Jewish Studies

The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe – 5 Minutes with Bracha Yaniv

Bracha Yaniv was recently named a finalist in the Jewish Book Awards for her book The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe. We caught up with her this Jewish Book Week to discuss the sources of inspiration for Jewish motifs and the influence of Torah arks on the design of the synagogue.

Congratulations on being named a finalist in the Jewish Book Awards. What made you focus on the Torah arks of Eastern Europe?

There was a student of mine who wanted to write a seminar paper on the Torah arks of Eastern Europe, but she could not find enough images of arks from Eastern Europe. So I decided to help her in this search. Indeed, at that time no book was available on this subject, or any monographic work on Torah arks of any diaspora.

As most of the Torah arks of Eastern Europe were destroyed during the first half of the twentieth century, any research is dependent on pre-WWII photographs. So this was the first step of my research – the search of what ended up in about 120 images, upon which the research is based.

What can we learn from the arks discussed in The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe?

The Torah arks of Eastern Europe are unique in their iconographic richness. Unlike Torah arks in most masonry synagogues, which were designed by non-Jewish architects, the wooden arks were designed and carved by Jewish artisans. This accounts for the fact that the arks display Jewish motifs, inspired by Jewish literary sources and the reason why they are the focus of the book.

 Your book throws new light on long-forgotten traditions of Jewish craftsmanship and religious understanding. What were your findings when conducting your research? Did you discover anything that you found particularly surprising?

Discussions concerning Jewish art often start with the Second Commandment which accordingly limits the artistic figurative expressions. But the carved Torah arks discussed in this book prove that when Jewish content is expressed limitations are minimised and creative solutions are found. Perhaps the most surprising motif I found was the metaphor of God presented in the form of an eagle, in this case, inspired by biblical literary sources.

 How do you think The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe paves the way for further research into Jewish traditions, art and culture?

The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe assembles a collection of motifs, part of which were known – others, revealed and deciphered for the first time. So, for the reader who is interested in the meaning of Jewish motifs, the book will be most useful. The contribution of the book to the research of other fields of Jewish art is based on the fact that the Torah ark is the focus of the design of the synagogue as well as the focus of worship in the synagogue. As such, the design of the Torah arks influenced the design of other kinds of artistic media, for example, wall paintings and paper cuts. Now that we understand the motifs carved on the Torah arks, other fields of Jewish art can be better understood.

 

Bracha Yaniv is Professor of Jewish Art History at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and founding editor of Ars Judaica: The Bar-Ilan Journal of Jewish Art. She has published two pioneering books in Hebrew on the history, design, and iconography of ceremonial synagogue objects.

 

Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates.
Jewish Studies, Uncategorized

Jewish Education in Eastern Europe – 5 minutes with Eliyana Adler

Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 30, Jewish Education in Eastern Europe edited by Eliyana R. Adler and Antony Polonsky is the most recent addition to the esteemed Polin series. As part of Jewish Book Week, Eliyana Adler discusses the importance of the study of education and what we can expect from this groundbreaking new volume.  

Over the years, Polin has provided a forum for exploring a host of aspects of East European Jewish history. I am gratified to be able to add education to that list. It never ceases to surprise me that there is not more curiosity about education in the past and present. It is, after all, so fundamental to our lives and our society. This collection of essays helps us to think about the diversity of educational options available to Jewish children, as well as what that education meant to them and to the societies in which they lived.

The volume is organized chronologically and geographically, with contributions about Jews in schools in the Russian empire, in Hungary, and in Poland. By far the greatest concentration focuses on interwar Poland. The scholars in this section examine Yiddish schools, Orthodox schools, youth groups, and the experiences of Jews in Polish schools. Most of them make use of the remarkable collection of autobiographies young Polish Jews submitted to a series of contests sponsored by the YIVO in the 1930s.

Until the recent publication of selected anthologies of these autobiographies in Polish, Hebrew, and English, this was a relatively unknown source. Authors in the volume, making use of the anthologies as well as the complete archived collection, demonstrate the results of creative and sustained engagement with the youthful writings.

Although their topics and sources are related, this does not lead to overlap or repetition. On the contrary, the authors’ varied research approaches yield complimentary results that inspire further questions. For example, Ido Bassok notes the ways in which political youth groups took the place of religious affiliations while Naomi Seidman suggests that Orthodox youth groups incorporated many organizational techniques from their political counterparts. Sean Martin’s study of the development of Jewish religion classes in Polish schools provides a fascinating counterpart to Kamil Kijel’s exploration of the effects of exclusive and nationalist rhetoric on Jewish children in Polish schools.

