The Oblig­at­ed Self: Mater­nal Sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and Jew­ish Thought

Mara H. Benjamin

December 18, 2018

Mara H. Ben­jamin con­tends that the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal work of car­ing for and rear­ing chil­dren, for cen­turies the province of women, is the­o­log­i­cal­ly fruit­ful but a large­ly unex­plored ter­rain for fem­i­nists. Attend­ing to the con­stant, con­crete, and urgent needs of chil­dren, she notes, neces­si­tates engag­ing with pro­found ques­tions con­cern­ing the respon­si­ble use of pow­er in unequal rela­tion­ships, the trans­for­ma­tive influ­ence of love, human fragili­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, and the embed­ded­ness of self in rela­tion­ships and oblig­a­tions. Ben­jamin focus­es on how par­ents and chil­dren nego­ti­ate these issues as Jews and how these rela­tion­ships advance Jew­ish the­o­log­i­cal, eth­i­cal, and exis­ten­tial inquiry.

View­ing child-rear­ing as an embod­ied prac­tice, Benjamin’s the­o­log­i­cal reflec­tion invites a pro­found reen­gage­ment with key Jew­ish the­o­log­i­cal thinkers such as Mar­tin Buber, Franz Rosen­zweig, and Emmanuel Lev­inas. Her con­tem­po­rary fem­i­nist stance forges a con­ver­gence between Jew­ish the­o­log­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gy and the demands of parental caregiving.

Discussion Questions

In this book about the inter­sec­tion of moth­er­hood and Judaism, Mara Ben­jamin com­pares and con­nects mater­nal sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and the deep­est expres­sions of being a Jew. With exquis­ite lan­guage and style, Ben­jamin sug­gests that the repet­i­tive, unre­lent­ing, at times tedious oblig­a­tions of moth­ers to their young chil­dren are almost iden­ti­cal to the yoke of dai­ly mitzvot that cre­ates the sus­tained bond between God and the Jew­ish peo­ple. It is pre­cise­ly the daili­ness of it all that cre­ates the covenan­tal, open-end­ed, lov­ing bond in both rela­tion­ships. These analo­gies 65 between the mater­nal and the divine are inher­ent in the inter­play of love and de — pen­den­cy, the uneven dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er, and the need for self-restraint by the more pow­er­ful parent/​divine par­ent.” In her high­ly orig­i­nal study, Ben­jamin sup­ports her views with mul­ti­ple texts, rang­ing from bib­li­cal, rab­binic, and medieval sources to con­tem­po­rary social sci­ence, mod­ern phi­los­o­phy, and Jew­ish thought and prac­tice. Her remark­able book brings an impor­tant dimen­sion from Judaism to con­tem­po­rary dis­cus­sions of motherhood.