Deena Has Four Mommies: Tales of Co-parenting in Tanach

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Miryam Kabakov examines Biblical examples of co-parenting, looking for lessons that LGBTQ families can learn from today.

Creative Commons / Elliot Margolies

Creative Commons / Elliot Margolies

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last.

(Gen. 33:1-2)

The passage from this week’s parsha (parshat Vayishlach) gives us a picture of a complicated family. If you think you have a complex living arrangement, look at Deena’s home. There are four mothers, one father, and twelve half- or full biological siblings. In this family, there was surely a lot of de facto co-parenting going on and today might be considered “alternative.” If it does take a village, this family has it made in the shade. But at the same time, it seems as if the matriarchs and patriarchs are in the dark about how to navigate family dynamics. Their lives are fraught with jealousy, deceit and one-upmanship. Rachel and Leah treat having children as a race to the finish. Yaakov’s hierarchical ranking of the mothers of his children doesn’t help: as the passage above makes clear, Yaakov is intentional in the placement of his family members as he readies himself to greet his long lost brother Esav. With vivid memories of Esav as a bloodthirsty hunter and fighter bent on revenge, Yaakov splits his camp. The reasoning is that if Esav does attack, at least half will survive.

On Gen 33:2, explaining why Yaakov puts the “maids” (Bilha and Zilpa) and their children first, Leah and hers second and Rachel with Yosef in back, Rashi states, simply: aharon aharon chaviv: the last is the dearest. The sentiment behind this brief statement is made explicit in Ibn Ezra’s comment on the same verse: “Because of his love for them, he placed Rachel and Yosef last, lest they be killed.” Those on the front lines will be the first in harm’s way; those in the rear will be protected. The order says it all: Yaakov loves Rachel and Yosef best, and he is willing to expose his other wives and children to danger to save his favorites.

Posted on November 26, 2012

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