The questions of pedagogy, school choice, educational ambitions, identity proliferation, financial constraints, and integration that animate these autobiographies, as well as the essays about them, should sound familiar to contemporary readers. Although interwar Poland was very different from the world in which we live, the intensity of aspirations makes it compelling and accessible.

In addition to the more obvious ties of period and place, a number of themes crisscross the volume as a whole. Several of the authors, for example, explore textbooks as historical sources. Daniel Viragh’s essay about modern Hungarian children’s books covers very different material from Vassili Schedrin’s study of Jewish history texts in Russia, but both showcase the benefits of probing this unique source base.

Others look at the way that wars impact upon educational institutions. While some of the essays look at political influences on Jewish education, others pay attention to religious trends. Two of the essays also contain rare photographs from late imperial Russia.

Some readers will pick up this volume out of a general interest in the history of Jewish education. Others may open it initially in order to read one particular essay related to their own research interests. We hope that they will all find themselves drawn to leaf through other essays on topics they had not even considered previously. It is also our hope that the volume will inspire further research and writing about aspects of Jewish education in the past.

 

Eliyana R. Adler is an associate professor in history and Jewish studies at Pennsylvania State University. She is the author of In Her Hands: The Education of Jewish Girls in Tsarist Russia (2011) and articles on the history of Jewish education. Her co-editor, Antony Polonsky, is professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University

 

Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates.
Jewish Studies

Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy – In conversation with Chaim I. Waxman

How can we explore the relationship between sociology and religion? In celebration of Jewish Book Week, author Chaim I. Waxman discusses the modernisation and Americanisation of Orthodox practices and communities. 

Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy contributes to the study of contemporary orthodoxy. According to your research, how does socio-economic change affect American Orthodox communities?

Socio-economic change affects American Orthodox communities in a variety of ways. One the one hand, as a group they have very high incomes.Their median family income is several times higher than that of most Americans. The ultra-Orthodox have a significant proportion of families with low incomes, but they also have many with high incomes. Economic advances have had a wide-ranging impact; for example, they enabled Orthodox Jews to create new, more affluent communities and institutions. Their buying power has resulted in the availability of many products which fit their religious needs and desires. Their ability to travel widely has sparked the availability of a wide range of tours and cruises around the world with first-class amenities. Various economic advances have also enabled increasing numbers of Orthodox young men and women to engage in higher Jewish learning with their parents’ financial assistance. The growth of the kollel system, wherein young married men spend years in full-time Torah study was, was to a great extent, made possible by the ability of parents to contribute to that endeavor. These are just a few examples, one could write a book on this issue.

I must also point out that there is a flip side to that economic success, namely, the high cost of modern Orthodox Jewish living which leaves many struggling economically. When I speak of the high cost of Jewish living, a notion I learned from my colleague, economist Carmel Chiswick, I am referring to the high cost of such essentials for the modern Orthodox as quality day schools for their children which cost more than $20,000 per year per child—and these are out-of-pocket, non-tax deductible dollars; high costs for summer camps; high fees for synagogue membership; costs for a variety of annual institutional dinners which one is expected to attend; and, of course costs of maintaining a kosher kitchen, the costs associated with observing the Jewish holidays even without going to a luxurious hotel for Passover and Sukkot. In many ways, modern Orthodoxy is an elite for the economically well-to-do. One consequence is that some who feel they cannot afford that lifestyle leave and either affiliate with ultra-Orthodoxy or leave Orthodoxy altogether. In addition, for a while, the high cost of Orthodox Jewish living also served as an incentive to “making aliya”, moving to Israel, where much of that costs is much lower but, where it turned out, the overall costs are frequently much higher.

In the book, you discuss various manifestations of Americanisation in Orthodox Jewish communities. Could you please discuss the ways in which this is evidenced?

