July 19 2024

Caretaking and Childrearing in Modern Jewish Theology with Mara Benjamin

Mara Benjamin, Irene Kaplan Leiwant Professor of Jewish Studies at Mount Holyoke College, experimented with genre in her 2018 book The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought, blending an academic approach to analyzing the concept of childrearing in Jewish intellectual history and offering her own intervention, informed by personal experience, to this undertheorized area in Jewish intellectual history. In this interview, she talks about realizing her role in expanding this conversation across disciplines and her hope that other scholars feel liberated to construct new ideas in the fields they study.

Benjamin's The Obligated Self won the AAR's 2019 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the Constructive-Reflective Studies category.


Kristian Petersen:

Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host, Kristian Peterson. And today I'm here with Mara Benjamin, professor of Jewish studies at Mount Holyoke College and winner of the AAR Book Award in constructive reflective studies. She's here to speak to us about her book, The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought, published with Indiana University Press. Congratulations, Mara, and thanks for joining me.

Mara Benjamin:

Thank you so much for inviting me to be on the podcast.

Kristian Petersen:

This is a really interesting topic and you took a very innovative approach. I was hoping you could begin by telling us a little bit about how the project emerged for you and what were some of the broader conceptual interventions you were hoping to make with the book?

Mara Benjamin:

Sure. Well, I would trace the origin of the book in two different ways. One is on a scholarly level. I guess my subfield is modern Jewish thought, and it's one that's really been dominated by intellectual history and philosophy, often somewhat removed from social history, cultural analysis theory. And so there's been a kind of tradition in my subfield of going deep with one or maybe a couple thinkers, which could be theologians or philosophers or whatever, and really kind of focusing in on their writings. It's very textual.

And that's actually what my first book did. My first book was on one such thinker, a German Jewish philosopher named Franz Rosenzweig, who lived in interwar Germany. And by the time I was done with that book, I was frustrated with that approach that was so often exhibited in my subfield of not really being able to take topics or big picture issues and just examine them on their own with reference to how they have been treated, but not necessarily foregrounding the particular thinker as the focus.

And it took some time for me to embrace the different voice that I use in this that I think is not a typical academic voice. It took some time for me to embrace a different structure, which maybe we'll talk about for organizing the book. But once I really grappled with the fact that I was not excited to do another book like my first book, or that was more conventional, I think, in some sense, liberated to do something where I used those thinkers that are often discussed in my subfield, but was not really focused on unpacking them. So that's on the scholarly side, kind of where I was at in my professional life.

And then, as I'm upfront about in the book, there's also, of course, a personal component to this, as there is for most people writing, who take a topic like maternal subjectivity, there's somewhere that they stand in relation to that topic. And I was with a small child who was about three, I think at the time, and then I had a newborn, and it started to occur to me that perhaps this experience, which is so common, child raising and child rearing, was something that actually could be not just this thing that happened on the side of my intellectual life, but could be brought into it in a certain way.

And if we want to move on to the broader conceptual interventions that you asked about. So Jewish thinkers in central Europe, western Europe, in the course of the late 18th century to, let's say, the mid- twentieth century are the people that I spent a lot of my graduate school years reading about and following the story of how they interpreted the experience of maternity, that was that they were encountering, that was being foisted upon them in certain ways. How did they make meaning of that? How did they respond to it? And all the ways that modern historical knowledge, scientific knowledge, et cetera, challenged some of the basic frameworks that they had inherited.

And what are the things that occurred to me as I thought about this trajectory was that there was a really, I would say crucial concept in traditional Jewish thought to this day, which is the concept that you start out in life obligated rather than free or at liberty. It's sort of the opposite notion of the story that we tell in social contract theory, right? That you start out with a set of obligations that you have to then discharge or constantly engage or whatever. And that is a source of meaning. It's also how the world works. It's how the Jewish story gets told because those obligations are a way of fulfilling God's teaching.

During the modern period, of course, as Jews are being asked to, or forced to, kind of justify their difference in these non-Jewish societies, largely Christian societies or sort of secularizing Christian societies, they find it no longer tenable to uphold all of the particular obligations that that are part of traditional Jewish life. Of course, some do. But in western and central Europe, there are, there begins to be a movement to really radically rethink what Jewish piety looks like in light of the demands that are being sort of made to Jews, which are basically become legible to us as freshmen, as Germans, as Dutch, as English, or you're not going to be citizens.

