PARSHAT KEDOSHIM

MOTHERS AND FATHERS

“You shall each revere your mother and your father, and keep My sabbaths: I the Lord am your God.”  (Leviticus 19:3)

            I know I am entering dangerous waters if I discuss anything related to gender.   Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has been the victim of the cancel culture for some of her comments about gender.  Some have burnt Harry Potter books in protest at her words.

  Today, some people have decided not to identify with any gender; such individuals call themselves non-binary and use the pronoun “they.”  Gender theorist Judith Butler (who goes by they) in her influential book Gender Trouble, has written that gender is performative.   It is more related to how we choose to present ourselves to others than something present from our birth.  Born Jewish, Butler claims to be heavily influence by the Jewish ethics they learned growing up in Chicago.

            With all respect to those who see gender as a social construct and fluid, there are a number of sources in Jewish tradition that sees gender as a fundamental reality of the universe.  One such source is the way Jewish tradition understands the commandment of honoring father and mother.  Perhaps this is a worthy topic to discuss on this Shabbat leading into Mother’s Day.

            The Torah repeats in various places the commandment on how we are to relate to our parents.  The Ten Commandments teaches, “Honor (kabed) your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12).  In this week’s portion it teaches, “Revere (or perhaps better, fear yereh) your mother and your father.”  Note that in the Ten Commandments the father is mentioned first while in Leviticus the mother is mentioned first.  The Talmud asks why?  And it answers that it is related to gender, the difference between fathers and mothers.

            To quote a long passage from the Talmud (Shabbat 30b – 31a), “Rabbi Judah HaNasi says: It is revealed and known before the One Who spoke and the world came into being that a son honors his mother more than he honors his father, because she persuades him with many statements of encouragement and does not treat him harshly. Therefore the Holy One, Blessed be He, preceded the mention of the honor due one’s father before mentioning the honor due one’s mother. Similarly, it is revealed that a son fears his father more than his mother, because his father teaches him Torah, and consequently he is strict with him. Therefore, in the verse: Holy One, Blessed be He, preceded the mention of fear of the mother before the mention of fear of the father.”  In other words, according to the Talmud it is natural to honor one’s mother who comforts a child and fear a father who teaches the rules (“wait until daddy comes home.”)

            Of course, the Talmud was written almost two millennia ago and it speaks in broad generalities.  There are fathers who are more apt to comfort and mothers who are more apt to give rules.  There are single mothers and single fathers, and gay couples raising children.  But the Talmud is talking about archetypes.  And it recognizes that there is a difference between mothering and fathering.

            One sees this in the Hebrew language.  In classical Hebrew there is a word for father (av) and a word for mother (aim).  But there is no word for a generic parent.  In Hebrew one can speak of parents in the plural (horim) but not a parent.  (Modern Hebrew uses the word horei, but that word was invented in modern Israel.)   As I said, these are dangerous waters, but perhaps there are differences between mothers and fathers.

            The deep question is whether gender is a social construct as Butler and many other contemporary thinkers contend.  Or is gender something deeper, built into the very structure of the universe as more traditional thinkers contend.  Certainly Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, sees God as having both masculine and feminine aspects.  Gender is a topic worthy of deep discussion conducted with courtesy and compassion.  Meanwhile, let me wish my wife, my daughter, and all the mothers I know a Happy Mother’s Day.  And I look forward to my own celebration next month, when people wish me, my son-in-law, and all the fathers I know a Happy Father’s Day.