The rabbis of the early eras of Judaism - the composers of the Talmud from 30 BCE to 500 CE and the Gaonic and Medieval rabbis from 500 CE to 1500 CE - were all men. And so, inevitably, they tended to elevate and highlight the men in the Torah. To be fair, the Torah itself generally highlights the men in the stories and gives the women more 'supporting roles' shall we say. Jacob is a far more dominant a character than Rachel. Tzipporah doesn't hardly rate compared to Moses. Still, the rabbis had a millennium and a half to create stories - called midrash - about the women. Mostly, they didn't.
So when I came across a midrash that includes BOTH the patriarchs AND the matriarchs this week from our current book of the Torah, Leviticus, I was intrigued.
The midrash begins by noting that the beginning of the parsha, which deals with the sacrifice of a bull of the heard, a ram for an offering, and two goats for atonement, correspond perfectly to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham brings a calf to his three guests in a story in Genesis 18; Isaac was replaced as a sacrificial offering by a ram in the Akeidah story of Genesis 22; Jacob deceives his father with stew made from two goats in Genesis 27.
And then the midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 21:11) has its great feminist pivot when it asks:
"All I have here is the patriarchs. Where are the matriarchs?"
The text resolves this by citing Exodus 30, where we learn that the incense brought at the temple had four ingredients: drop-gum, onycha, galbanum, and clear incense. The four ingredients correspond to Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel.
It's a small moment, but an important one. Because often we ask in Jewish texts and tradition - 'Where are the women?'
Women have come far in our tradition. They are rabbis and cantors and shul presidents. They read Torah and take aliyot and lead services. The genders are, at least ideally, equals in Conservative Judaism. We should look back and be proud of this - it wasn't always this way. Women only became rabbis in our movement beginning in 1985. But that means that women's voices in Judaism - in creative literature like midrash and legal reasoning like halacha - is still overwhelmingly male. Until women have had equal representation for a long period of time, the voices of our tradition will continue to be made up of men. Being a male myself, I can't help this too much.
The best I can offer is to try harder to elevate and provide the voices of women in our tradition when I find them for us - to provide the incense alongside the bulls, rams, and goats. It's nice to say 'women are equal'. But representation matters. We need to cite women as academic and religious sources; to read women authors; to center our narrative on all genders whenever possible. The Torah and the midrash here is telling us a deeper truth; that the offerings are only complete when all genders are included. Indeed, there is no offering without the incense, and no incense without the offering.