And so, what happens is that this notion of obligation goes inward. It goes from being something that is performed in public spaces within this Jewish framework to something that is actually dangerous to perform in certain ways or threatening. And so, it doesn't disappear, however. It goes inward. And what I mean by that is that we start to see develop in the 19th and early 20th century, this notion that actually the true obligation, or the true site of obligation of performing meets vote, or these commandments, is something that happens in intersubjective relation. So I encounter you, my neighbor. I am beholden to you. I have certain obligations to you. That's where I actually encounter God, is in fulfilling that, in beholding you in your subjectivity.

So it's actually, on some level, a beautiful and inspiring understanding of what it means to encounter another human being. At the same time, it's the product of this sort of assault on Jewish religious life that is happening, or I should say at least the transformation. That would be a somewhat more neutral way to put it. So, what happens is we get thinkers who might be known outside of Jewish studies, like Martin Buber's notion of the I thou relation, which I encounter all over the place outside of Jewish studies, which is that there's something very powerful that happens in this relation between two subjects.

For me, just bringing it back to the biographical piece of this, the experience of intersubjective obligation is nowhere more profound, at least in our moment and in society than in taking care of a young child, a child who is basically dependent, fully dependent. And so, that never really is mentioned in these thinkers who are all about intersubjective obligation. Women aren't there, babies aren't there. And yet, as I came to know as a human, that was this really profound experience of encounter with another to whom I was obligated, whether I liked it or not. So that's kind of a piece that ties together my own experience and this larger scholarly question I was asking about.

 Kristian Petersen:

You really show throughout the book how essential this relational aspect is to modern theological thinking. And you break this down throughout the book in two parts really. And the first part of the book is centered on this dyad of the mother and the child. And there's a few themes of not only obligation, but love, power, and then ideas about teaching and learning. Can you talk about what you were hoping to do in the first part of the book and how these themes started to show up for you as throughlines throughout your thinking?

Mara Benjamin:

Sure. I'd be happy to. The four keywords that are part of that are the first part of the book, as you mentioned, there's obligation, love, power, and teaching. And these are ways that I try to put some meat on the bones of that intersubjective encounter. What's going on there? What are some of the things that the guys who lived in my head, Martin Buber and Rosenzweig and so on, what is it that they missed, but that in theory they should have been able to talk about? And it shifted from, "Wow, why didn't they talk about it," to, "Well, what do I want to say about this?" And so, those were elements of, first of all, the experience of caring for a young dependent child that I thought were sort of constitutive. Not the only ones certainly, and I've read sort of responses to the book that I think are so powerful where they add another piece to this, another element and playing with it.

So it's not meant to be exhaustive, but it is trying to take up certain salient pieces of what that experience is about, of caregiving. And also ones that happened to kind of light up important ideas or practices in Jewish thought in the broadest sense. And for that, for me, that means anything from biblical sources as they are taken up by the rabbis of late antiquity and beyond. Right? So the idea that you could talk about obligation without simultaneously grounding that or having that be in dialogue with love would be unintelligible to the rabbis. Right? We often think of, depending on where we're coming from, right? There's the kind of law spirit or other kinds of dichotomies that have often appeared as kind of caricaturing rabbinic thought, as all bound out with law and there's no love.

And for the rabbis, that would have been hard to process, right? Because the experience of obligation to the divine is one that is understood as an outgrowth of God's love for the people of Israel. And in turn, for their experience of gratitude and love to God. Right? So those are topics that are interwoven in Jewish liturgical traditions, and other kinds of traditions. And also, I think are interwoven in what many people find to be the experience of child-rearing. And so, that's one of the ways in which I tried to figure out, okay, what were the topics that I wanted to really delve into? It was that kind of sweet spot where common experience lines up with things that are salient categories in Jewish thought.

In terms of power, one of the pieces that was interesting and frustrating, I guess, was the lack of attention in my sources that I was already dealing with in modern Jewish thought to power differentials in the relationship between two individuals. This was something, of course, we're talking about a lot today and rightly so. And how do we think about power in not only individual relationships, but of course, much more broadly. And the relationship of power with a child is really complicated. It's not so simple. And yet, the fact that it's not kind of uni-directional doesn't mean it's not worth talking about. This is a hierarchical relationship in many ways.

And that seemed to be something that needed to be talked about in not only Jewish thought, but in this case about in feminist thought, because so much of what I had read in feminist ethics, for instance, seemed to be focused on relations between adults' erotic relationships or other kinds of relationships that were nonhierarchical, or ideally nonhierarchical. And that's great, but what happens when we have relationships that are structurally hierarchical? How do we think about those as a site for ethics?

