Maternal Theology

My earliest memory of speaking or thinking about God:

I am five years old, maybe only three years old, hanging out with two friends who live on my street. We are in Renee’s back yard, sitting on a four-person swing set, pumping furiously with our little legs to keep the set spinning. We get tired, so we pause and let the noisy machine wind down.

And then, out of the silence, we hear it: a fast, high-pitched clicking sound. We can’t see the source, but we can tell it’s beyond the boundaries of the yard. One of us whispers, “What is that?” And another one says, “It’s God.” Filled with awe, we agree.

From time to time, I still hear this sound. Always, I recognize it instantly as the sound we heard in Renee’s yard. It’s the sound of a bicycle, just slightly out of gear, clicking gently.

In her book, Birth of the Living God, Ana-Maria Rizzuto writes about the ways early childhood experience lingers in our images of God. As infants, we are entirely dependent on our earliest caretakers. They create our world, they hold us, they sustain us, they respond to our pleas. Sometimes they don’t respond and we flounder painfully. As adults, we speak about God in very similar ways: God creates our world, sustains us, answers our prayers, holds us through difficult times, and even, sometimes, seems absent. So, perhaps there is a connection between our earliest childhood experience and our images of God.

The connection is not a straight causal link. We can’t just say that having a punishing parent causes us to believe in a punishing God, or that having a loving parent causes us to believe in a loving God. We can’t characterize parents that simply – no human being is always punishing or always loving.  And we can’t characterize ourselves simply as blank slates that parents write on. We make meaning out of both what we’re given and what we’re not given. Our unfulfilled needs don’t disappear; they remain on the horizon of our consciousness. We may come to view them as poisonous sources of perpetual disappointment, or as gorgeous ideals that call us to growth.

Parenting, loving, exercising power, working for justice, struggling with self-worth, feeling safe in the universe – all of these can be sources of deep spiritual yearning or disappointment. Whether we use the word God as we speak about them or not, they are examples of Rizzuto’s point that early childhood experiences shape our spirituality.

My own mother’s theology always puzzled me. Most of the time, she did not believe in God, or an afterlife. She could not wrap her mind around the idea of creation and believed that her dreams were silly nonsense. She invoked God only when musing about why bad things sometimes happened to her. They were punishments from God, she would say. On the other hand, she loved Jewish ritual and its ability to bring order and comfort. She believed deeply in the ethical mitzvot, and the more she matured, the more naturally these came to her.

My mother waited until I was forty to speak openly to me about her parents. Her father, she said, was a no-good gambler and womanizer. Her mother, she said, was perfect and perfectly beautiful. And finally, I understood her theology. She mapped her absent father onto the abstract, transcendent God. Both, in her view, were rarely present, and unpleasant when they did show up. But her mother, who held the family space with practical daily work, brought order and comfort. Hence, for my mother, ritual and acts of loving kindness invoked the presence of her own beautiful mother.

My mother’s theology was matriarchal; she believed absolutely in the ideal mother. Of course she knew that neither her mother, nor her sister, nor she nor I could really be that. But still, she believed.

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.

See, I have engraved you

On the palms of My hands. (Isaiah 49:14-16, NJPS Translation)

Isaiah invokes the ideal mother to describe God’s relationship with the people of Jerusalem. As if God says, “I am your mother, and you are my children. The bond between us is eternal.” Then Isaiah hops back a step and recognizes that a human mother might not meet this ideal; the bond between mother and child could be broken; it may be broken in your own family. But that actual brokenness is not the whole story. You may remember the ideal, and yearn for it. So God says, “I am the ideal mother. I could never forget you. Because of the way I held you, the work I did for you with my own hands, your life is engraved on my body. As long as I exist, you exist for me. I could never forget you.”

In his original historical context, Isaiah hopes to encourage Jews who have made a life in exile in Babylonia to return to Jerusalem. He says, “There is still a place for Jerusalem in God’s plan; there is still a place for you in Jerusalem! You are not forgotten.” But he also hopes to encourage his audience to return from spiritual exile, into a belief that they are worthy of feeling secure and powerful in their world – both as a nation, and as individuals. By way of encouragement, he offers the image of God as mother.

My own mother’s theology helps me understand how this works. Some of us get tired of hearing about the virtues of the big Guy in the sky; he hasn’t been present to us, except when he occasionally seems to come from left field and disrupt our lives with a lightning bolt. Yet we understand the helpful hands of family, friends, acquaintances and organizations that ground our disrupted lives. This, in my mother’s theology, is the presence of the Divine Mother.

This Divine Mother never forgets and never forsakes. Yes, sometimes the helping hands might fail. But faith in their ultimate presence will invoke them when they are needed. Simple things all around us, even the sound of a bicycle gear, can remind us of this hope.

That’s my mother’s theology, and that’s part of Isaiah’s theology. May their ideals be realized.

Image: Christie and her Mom.

  1. this was such a nice read about your mom. i’m so sorry you have to feel the heartache, but i’m so grateful you had such a lovely woman in your life to get you to this point.

  2. Laura, your capacity to see what others do not, or cannot, is a remarkable gift and is linked, I think, to your ability to express deeply personal experiences in a universal way. Thank you for sharing this.

    I understand from Sarah-Bracha, our lovely daughter, that she introduced herself to you. S-B is very much a child of Or Shalom.

    Shanna tova to you and Charles and family,


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