Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
My late mother’s theology always puzzled me.
She loved being Jewish. Her kosher home and weekly Shabbat dinner grounded her. She viewed ethical mitzvot as spiritual obligations.
But she didn’t love God. We can’t know if God exists, she would say. There is no afterlife. The beginning of the universe can’t be imagined. It’s silly to believe in creation.
Yet when bad things happened to her, she would say: “This is a punishment from God.”
When I was 40, my mother finally told me the truth about her parents. Her truth, that is. Her father was a no-good gambler and womanizer. But her beautiful mother was perfect. She never raised her voice. Never had a blemish or a wrinkle. Loved three very different children equally. Created a stable home in spite of her husband’s addiction. Spoke perfect English although she was an immigrant. And died when her youngest daughter, my mother, was only 21.
Finally, I understood my mother’s theology. She saw God in the image of her father: usually absent. On the rare occasions when he was present: angry and punishing. Her mother brought order and comfort, through the practical tasks of daily life. No wonder my own mother loved ritual and acts of lovingkindness. They invoked the presence of her own beautiful mother.
In Birth of the Living God, psychologist Ana-Maria Rizzuto connects early childhood experience with images of God. As infants, she says, we are entirely dependent on our caretakers. They create our world. If we are lucky, they hold us, sustain us, respond to our pleas. If we are less lucky, they don’t respond and we flounder painfully.
Our childhood experience is reflected in our adult talk about God. God creates our world, sustains us, answers our prayers, and holds us in difficult moments. And sometimes, God seems absent.
Of course, I’m oversimplifying. A punishing parent doesn’t automatically push us to fear a punishing God. No parent is always punishing or always loving. And children are not simply blank slates that caregivers write on.
But early childhood experiences inform our adult sense of meaning. We work with what we did and did not receive. The needs our caregivers left unfulfilled don’t disappear. They remain on the horizon of our consciousness. They may linger as sources of disappointment — or as ideals that call us to growth.
My mother’s theology was matriarchal: she believed absolutely in the ideal mother.
So did the prophet Isaiah. He says:
Zion says, “The Lord has forsaken me, My Lord has forgotten me.
Can a woman forget her baby, or disown the child of her womb?
Though she might forget, I never could forget you.
(Isaiah 49:14-15, NJPS Translation)
Isaiah sees God as the mother of the Jewish people. The super-mother. Isaiah understands that a human mother cannot “Do it all.” She might make mistakes, she might be flawed, she might abandon a child emotionally and physically. If your mother abandoned you, your family may still be broken.
But your brokenness is not your full story. You are more than your unfulfilled needs. Those needs may linger as sources of disappointment. But they also point you to ideals. For Isaiah, divine faithfulness is one of those ideals. Believe in it, Isaiah says. Believe in it, and heal.
My mother believed. Not in God, but in faithfulness, in love. Call her agnostic. Call her spiritual, not religious. But call her resilient. Call her an idealist. Call her a self-healer. And let her inspire you.