A combination of cultural and structural factors which are part of the Americanisation, combined with the socio-economic changes mentioned earlier, sparked the growth and development of a massive kosher food industry. For example, American cultural and economic patterns made it increasingly acceptable and desirable if not necessary for both spouses in a family to work outside the home.  This, in turn, precipitated an increasing need for ready-made foods and, for observant Jews, these had to be kosher. This then sparked technological developments in the food-processing industry that dramatically increased the range and availability of kosher foods, and this, in turn, removed the stigma attached to them.  In fact, most of those who buy kosher foods today are not Orthodox or even Jewish. The annual trade show, Kosherfest, was recently attended by more than 6,000 international trade buyers, including top buyers for supermarket chains, restaurants, caterers, hotels, hospitals, and universities, as well as authors and others who sought to learn the latest developments from all over the world.

An even stronger manifestation of the impact of the Americanisation of Orthodoxy is in language patterns. During the period of peak Jewish immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe, many Orthodox rabbis urged the immigrants to retain Yiddish as their lingua franca and especially as their language of religious discourse.  Today, English is not only the lingua franca of American Orthodox Jews, it is also the primary language in oral religious discourse and plays a major role in the published texts as well. In addition to English translations of the Siddur, prayer book, and Tanakh, the Bible, which have long been deemed acceptable but primarily for the uneducated, there are now available and widely used translations of the Talmud and a host of classic biblical commentaries and Halakhic codes.

Other manifestations of the Americanisation of Orthodoxy can be seen in recreational and leisure-time activities, the very notions of which were once alien to Orthodoxy. Sports, in particular, were anathema, as they were viewed as the ideals of the heathen Greek culture. It is now it is commonplace to find American ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students intimately involved as ardent fans and even participating in betting pools as well as engaging in athletics, although not yet professionally. Similarly with respect to physical fitness, the focus on which was once considered “not Jewish”. Today there is an increasing focus and increasing numbers of gyms designed for and widely used by ultra-Orthodox as well as modern Orthodox men and women, separately of course.

In the area of music, there is today what might be called a parallel structure to the American pop culture music industry, with a broad new genre of American ultra-Orthodox music being created, much of which closely resembles popular music more generally but with a Jewish twist. This is most pronounced in the hasidic branch of American ultra-Orthodoxy, from which a variety of new types of Orthodox music have developed, initially with Shlomo Carlebach’s hasidic hippie to ‘neo-hasidic’, ‘hasidic pop’ and others.

In the area of literature, ultra-Orthodox Jews have developed a genre of literature which had been alien to conservative traditional Orthodoxy, namely, fiction. They have also adopted modern methods of inspirational self-help.  Conventions and ultra-Orthodox publications are replete with ‘cutting-edge’ psychological, educational, and medical topics. The producers and the consumers of these materials are not isolated and do not retreat from the larger society and culture; they are very much engaged in them. They have learned to operate within the culture and to use it for their own ends.

I think I’ve indicated enough manifestations to make my point but, just to top it off, let men refer you to the cover-page colour image of the American flag on the US edition of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, published on Independence Day 2012, with the heading in bold large letters, taken from the US national anthem, ‘o’er the land of the free’.

Do the halakhic developments and women’s greater participation in ritual practices and other areas of communal life reflect changing cultural attitudes and the modernisation of Orthodoxy?

That’s an interesting question. My own response is in the affirmative, but I think that many of the ultra-Orthodox would reply that their attitudes have not changed. They remain opposed to change unless it has clear benefits of orthodoxy and poses no halakhic problems. So, for example, ultra-Orthodox women receive much broader Jewish learning than was permitted in the past – this was legitimized as being necessary under contemporary conditions – but they still are not permitted to engage in Talmud study. Many modern Orthodox women, by contrast, receive higher Jewish learning on a par with and sometimes exceeding that of their male counterparts.

Likewise, the secular educational status of modern Orthodox women is much higher than that of women in the larger society and essentially on par with that of their male Jewish counterparts. They also have high occupational status and occupy increasing leadership roles with society at large and within the Jewish community.  With respect to their participation in the ritual services, there are major differences between the modern Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox as well as among different sectors of modern Orthodoxy.

Within ultra-Orthodoxy, at the same times that women are much more active in the public arena, there have been increasing efforts to keep the lines between men and women separate. For example, many of their publications will not show pictures of women.  Also, there are increasing attempts to prevent social contact between men and women, for example by instituting gender-separate seating at all ultra-Orthodox gatherings, even if no religious ritual service is involved

Bottom line, cultural changes are taking place but they are definitely limited.  Attitudes toward the modernisation are changing even more slowly because most Orthodox do not define the changes as part of a broad process of modernisation and they certainly do not subscribe to the norms and values that are attributed to modernisation in the larger society. This is not surprising as Orthodoxy is inherently conservative.

