This International Women’s Day, Marjorie Lehman, co-editor of Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination, discusses how she is working to disentangle motherhood from idealised notions of the Jewish family and the stereotypes of the Jewish mother.
Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination (eds.) Marjorie Lehman, Jane L. Kanarek and Simon J. Bronner is published by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.
Rooted in Jewish tradition is the notion, conveyed in Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7 and the Talmudic passage that accompanies it BT (Kiddushin 29a), that fathers are commanded to provide for their sons whereas mothers are exempt from this obligation. While the commandment to honour one’s parents obligates sons and daughters, mothers are not legally responsible for the preparation of their sons regarding Torah learning, the performance of mitzvot and/or learning a trade. Mara Benjamin argues convincingly in her article, “On Teachers, Rabbinic and Maternal,” that we need to rethink the rabbinic model of parenting, modelled as it is on the rabbi/disciple relationship, and consider those involved in child-rearing as metaphorical sages. In making this argument she rethinks motherhood, centring it within a seminal Jewish cultural project—the Talmud–from which it was overlooked in favour of the rabbi-teacher//father-son relationship. As Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, Associate Dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary where I am a professor has noted as part of a recent women and power initiative she is spearheading at JTS: “We want to create and model a healthy culture in which gender is made visible and everyone’s leadership and participation is honored.” For me, that includes how we bring mothers and the act of mothering (even metaphorical mothering) into our classroom discussions. It is important to think, like Benjamin did, of the ways we can not only build, or rebuild, cultures where all feel comfortable, but also recognize the role of mothering as tantamount to the role of the sage. 
In collecting the essays that make up Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2017), of which Benjamin’s is one, we began a shared project to enhance the visibility of mothers and call attention to them as an analytic category essential for narrating Jewishness of the past, the present and the future. This was solely an academic endeavour constructed and fashioned by the theories and methods governing the fields of Jewish Studies and Jewish Gender Studies. Working to disentangle motherhood from idealized notions of the Jewish family and stereotypes of the Jewish mother, this collection of essays was designed to show how Jews use motherhood across time and place as a way to construct and comprehend their culture. Our goal was not to offer a perspective on Jewish mothering or a definition of the Jewish mother but to use “mother” as a site of academic study. Part of the motivation emerged from the fact that we recognized a gap in scholarly work in Jewish Studies regarding focused studies on the “mother.” Viewed often as outside the structures of power, relegated to the inside—to the home—we sought authors who brought complexity and nuance to our understanding of “mother.” As Joyce Antler argues in, You Never Call, You Never Write, if there was ever a successful cultural template working to disempower women, it is that of the mother (Antler 58). As academics and feminist scholars we were propelled forward by a desire to give the category of “mother,” and more specifically, the “Jewish mother” its own voice. In the process, we realized that there was much to be said about the ways in which mothers shape Jewish culture and are shaped by it. Writers, activists, rabbis, artists, book printers and poets have projected, created, engaged, and contested Jewish culture by relying on the trope of “the Jewish mother,” often breaking from biological conceptions of motherhood. The time had arrived, we believed, to intervene in the study of Jewish culture with a focus on “mother,” and spur the field to notice what the study of mothers can contribute.
However, inasmuch as publishing a book on mothers became for us an important scholarly undertaking, we wanted this book to incite greater discourse about mothers and motherhood in general, even beyond the academy. For example, Mary Beard, in her book Women and Power: A Manifesto stresses the degree to which women have been silenced and asks us to think about how to “resuscitate women on the inside of power (Beard 79).” Unfortunately, we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like (Beard 54). And so that leads me now to pose the question: What if we turn to the mother? Is there a way to get to the core of what mothering is so that we can think with it to redefine power? Can thinking about mothering offer us new ways of living in the world, not as mothers necessarily, but as people? In fact, it is just these questions that have led me to begin writing my next book, focused on Talmudic mothers, in order to rethink the role of “mother” in the Jewish culture we imagine for our students, our children and for ourselves today.
More to the point, Sarah Ruddick argues in Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, that motherhood offers us an alternative power model, one that is nurturing and that emerges from a commitment to protecting and preserving another (Ruddick 61-123). Indeed, in mothering we find a usable model that teaches us, even requires us, to give voice to the less powerful, the child, while giving the one in power, the one mothering, a voice as well. Mothering is an act of power, but also one of recognized powerlessness, for mothering requires the protection and preservation of a child for the purposes of enabling that child to achieve independence. And so an acknowledged powerlessness takes over where power once was. This understanding of an ideal type of mothering, taken on by all—mothers and non-mothers—is an idea that has helped me to imagine a world where we can cultivate people who never think about power without thinking about powerlessness, who do not disempower to empower themselves or dismiss anyone out of fear that what might emerge is someone better than who they are. For Ruddick, to adopt mothering as a model is to imagine a world of maternal thinkers, and in so doing, to also imagine a world of people at peace with one another.
So it is up to us, I propose, to think as Sara Ruddick does, and to take on the mission posed by Mary Beard—to contemplate a new power model for our world that is grounded in what comes naturally to so many of us, mothering and the thinking associated with it. Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination is the first step in this process for me. I hope that it guides others in thinking about what mothering can be in the interest of change.
. Note that since the publication of this essay Benjamin has written a monograph on this subject. See The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.
Antler, Joyce. You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Beard, Mary. Women and Power: A Manifesto. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.
Benjamin, Mara H. “On Teachers, Rabbinic and Maternal. In Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination. Eds. Marjorie Lehman, Jane L. Kanarek, and Simon J. Bronner. Liverpool: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press, 2017.
Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking. Toward a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.