On this Mother’s Day, what makes Jewish mothers different than all other mothers? Perhaps nothing. Yet, when we think of the longevity of Judaism, how could it not be otherwise?
Still, that begs the question about what possibly makes them different. Looking back, the role of mothers in our Torah seems limited, but crucial.
One striking example is Jacob’s mother, Rebekka, who, with reported divine revelation, knows which future role her son Jacob should have, even if it is at the expense of his first-born twin brother, Esau. Another example is the wife of Moses, Zipporah, who insists on the circumcision of their son. Taken together, perhaps these examples could suggest that the traditional role of the Jewish mother is to help raise her children to fulfill our covenant with God in whatever ways their qualities seem best to fit.
We don’t know much about how Jewish mothers accomplished this goal over time, that is, perhaps, until the last century. Freud, the Jewish developer of modern psychiatry, posited the Oedipal conflict, where the son becomes a potentially guilty competitor with the father for the love of his mother, so that the mother has a tricky role to love each appropriately. Then, after the Holocaust, the well-known anthropologist, Margaret Mead, was asked to investigate the characteristics of Jewish mothers in the United States, especially those of Eastern European origins. Her findings were popularized into the Jewish mother stereotype of an intensely loving, but intensely involved mother who wanted to guide her children to safety and success.
What was the key ingredient in the work of Freud and Mead? Guilt! It seemed that the Jewish mother engendered guilt in her children with her professed suffering for their well-being. Such mental punishment could well outweigh physical punishment. The success of Jewish children speaks for its effectiveness.
Taken to the community level, guilt could help repair broken relationships, which we atone for on Yom Kippur. It can be, and perhaps has been for millennia, a social glue helping to keep our people connected. Guilt can be thought of as the collective conscience of our ethical monotheism.
However, such guilt could at times also be taken to an extreme. If so, it would be like marrying Freud’s Oedipal Conflict and Mead’s Jewish mother, coming up with the novelist Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. So, in my work as a psychiatrist, I would see Jewish men with what was thought to be guilt-induced depression and/or sexual concerns. On the other hand, when there is too little guilt, “greed is good” can become the mantra, as it did on Wall Street at the end of the last century, rather than “guilt is good.”
Although we hear much less about the guilt-inducing Jewish mother recently, let us remember and celebrate all that Jewish mothers have done on this Mother’s Day. For me, it is my mother, my wife and my daughter, who in my psychiatric opinion and gratefulness, induced just about the right amount of guilt, not too little and not too much.
Steven Moffic, M.D., is an award-winning psychiatrist as a clinician, administrator, writer and artist, including receiving the one-time designation as a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association. He is now retired from seeing patients. He and his wife Rusti are co-chairs of Tapestry, the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center’s arts and ideas programs.