How do you think that Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy will pave the way for further research into the sociology of religion?

There are probably many ways in which the book may spark further research.  My personal hopes are that it will spark much more research into the area of religion and modernity, and especially religion and post-modernity. At first glance, it would appear that Orthodoxy and post-modernism are totally incompatible. However, in the conclusion to Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy, I point to research showing the inroads that post-modernism has made into Orthodoxy and that there are those who continue to identify as Orthodox while not pigeon-holing themselves into a particular version of Orthodoxy. Among the questions, I would hope to be explored is that of what happens over time and especially inter-generationally, not only in Jewish Orthodoxy but in others as well.

In my book, I analyse changes in what is deemed to be proper religious thought, beliefs. I look forward to more study of this within Orthodox Judaism and within other religions. A major question for me is how do orthodoxies reconcile traditional beliefs which appear to have been dispelled by scientific advances.  Another interesting question, at least for me, is whether religious doubt necessarily leads to defection from Orthodoxy in terms of norms, values, and identification. I would also like to see comparative studies of Orthodoxy in various countries.  I am presently working on a paper dealing with differences between American and Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy – in Israel the term used in haredi—and the question of whether those differences will decline and even disappear over time.

As I said, there are many issues raised or suggested in the book which call for further research, and I hope that the book will, in fact, spark some of that research.

Chaim I. Waxman is chair of the Behavior Sciences Department of Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem and Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Jewish Studies, Rutgers University.

Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates.
Jewish Studies

Hasidism, spirituality, and development – In conversation with Ada Rapoport-Albert

How did hasidism occur, and how has it developed socially and spiritually? Ada Rapoport-Albert, author of Hasidic Studies, discusses the issues of history and gender in hasidism for Jewish Book Week.

Your work focuses on the development of Hasidim and its development in the context of intense spirituality. Could you tell us about the development of hasidism?

Hasidism (literally ‘piety’ in Hebrew) is a movement of spiritual revival, which began in south-eastern Poland in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. At that stage, long before it became a mass movement in the course of the nineteenth century, hasidism consisted of no more than a cluster of spiritually gifted, charismatic individuals, who were attracting small groups of devotees by displaying their supernatural prowess and preaching inspired sermons in the synagogues, the marketplace, and ultimately in their homes, which came to be known as their ‘courts’, functioning as pilgrim sites for their followers. These individuals had emerged out of an older tradition of kabbalistic piety – generally the preserve of the educated elite and marked by the aspiration to transcend worldly existence through mastery of certain contemplative techniques and the adoption of an ascetic lifestyle. By contrast, the new hasidic masters were pointing the way to union with the Divine, whom they sensed to be all-present at all times, even in the midst of worldly materiality. While they alone were capable of attaining a direct experience of this union, they taught that it could be achieved by anyone who would resort to their own unique power to mediate it. As their following grew they encountered opposition, first from some rabbinic quarters, where their popular style of piety was pronounced a dangerous heresy, and subsequently also from Jewish Enlightenment advocates, who scorned it as obscurantist nonsense. The militant campaign to eradicate hasidism, launched in 1772 and lasting several decades, turned out to be a failure. Far from arresting the expansion of hasidism, it triggered the consolidation of its loosely affiliated network of discrete centres into a coherent, albeit never centralised, and increasingly popular movement.

Why do you think the development of eighteenth-century hasidism was previously thought to have occurred in the context of political, social, economic, or religious crisis? 

