20 Av 5781 / Thursday, July 29, 2021 | Torah Reading: Eikev
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Va’etchanan: A Mother’s Essence    

Va’etchanan: A Mother’s Essence

In Judaism, only the mother determines the Jewishness of her children. What magic power does the mother have to influence her children more than the father?


Parshat Va’etchanan

The issue of “who is a Jew?” arouses much debate. In the wake of numerous immigrants entering Israel, the subject has taken on new relevance, since many of them are intermarried. Naturally, people who have been persecuted due to their Jewish ancestry feel the right to enjoy the privileges of being Jewish as well. Not everyone is ready to accept that the Jewish lineage depends solely on the mother, and that, according to Halacha (Jewish law), a child born to a gentile mother is not considered Jewish, even if the father is Jewish. The popular explanation that only the identity of the mother can be ascertained is no longer valid in our time, since the identity of the father can now be verified through genetic tests.
The Scriptural source for the law of “who is a Jew?” is found in this week’s parashah:  “Neither shall you intermarry with them; your daughter you shall not give unto his son, nor his daughter shall you take unto your son. For he will turn away your son from following Me, that they may serve other gods...” (Devarim 7:3-4) Scripture speaks here of two cases of intermarriage:
1) A Jewess becomes the wife of a gentile.
2) A Jew becomes the husband of a gentile woman. 
It is not quite clear from the verse who will be the one to turn the other away from following G-d. If the verse referred to the negative influence of the non-Jewish party over his/her Jewish spouse, then we would expect two parallel statements expressing the reason for the prohibition.
1) “For he will turn away your daughter from following Me.
2) “For she will turn away your son from following Me.”
Yet, Scripture mentions neither of these two cases, stating only the following unexpected third possibility: “For he will turn away your son from following Me,” Rashi explains that “he” refers to the gentile husband of the Jewess, but who is then “your son?” that this gentile man may turn away from following Hashem? “Your son” then must refer to your descendant the son of your daughter, who is at risk of being turned away from the Torah path by his non-Jewish father. Grandchildren are often called children in Scripture (See Rashi, Bereishit 20:12). This teaches us that only the son of a Jewess and a gentile father is called “your son,” but the son of a non-Jewish mother with a Jewish father is not defined as your son. Therefore, in regards to the statement,“his daughter you shall not take to your son”, it does not add, “for she will turn away your son (grandson) from following Me”, since Scripturedoes not consider the son of this gentile mother “your son” because he does not belong by birth to the Jewish people. The Halacha follows Rashi’s explanation which is supported by the Talmud stating, “The son from a Jewish mother is called your son, but the son from a gentile mother is not called your son” (Kiddushin 68b). Based on this source, Rambam establishes as Halacha that a child born of a gentile woman is not considered Jewish (Prohibited Relationships, chapter 12, halacha 7).
THE MOTHER GIVES OVER HER ESSENCE                                                    
How do we explain the fact that only the mother determines the Jewishness of her children? What magic power does the mother have to influence her children more than the father? Rabbeinu Bachaya on Bereishit 29:25 explains that the mother gives over her essence to her offspring. This is why the matriarchs named their children, as the name expresses a person’s essence. Rachel's children inherited her craft of silence. When Ya’acov sent her gifts, Lavan took them and gave them to Leah, yet Rachel remained silent. Therefore, all her children were masters of silence. Binyamin, the son of Rachel, knew that Yosef was sold, but kept silent. Esther, from the tribe of Binyamin, son of Rachel, did not reveal the identity of her people   (Megillah 13b). Leah was the master of the craft of thanksgiving and praise (hodaya). Therefore, all her children were masters of hodaya, as it states, “Yehudah, your brothers shall praise you” (yoducha) (Bereishit 49:8). David, her descendant, said: “O Give thanks to Hashem...” (Tehillim 136:1)
The Imrei Shefer compares the womb, to the mikvah, which has the capacity to convert a person to Judaism. He explains that the mother determines the spiritual genetics of the Jewish people because of the great impact the womb has on the unborn child. The fact that the mother carries the baby within her reveals her capacity to carry on the Jewish lineage. The mother is characterized as one who makes space within herself for another being to grow. This ultimate kindness which continues throughout the role of motherhood can be compared to the way G-d created the world. In order to allow the existence of the Universe, G-d, so to speak, had to constrict His own essence and make space for something other than Himself. This is the secret of the “tzimtzum” (constriction) explained by our kabbalistic masters. When pouring wine out from a glass, a reshimo (residue) adheres to the glass. Likewise, when G-d made space within Himself, a drop of Divinity remained within the vacuum. This imprint affects G-d's creation and imbues it with His essence. By sacrificing her own personal space for the sake of her unborn baby, the mother imparts her essence to her offspring in the same way that G-d, by constricting Himself, imparts His essence to mankind - the crown of His Creation. This explains why the mother is the carrier of the Jewish lineage.

Rebbetzin Chana Bracha Siegelbaum is Director of Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin in Gush Etzion. This article is an excerpt from her book Women at the Crossroads: A Woman’s Perspective on the Weekly Torah Portion, reviewed by The Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Press, Voices Magazine, Good Reads, and Wordpress/JewishPress. To order this book, click  here.

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