Category Archives: Ritual

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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