And teaching, again, is one of those categories that just is so important for rabbinic thought. It's really defining of what it means to be a parent, is to teach. But the rabbis had a very narrow understanding of what gets taught, who teaches it. And so, part of what I wanted to do with that chapter is open it up and think about the kind of nontextual, nonscholastic embodied practice that we do every day when we're caring for small children as a kind of teaching and as Torah, which is of course the ultimate thing in Jewish thought that is to be taught.

 Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, I think this could be a really productive example for others to follow by putting this kind of relational thinking in a dialogue with a larger intellectual history. So I hope others will take note. In the second part of the book, you extend from this mother, child dyad and you move outward into other types of relationships. Can you talk a little bit about how you work through these ideas of the other and how they help you think through this idea of this relational subjectivity?

Mara Benjamin:

Sure. Well, the way I envisioned second path, or the last three chapters, is kind of in these concentric circles moving outward. And often that movement between, let's say, from the domicile out into the public sphere, right? That's a theme that we find in, let's say, modern writings about education, where the mother is kind of preparing the child to get out into the world. And then they—who it's always the son, right?—goes and takes up the work of the Republic or what have you. So I really did not want to replicate that. And for me, that means kind of looking at the ways in which those broader networks are always already informing what happens in the work of childrearing, which, of course, doesn't only take place within a home, but is constantly happening out on the street and all sorts of other places.

And that also connects us to other people through these very intimate relationships of care that are also globally significant. If you think about it from the perspective of the ethics of care, a lot of people that I was really indebted to in reading for this book have written about what is it that happens within feminism, American feminism, that has been unable to account for the fact that somebody has to raise children. And that means that if you go out and do the work in the public sphere that you are wanting to have access to as a woman, that typically what happens is another woman is brought in who leaves her own children, or a simultaneously somehow caring for her own children to care for yours, right? That's a problem that we have not solved on a social political level, at least in this country.

So I wanted to kind of make sure that when we think about who cares for children, that we aren't only thinking about the biological or adoptive parents, but we're thinking about these wider networks of people who are in different ways, to different degrees involved in that intimate work, that work that kind of gets taken up as part of the project of becoming a human being in a society. So, yeah, so there is that kind of concentric ring structure to the last half, which is that we start with the encounter with the other, or the child as the other, a pretty important religious category for the Jewish thinkers that I look at, and for some Christian thinkers in the early 20th century.

And then the next chapter addresses childcare that is provided not by somebody who is understood as a parent, but as, let's say, a teacher, a beloved teacher, a nanny, a babysitter, somebody who really becomes part of that daily work, but is not understood to be familial. And then the last chapter is trying to read the commandment, to love the neighbor as oneself, in light of... Or not in light of, but I guess just, what does it mean to read that as a parent of a small child? Who's the neighbors? Is my child the neighbor? Is my child somebody who is not a neighbor, but is going to grow into being my neighbor or someone else's neighbor? What about other people's children? Are they my neighbor? Well, clearly, yes. Right? So it seems like there was something there. So that's what that last chapter is.

 Kristian Petersen:

Well, obviously there's so much more to the book that we just don't have time to get into. I'm wondering if you do have any final thoughts though that you could help us think through, especially ones that might be fruitful for people in the study of religion more broadly. What kind of themes or questions has your book taken up that might be followed out by other scholars?

Mara Benjamin:

Briefly, the question that I often am asked and find the answering, you did not ask it, but now I feel compelled to address it, is about gender and maternal subjectivity. And I want to underscore that this is a book that uses the term maternal and mother and gender categories such as that, in part because they reflect an ongoing sociological reality, whether we like it or not, and certainly the historical literature. But I just want to be clear that this is a book that I hope will be read, and be read as meaningful and useful to parents of any gender or people who rear children, no matter what their familial name is within that system. Because I see that work as both grueling and wonderful and as really core to the experience of... Or it's a core place that we might look to understand what it means to be human.

So that, I guess, starts to answer. The second question you just asked, which is how do I hope that others who are not in my subfield, not in Jewish studies, will read this. I hope that it will help it, I guess, that it will intersect with people in a number of ways, whether they're in feminist studies, whether they're in modern intellectual, philosophical history, whether they're thinking about making an intervention in a tradition or thinking about how they might use voice differently and kind of give people maybe the courage to be experimental. It took a lot of courage, I think, for me here. It took a lot of me. I wouldn't say that it took a lot of courage for me, but it was a process of making peace with a really different genre of writing. And I really hope that it gives comfort to other people who might also want to play with the voice that they use or what voice is an academic voice.

Kristian Petersen:

It's a really interesting example of how we can do scholarship in new ways. And I hope others will take you up on your model that you've provided here. So congratulations again on winning the book award, and thanks for taking the time to talk about it.

Mara Benjamin:

Thanks. Thanks for talking to me about it.