Few Jewish doctrines sound as strange to modern ears as that of “matrilineal descent,” the notion that membership in the Jewish people is passed on through the mother even as other specific qualities of Jewishness (like whether one is a Levite) are passed on through the father. In “The Jewish Mother,” Rabbi Meir Soloveichik looks beyond sociological or historical explanations to give a theological interpretation. At its foundation, Judaism is more a family than a faith, Soloveichik argues, and, in that family, mother and father take on distinct roles.
Here we see the distinction that the Bible draws between the ideal roles of mother and father. Whereas the mother is charged with the duty of giving the child its most basic spiritual and physical reality, its very substance of life, fathers are depicted as teachers, commanders, and discipliners—that is, providers of normative content. From its very beginning, the Bible paints diverse pictures of how mothers and fathers relate to their children, and the contrast continues throughout. The archetypal scriptural father loves his child, of course, but this love often manifests itself as educational discipline, as is stated in Deuteronomy: “For the Eternal your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son.” The biblical archetype of the father, Rabbi Soloveitchik argues, “is basically a teacher… he gives advice, he offers opportunities, he blazes the trail for his offspring,” yet “he expects the children to learn to act on their own, to utilize the counsel they are given gratuitously, to take advantage of the opportunities and finally to attain complete independence and maturity.”
The mother, on the other hand, will always see her child, no matter how old he may be, as the baby she bore. According to tradition, when the book of Proverbs describes a king reprimanded by his mother, it refers to Batsheva’s reproof of her son Solomon after he married the pagan daughter of Pharaoh: “What, my son? And what, child of my womb?” No matter how old a child may be, Rabbi Soloveitchik observes, for the mother, “the image of the baby, the memory of an infant held in her arms, the picture of herself playing, laughing, embracing, nursing, cleaning, and so forth, never vanishes. She always looks upon her child as upon a baby who needs her help and company, and whom she has to protect and shield.” He continues:
The mother can never forget the biological fact that her child was once a part of her, that she gave him her blood and that she brought him into the world with suffering and pain. When she says “my baby,” she means to say: “Once we were one body. I gave you life. We together were involved in the same organic processes.”
The Talmud’s insistence that the mother is the source of a child’s Jewishness, while at the same time insisting that the father determines one’s spiritual and political framework, is intimately linked with the biblical and rabbinic understanding of the natural parental relationship. Jewish law asserts that the father is given the primary responsibility in training the child to develop an independent moral and religious existence. “The father is duty-bound to circumcise his son, to redeem him [if he is a first-born], to teach him Tora, to teach him a trade, and, some say, to teach him to swim as well.” If a child is Jewish, it is his father’s identity that determines the child’s religious, political, financial, and familial obligations. With respect to these responsibilities, the rabbis say, only “the father’s family is considered family” while the mother’s family “is not considered family.” With respect to tribal affiliation, and tribal land inheritance, the father’s family, too, is determinative.
At the same time, the halacha affirms that the natural familial bond is first and foremost forged through gestation and parturition. The mother provides a bodily, familial link to herself, and thereby to her Jewish family. One descended from a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother may be genetically linked to a Jew, but has a much stronger familial connection to one who is not a member of the Jewish family.
The doctrine of matrilineal descent is thus far less incongruous with the biblical and rabbinic traditions than it would seem at first glance. On the contrary, it follows naturally from them. God chose people to serve him in the fullness of their humanity, not only with their souls but also with their bodies. This, in turn, could not be accomplished through the election of individuals, but only through the founding of a faith upon a natural family. But if we are to celebrate, and sanctify, our God-given human instincts, including and especially kinship, then no form of kinship is stronger, more natural, and more human, than motherhood. The angels’ choice of words, in a debate they are said to have had with Moses, is noteworthy; to be human, they scornfully said, is to be “one born of woman.” Thus God’s embracing of our humanity involves taking the most intensely physical of experiences—the giving of one’s body to the creation of another physical human being—and sanctifying it by placing it in the service of God. Motherhood becomes the medium for the continuity of the chosen people.
Judaism is a faith founded primarily on familial identity. In the Bible, it is male figures who most often shape the familial character of our faith. God is known through history as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He elected Aaron and his seed to minister to him in his Temple. And he chose David to rule and to produce an heir, a male messiah through whom the Davidic line would be reborn, the enemies of Israel defeated, and the world redeemed.
Yet precisely because Judaism involves the election of a natural family, it is Jewish women rather than men who serve as the foundation of our familial faith. If, despite disinterest and disregard for one’s heritage, a Jew cannot sever his or her bond to nation, family, and covenant, it is because the Almighty guarantees, to paraphrase Isaiah, that a mother cannot forget her child, nor refrain from having mercy on the child she bore, and that God, therefore, will not forget Israel either. Anyone born to a Jewish mother is bound, by her motherly love, and by God’s motherly love, to the Jewish family and to every other Jew. The centrality of mother-love in Judaism thus means that all Jews are linked by familial ties that can never be undone. Born into a Judaism that is not just a faith but a family, we are all joined for eternity to God—and to each other.
More about: • The Jewish Family • Theology
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