it is a beautiful one. I think I hadn’t been so focused on how the language connects to the role of the patriarchs as “covenantal partners,” and I thank you for lifting that up. Having considered it more now, I agree that it is important. I’m not convinced, however, that this is lost by the addition of the Imahot to the prayer. The men and the women seem to me to be presented as two distinct but related groups in the construction “Avot v’Imahot”. I agree with you strongly that the Avot and the Imahot are not just the same in the text, that their labors and qualities are different, and it is important not to plaster over this. At the same time, particularly because of the history surrounding the liturgy, surrounding all of Rabbinic Judaism, surrounding all male-dominated structures and societies, complimenting one gender-based set and not the other suggests that the quality being complimented is held by the one but not the other.

        The question (for me), I think, is about the word ‘hasdey’ – the specific quality being called out as praise-worthy in the prayer. (“Who remembers the piety of the Patriarchs” is the translation given in the Metsudah Siddur – it was actually harder for me to find a translation of the “G-d of our fathers” version than of the “G-d of our fathers and mothers” version.) The original version attributes this quality only to the fathers, the egalitarian version expands this to the mothers as well. I have seen it translated variously as piety, loyalty, and love. My Hebrew-English dictionary offers kindness, benevolence, goodness, charity, and grace. I would strongly defend the idea that the Imahot, within the narrative, exemplified each of these qualities as strongly as the Avot, albeit by different means. However, it may well be that the actual meaning of the word in this context conveys something that patchwork translation cannot account for. If hasdey expresses something unique to the patriarchs, or if something entirely restricted to them is being alluded to in “gomel hasadim tovim,” then I would see a problem.

  2. Gella says:

    I didn’t read you as claiming that the “parents” interpretation/kavannah was exclusive or correct… I know you better than that 😉

    I will admit that my tendency is often to veer from the p’shat toward… well sometimes toward the p’shat, in the sense that one meaning of p’shat may be “Here are words, this is what they seem to mean as I am reading them” and then another may be “Here are words, this is what they seem to mean based on their various contexts,” but also toward drash. I’m all about drash. Drash is my thing. Taking the liturgy at face value of course makes every kind of sense. But yes, we come from very different places in that I have learned in my years of intense text study to read everything in light of everything else, and to make everything more complicated. In Yeshiva, I had it drilled into me to always look up the context, never to let a passage stand on its own if it might reference something else. For example, when a biblical verse is cited in the Mishnah or Talmud, I was taught that it is never enough to know what the words of the verse mean, you must always pull out a Tanakh and look it up, note the parsha, read a few verses forward and back, understand why it is where it is and what it means in that context, in order to fully understand many possible nuances of meaning as the verse is cited in the new context. So when I look at any liturgy, I do the same thing. What’s being quoted, paraphrased, referenced, why are these words chosen and not others, who is being invoked and what about them connects to the other contextual elements of this liturgy, etc.

    Hesed is a tough one. It means different things in different contexts, and certainly the Imahot displayed Hesed in their own right. I would be inclined, however, to see this Hesed, piety, faithfulness, as specific to the covenantal relationship. Since the Piety of the Fathers is followed immediately by “and who brings redemption to the descendants of their descendants for the sake of God’s name in love,” it feels to me like a reference, if indirect, to the reciprocal relationship between covenantal partners, given that narratively we, as the descendants of the Avot, are in this relationship with God as a nation because of their contract. “…for the sake of God’s name in Love” implies that God’s name is, in a sense, at stake, implying contractual obligation (as it were… and as ridiculous as it is to speak of God having obligations… but it is part of how we drash).

    Now, is this the only way to read this? Certainly not. And I’ve got more than a little confirmation bias going here. I think it is perfectly legitimate to reread and reinterpret all of this and say that we believe that the covenant was always supposed to be between God and all people (of Israel, men and women, or of everyone, men and women, depending in how close we are to Moshiach), and we want to read our liturgy in light of that and modify it accordingly. My inclination, however, is toward a narrative wherein God intends the widest possible covenant but, because context, begins with a covenant between Godself and one man, then to a man and his direct male descendants, then to the men of the whole family, then to the men of the whole nation that springs from that family, to the whole of that nation regardless of sex or gender, and finally to everyone. While you can take that to support either point of view really, my interest in preserving the narrative is in recognizing the temporal widening of the covenant as we become ready for each stage of widening, being able to look at it in every aspect and find evidence that where we came from is the narrowest possible place, and where we are headed is the widest possible place. Min HaMetzar Karati, Yah, Anani vaMerchav Yah. From the narrowness I called to God, and I was answered with Divine Expansiveness. (Ps. 118:5)

    • kellywaj says:

      I’ve got a love for midrash too, and for the larger context – I just have to be honest that I don’t have the depth of knowledge (yet) consider it in its fullness. Which is why I so appreciate getting the benefit of your experience and study (and your lots of time spent thinking about all this). The connection of G-d’s name to the covenantal relationship makes sense to me.

      I think the two competing yet legitimate narratives about the covenant that you lay out in your last paragraph is an important insight. We are all, ultimately, pointing in the same direction. I think that I would reframe the first version, or at least I would state my version a little differently: The covenant has always been for all people, but in every moment we are only ever awake to it partially and imperfectly. Which is why disparate and differing understandings, old and new, are so precious. Even scraps and fragments need to be kept with care. “When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.” (Proverbs 23:5) When we pray, by our silence, or by our words and movements, or by our acts of loving kindness, we are trying to clasp hold of birds in flight, riding them toward heaven.

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