This still common view is associated above all with Simon Dubnow (1860-1941, the most prominent modern historian of eastern European Jewry. In his pioneering and highly influential History of Hasidism (1930-1), he set the rise of the hasidic movement in the context of a long-drawn crisis, entailing the collapse of all the traditional modes of Jewish life in Poland, and mirroring Poland’s own disintegration, which culminated, by the end of the eighteenth century, in its effective demise as a sovereign state. The crisis began with the mid-seventeenth-century Cossack-led peasant uprising in Poland, which Jewish historiography has labelled ‘the massacres of 1648-49’. Caught up in the events, the Jews, who were perceived by the rebels as agents of the landed Polish nobility, bore much of the brunt of the violence resulting in the devastation of well-established Jewish communities throughout Ukraine and beyond. For Dubnow, these events signalled a turning point in the fortunes of Polish Jewry. Following at least two centuries of steady growth, prosperity, and intellectual achievement, it was now set on an irreversible course of economic, political, and spiritual decline. This pessimistic assessment of Polish Jewry in the period immediately preceding the rise of hasidism must have been coloured, at least to some extent, by Dubnow’s own experience of the plight of eastern European Jewry during the final decades of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. He had lived through the most violent upheavals and ruptures ever encountered by the Jewish population of the region, and was himself a victim of its final liquidation by the Nazis. Moreover, although his History implicitly challenged the disdain for hasidism displayed by the nineteenth-century German-Jewish founders of modern Jewish historiography, for whom the movement epitomized the depravity of eastern European Jewry as a whole, Dubnow’s own depiction of hasidism, especially its emotional and irrational characteristics, was not entirely free of their residual influence. It is as if he felt that a movement such as hasidism could only have emerged in conditions of acute crisis when all the traditional mechanisms for regulating society had become dysfunctional. His reconstruction of the background to the rise of hasidism must, therefore, be seen as reflecting both the tragic historical circumstances of his own lifetime and the historiographical tradition to which he belonged. In the past few decades, however, with the growing accessibility of archival materials preserved in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states, the history of eastern European Jewry, and of hasidsm, has become the subject of revision. A new generation of historians, who had not themselves experienced the predicaments of east European Jewry in the last two centuries, are examining the sources afresh, and their findings point to a modified picture of the adverse conditions from which hasidism emerged. While it would be wrong to underestimate the impact of the mid-seventeenth-century crisis, it must be recognized that conditions of crisis cannot persist for as long as a century without some form of accommodation. Barring such ‘final solutions’ as mass expulsion or extermination, which clearly did not occur in this case, rehabilitation must, and did, take place within a few decades, so that by the middle of the eighteenth century, hasidism was emerging in a more hospitable, albeit by no means entirely auspicious, environment than had previously been assumed.

Your contribution to the study of women in hasidism has been particularly revealing. Why do you think that there was little revision of the role and status and women between the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century?

When I first considered the question why hasidism excluded women from any active participation in its grand spiritual project of hallowing the material world – a project which seemed to lend itself so well to the incorporation of women, who were traditionally classified by the philosophers and kabbalists as the very embodiment of materiality – I suggested that this was simply because it was adhering conservatively to the rabbinic gender norms that had prevailed in Jewish society since late antiquity. However, I subsequently turned my attention to the exceptional prominence of women in the heretical messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi. This movement had preceded the rise of hasidism by close to a century, but it coexisted with it, especially in Poland, where the messianic heresy persisted as a network of clandestine sectarian groups until the beginning of the nineteenth century. My work on Sabbatianism eventually led me to the conclusion that in excluding women, hasidism may well have been retreating with horror from the breached gender boundaries and, above all, the illicit sexuality that became a hallmark of the messianic heresy, inextricably linked as it was to the forces of female spirituality unleashed by the Sabbatians.

How do you think that Hasidic Studies will pave the way for further research into hasidism?

My revisionist work on the eighteenth-century beginnings of hasidism has highlighted the need for fresh research on the development of the movement in the course of the nineteenth century – the period in which it achieved its greatest impact and growth. Scholars had long neglected this crucial stage of hasidic expansion, on the grounds that by that time hasidism had lost its spiritual edge, aligning itself with the most reactionary forces in Jewish society, to engage in a battle directed against modernity and secularism. This verdict is now being challenged by a growing number of studies focused on the distinctive features of particular nineteenth-century hasidic courts, gauging more precisely the mechanisms, scope, and limits of hasidic expansion, or exploring for the first time the daily experience of hasidism beyond the court, in its widely dispersed satellite communities. But there is still much work to be done in this area, and even more so, in twentieth- and twenty-first-century hasidism, especially its post-war rebirth and remarkable adaptation to parts of the world in which it never had any historical roots. As for the question of women in hasidism – my studies have launched a lively debate on the topic, and they continue to stimulate critical analyses of the hasidic sources from ever new and truly insightful gender perspectives.

Ada Rapoport-Albert is Professor of Jewish Studies and former Head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. She is the author of a number of studies on the history of hasidism.

Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates.
Jewish Studies

‘Do Not Forsake the Instruction of Your Mother’ – International Women’s Day with Marjorie Lehman

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. [1]

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.

[1]. 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.

 

Bibliography:

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.

Marjorie Lehman is Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates.