I love my Mom. She’s a constant source of support, encouragement, love and advice. I hear her voice in my ear, even now at the age of 28, whenever I cross a road or fear that I might mislay one of the things that I’m carrying. Her voice urges me, “Keep your wits about you, Sam.” If I make it to the other side of the road safely and if I manage not to lose something, it’s generally in her merit.
It’s obvious to anyone who knows her that her family is everything to her. She constantly sacrifices on their behalf. But one never really knows the sort of emotional investment that comes along with parenthood until one becomes a parent. I love my children so much that it hurts, and the experience makes me love my own parents even more. Now I have some understanding of how much they love me. Now I have some understanding of the sleepless nights, the wiping up of vomit and the changing of diapers (or nappies, depending on where you’re from), and the willingness to give up everything for your children. To both of my wonderful parents, I overflow with gratitude and love. And yet, having said all of that, my Mom won’t be getting a Mother’s Day card from me today.
Judaism has a law about copying Gentiles. Its main source is Leviticus 13:3. The idea is often misunderstood. I was once told, by an ultra-Orthodox acquaintance, that Jews are forbidden from going to the cinema, because to do so is to copy the Gentiles. Well, Gentiles give to charity and fight for social justice. Is that forbidden too? Gentiles breathe. Should I be holding my breath? In actual fact, the halakha only prohibits us from joining with Gentile practices and customs if they are either (a) immodest, or (b) have their roots in non-Jewish theology. Rabbi Soloveitchik used to celebrate Thanksgiving Day because it was neither immodest nor a religious holiday. By contrast, to gather round for turkey and Christmas pudding on December 25 would be prohibited because that Gentile custom has its roots in Christianity.
In America, and increasingly in Israel, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the second Sunday of May, and has its roots in the campaigning of Ann Jarvis, a pacifist, who sought to reunite families that had been divided by the American Civil War. Despite that it is held on the Christian Sabbath, and often revolves around the Church, Mother’s Day could be argued to be a purely secular day, like Thanksgiving, and thus my argument would break down. But, in Britain, where I grew up and where my parents still live, Mother’s Day is held on the fourth Sunday in Lent, which this year falls out on March 18.
It is a Christian festival called Mothering Sunday, which has its roots in the Roman pagan festival of Hilaria that celebrated the mother goddess, Cybele. When Rome became Christian, the holiday transformed into a celebration of the Virgin Mary. Given the laws about copying Gentile practices, and given the history of the day, the whole notion of commemorating the fourth Sunday of lent makes me feel uncomfortable. Sorry Mom, this is the first reason that I won’t be sending a card.
My second reason is that Jewish values dictate that every day should be a Mother’s Day - and a Father’s Day come to think of it. The Ten Commandments adjure us to honour our parents. And, too often, I fall short. I call them too rarely on the phone. I am too easily frustrated, transforming back into an adolescent, the moment my Mother wants to Mother me a bit too much. Where is the respect that they deserve? How dare I get frustrated? Did my Mother get frustrated when I filled my nappy for the umpteenth time in the same afternoon or woke her up in the middle of the night crying from a nightmare and wanting the comfort that only a parent can offer to a child? It’s not enough to invest my efforts into an annual commercialised expression of love and gratitude via some cheap card. Instead, I need to strive to embody that love and gratitude every day of my life.
Despite all I’ve said, I can obviously see the good side of the day. Like Mitzvah Day, in which Jews are encouraged to do acts of loving kindness, Mother’s Day can be a lovely expression of our most deeply held values. But, like Mitzvah Day, we have to remember that the ideal is to let those values spill over into the rest of the calendar year. Every day is Mitzvah Day. Every day is Mother’s Day.
In contrast to my opinion, some people have sought to find a specific Jewish date to dedicate to our Mothers. One Rabbi told me that it should be the day before Passover, given the strain that Mothers go through in preparing for that festival (although this only applies to the traditional assignment of gender roles within parenthood in which the Mother is the one who does the cooking and the cleaning. This isn’t a state of affairs I want to encourage, though we too often fall into it). The 30th day of Shevat has also been suggested, in honour of Henrietta Szold, who died on that date. Despite having no biological children of her own, she rescued many young Jews from the clutches of Nazism and was a champion for Children’s rights. No matter what day is eventually dedicated to being the “Jewish Mother’s Day,” none should replace the respect and honor that we should be granting our mothers on a daily basis. So, I won’t be sending you a card this year Mom, but I will continue making a daily effort.
Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.
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