In Jewish theology, an aura of heresy still clings to the metaphor of God as mother. The Maimonidean model so often presented as the totality of Jewish theology dictates that God is beyond human categories; acceptable theological statements address only what God is not. Equally influential in contemporary Jewish theology is the modern critique of religion, which demands that we greet any claims about God with a different but no less withering skepticism. To imagine God as parent, Sigmund Freud insists, is to indulge an infantile projection, a wish for protection writ large.
But these intellectual orthodoxies cannot obscure the fact that to be a mother is, in some sense, to be a child’s god. We have too long allowed the medieval philosophical tradition and the modern “masters of suspicion” to stand in the way of the generative theological path leading from human experience to the knowledge of God. By drawing on the midrashic traditions of the ancient rabbis, we can not only reinscribe the ubiquitous lived experience of those who care for young, dependent, vulnerable humans into theology; we can also better understand the God of the Hebrew Bible as interpreted in Jewish tradition, a God whose intimate involvement with the people of Israel most closely mirrors the activity and affective range of mothers as they care for their young.
To imagine the God of Israel in maternal terms reveals the poverty of regnant theological dualisms and their gendered valences. Transcendence has too often been imagined as a masculine principle of God’s absolute Otherness, and immanence as a stand-in for female compassion and presence. These correlations run deep in Jewish theology. If not deliberately deconstructed, gestures toward divine maternalism only solidify the association of mothers with immanence. But feminist accounts of maternal activity acknowledge that caring for young dependent creatures involves acting with transcendent alterity vis-à-vis one’s child and as a participant in the creation one has brought forth. Recognizing this truth enables us to imagine a more nuanced theology, in which interconnection, difference, and responsibility characterize the asymmetrical relationship between God and human beings.
Historically, “mothers’ work” has meant caregiving activities performed at close range: bathing, cleaning, wiping, holding, feeding, comforting, dressing. These are quotidian, repetitive tasks. They require embodied intimacy. Even more importantly, these tasks generate intimacy. There is no intrinsic reason women in particular should do this kind of work—especially thanks to the invention of infant formula—but for many centuries, and still today, the labor of daily care is performed primarily by mothers and by other paid or unpaid women (kin, nannies, daycare workers). Mothers, moreover, have shouldered (and been shouldered with) the tacit obligation to do this work. Like many other feminists, I object to the societal, legal, and political enforcement of motherhood as an obligation. But I also recognize the felt experience of obligation, of responding to a baby’s cry in the middle of the night, as central to one of the most profound attachments in human life.
The obligation to give care shapes the affective landscape of parenting, and it renders God’s relationship to the people of Israel and the subjective experience of mothers intelligible. Recognizing the tether of obligation between mother and child helps us strip away the layers of sentimentality (and its obverse, demonization) that cling to the notion of the maternal in spite of all the material, social, and political gains by feminism in the last fifty years. The involuntary nature of our responsiveness—of being imposed upon by the face of the Other, as Emmanuel Levinas says—helps us understand that frustration, rage, and boredom cannot but accompany the nurture, tenderness, and pride of the parent. An ever-pacific, ever-giving, ever-selfless mother is the equivalent, in feminist terms, of the Marcionite, supersessionist attempt to split the God of wrath from the God of love.
Here it becomes crucial to tap into the resources at our disposal to (re)imagine God. Classical Jewish texts envision God’s side of the relationship to Israel precisely in terms of “maternality” as I have described it above. In particular, classical midrash rises to the challenge of imagining maternal care honestly and richly, with a broad affective range that is directly tied to God’s sense of responsibility for and acts of care toward the people. Midrashic texts help us imagine a responsive God in intimate relationship with God’s people, and whose bond with that people affects God’s inner life.
For instance, the relationship between God and the people of Israel in their formative years is imagined in rabbinic texts as one in which feeding—perhaps the quintessential form of quotidian caregiving—is a complex site where frustration, nurture, love, and burden all coexist, much as they do for human caregivers. The manna of Exodus 16 is likened to mother’s milk, the Israelites’ first food after their “birth” as a nation: “Just as the breast is the primary food for the baby, and all other food is secondary, so too the manna was primary and all other food was secondary” (Pesikta Zutarta [Midrash Lekach Tov], Bamidbar Beha’alotekha). The rabbis imagine the manna itself in maternal terms, but just as importantly, they invoke the fraught activities of feeding and being fed. As if to forestall the fantasy of ever-harmonious synchronicity between nursing mother and suckling child, biblical and midrashic narratives do not envisage feeding as a site of pacific mutual exchange; they recognize the gap between the infant’s experience of being fed and the parent’s physical and emotional experience of feeding. The manna is associated with God’s munificence and nurture, but it simultaneously signifies the challenges of nurturing and the learning curve required for the divine parent: when Israel devours too much milk-manna at the wrong time, God draws limits (Ex. 16:28), just as a breastfeeding mother helps her baby learn to take milk, and learns how to give it, in the early days of their relationship.
So, too, the midrash imagines the power differential between God and the people of Israel in terms that evoke the complex asymmetry between mother and child. Without question, the Torah presents a God of incredible potency, bringing a world into being with a word and destroying its inhabitants with a mere command. In this sense, both God and a mother’s power to give life and destroy it point to the dramatic gap between the more and less powerful parties. At the same time, the superordinate position in the relationship is not free from vulnerability. The midrash imagines a God deeply affected, even injured, by the inevitable suffering of the people of Israel. When the prophet says, “In all their affliction, he was afflicted” (Is. 63:9), we learn not only that God is compassionate but that God experiences pain. Speaking of this verse, the midrash recounts, “Rabbi Yannai said, Just as with twins, if one feels something in his head, the other one does too; so too Holy One, Blessed be He, said, as it were, ‘I am with him in sorrow’ [Ps. 91:15].” (Exodus Rabbah 2:5). Anyone who has raised children knows this pain: the visceral pain we feel when our child suffers injury, lack, or grief.
The richness of the Jewish theological imagination, as suggested by these texts, enables us to give voice to an aspect of human experience that has all too often been occluded: the everyday work of those who attend faithfully to the most fundamental of human needs. Read through a constructive, feminist lens, these midrashim do something else just as important: bring into view the maternity of God.