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.
Marjorie Lehman is the co-editor of National Jewish Book Award finalist Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination. She is associate professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary.