Mar­jorie Lehman is writ­ing here as part of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

In col­lect­ing the essays that make up Moth­ers in the Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Imag­i­na­tion, my co-edi­tors and I sought to enhance the vis­i­bil­i­ty of moth­ers and call atten­tion to them as an ana­lyt­ic cat­e­go­ry essen­tial for nar­rat­ing Jew­ish­ness. 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. 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.”

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.” She begins the book remind­ing us of the inter­change between Telemachus and his moth­er Pene­lope in Homer’s Odyssey. Moth­er, he says, Go back into your quar­ters, and take up your work, the loom and the distaff…speech will be the busi­ness of men, and of me most of all; for mine is the pow­er in this house­hold.” Pene­lope then acknowl­edges her son’s pow­er and goes back upstairs. Rab­binic sources express sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments, defin­ing women’s knowl­edge as mere­ly that of the spin­dle, their voic­es use­ful only to share gos­sip when weav­ing togeth­er, but nev­er to share words of Torah, dis­em­pow­er­ing them. Indeed, as Beard argues, we have no tem­plate for what a pow­er­ful woman looks like. Or do we? And so I 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?

Sara 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 pro­tect and pre­serve one anoth­er. Indeed, in moth­er­ing we find a mod­el that teach­es us, even requires us, to give voice to the less pow­er­ful — the child — all the 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 lied. For Rud­dick, to adopt moth­er­ing as a mod­el is to imag­ine a world of mater­nal thinkers, and in so doing, to imag­ine a world at peace.

And so when I think about the joke that still draws laugh­ter from audi­ences today — What’s the dif­fer­ence between a Jew­ish Moth­er and a vul­ture? The vul­ture waits until you are dead to eat your heart out” — I think about the pow­er of moth­er­ing that such a joke reveals, nam­ing it only to side­line moth­er­ing in fear of the pow­er that comes with it, ignor­ing what it can do in its ide­al form. 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 think about 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.