Battle Hymn of the Jewish Mother

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Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

This article was first posted on 2/23/11 in The Jewish Press and has been reprinted with author’s permission.

Every so often an article appears in the media that strikes a chord in the hearts and minds of the public. Such articles engender a multitude of reactions; once upon a time in the form of letters to the editor, but these days in the form of comments on blogs and websites.

Such an article recently appeared in January in The Wall Street Journal. Titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” it was written by Amy Chua, a Chinese mother herself and a professor at Yale Law School. The article is excerpted from her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which is now near the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

Ms. Chua makes a sharp distinction between Chinese mothers and Western mothers, and she advocates strongly for the superiority of the former in the skill of parenting. She asserts that Western mothers are much too permissive and overly concerned with the psychological well-being of their children. They do not demand enough from them, are not strict enough, and do not expect excellent academic performance from them.

Chinese mothers, on the other hand, argues Ms. Chua, expect their children to excel in school, demand that they do so, and impose quite severe restrictions upon them to ensure high academic performance.

Ms. Chua is careful to admit that not only Chinese women adopt this stringent mode of mothering. Rather, such mothers can be found among Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish and Ghanaian women. She also concedes that not all Chinese women are bona fide Chinese mothers.

When I first read the article, I had a strong and complex reaction. I felt that while some of the methods she described were excessive and even cruel, there were aspects of her parenting methodology I did approve of.

I also found myself wondering about the extent to which her notions of parenting were consistent with the Jewish approach. I noted, for example, that in the list of ethnic groups in which she found kindred spirits, Jewish mothers were absent.

I asked myself, Are Chinese mothers indeed superior to Jewish mothers? In our tradition, is there a system of parenting that is recommended to us? Is that system markedly different from the system described by Ms. Chua? Are there similarities between the two approaches, or should we, as Jewish parents, reject the type of parenting she urges upon us?

Let me summarize some of the main points in Ms. Chua’s article. She begins by listing a number of things her daughters are never allowed to do:

She describes the atmosphere in her home and compares it with the atmosphere in Western homes. Her children spend two or three hours a day practicing their musical instruments. She spends approximately ten times more every day drilling academic activities into her children than do her Western counterparts. She is not averse to calling her children “fat” if they are overweight, or “dumb” or “lazy” if they get a grade less than an A – even if it’s an A minus.

She describes an incident in her own childhood when she was disrespectful to her mother and her father angrily called her “garbage.” She admits to using similar terms in reaction to her own children’s demonstrations of disrespect.

She summarizes the differences between Chinese and Western parents as follows:

  1. Chinese parents are not concerned with their children’s “self esteem.” They assume that criticisms, even insults, will not harm the child’s psyche.
  2. Chinese parents believe their children owe them everything. They believe children must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them.
  3. Chinese parents believe they know what is best for their children and are comfortable denying children their own desires and preferences.

There is no doubt there are components of Ms. Chua’s approach that are commendable and consistent with core Jewish parenting values. Our tradition expects parents to have clear expectations of their children and to discipline them when necessary. Certainly, children must appreciate the debt they owe to their parents and are commanded to honor and respect them.

However, there are several major Jewish teachings that are absent in the Chinese model.

Here are some of them:

The Bible is replete with descriptions of the Almighty as a loving and merciful father. The human father is the preferred metaphor for a compassionate, providential, and caring deity. It is as if no more apt an image was available to describe God’s love than that of the parent. During the liturgy of the Ten Days of Repentance, we address God countless times as “Our Father, Our King” and beseech him to “have mercy upon us, as a father has mercy upon his child.” I am certain Ms. Chua loves her daughters, but that love does not come through in her essay. All that comes through are her expectations of them. Her mothering is very much a one-way street.

The Jewish mother has been maligned in literature as overly protective, and her motherly love has been portrayed as smothering. These descriptions, however, are distortions based on extreme cases of excessively controlling others. More typical is the immense wellspring of love that characterizes the typical Jewish mother and that has stood her children in good stead down the generations.

Unquestionably, Jewish parents sometimes get carried away with what they see as their responsibilities. It is certainly not uncommon for Jewish mothers to so coddle their children that they do not develop independent coping skills and become unable to deal with the challenges of life. Also common are those Jewish fathers who are so eager for their children to become exemplary observant Jews that they impose unreasonably strict regimens of study upon them, or require them to quietly participate in unrealistically lengthy portions of the synagogue service. A balanced perspective on parenting is certainly called for.

Mention must also be made of the cases of intolerable physical and even sexual abuse by parents that we unfortunately witness in the Jewish community. Some parents have clearly lost sight of the boundary between discipline and abuse. Numerous contemporary rabbinic leaders, Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Yaakov Kamenetsky above them, admonished parents never to use corporal punishment with their children nowadays, despite the fact that such punishment was condoned in earlier generations.

Motherly love is missing from the picture of the Chinese mother painted by Ms. Chua. On the other hand, motherly love is central to the picture of the Jewish family. From a Jewish perspective, motherly love is the most powerful of human instincts. Indeed, no less a Jewish thinker than Maimonides believed that motherly love is not limited to the human mother but rather is a universal instinct, common to animals as well as humans.

How different is Chua’s description of the good parent from that given by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. I note that though there once was a time when I tried to read Rabbiner Hirsch’s writings in the German original, I long ago surrendered to reading them in translation, preferably in Hebrew.

There is an essay of his, included in the Hebrew anthology Yesodot HaChinuch (Fundamentals of Education), titled “The Partnership of Parents and the School.” In this most noteworthy essay, Rav Hirsch argues for a sharp distinction between the role of the school and the role of the parent. Academic skills, mastery of text, accumulation of formal knowledge – these constitute the realm of the school. Parents have no business drilling children in academics; indeed, they should not even be doing homework with them. They certainly should not be consumed with the child’s grades and classroom performance.

The role of the parent, as Rav Hirsch sees it, is to prepare the child for a life in society that is guided by the values of Torah Judaism. Quoting Rav Hirsch in my free translation, “The Jewish parent must realize that it is only in the framework of mutuality and free expression within the family that it is possible for each individual child to develop his or her own unique character, to form his tendencies, personality, wishes and desires.”

This is Rav Hirsch’s list of the objectives that must be fostered by Jewish parents:

How very different are the parenting aspirations of these two individuals – one, a Chinese American professor struggling to perpetuate the ideals of her culture in a post-modern society; the other, a revered late-19th century rabbi struggling even more fiercely to perpetuate the ideals of his culture at the very beginnings of the modern era.

There are so very few areas of overlap between the two approaches. We must pay attention to those areas because they are obviously very important. They include the need for parents to assert their parental disciplinary roles and the expectation that children should indeed express gratitude and practice obedience toward their parents.

But there are so many aspects of Rav Hirsch’s agenda for parents that simply transcend those of Ms. Chua and which reflect a deeper, more realistic and more noble set of requirements. How well-advised all of us would be, whether we are parents of young children or parents of those parents, to reflect seriously upon Ms. Chua’s advice and note the worldwide reaction it evoked. It says in the Talmud, “Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate. He ate its fruit and discarded its rind” (Chagiga 15b). Like Rabbi Meir, we should eat the core fruit of her essay but reject the rind of her book.

How important, on the other hand, is it for us – again, all of us, whether we are currently parents or not – to carefully scrutinize the brilliant lessons of Rav Hirsch. Once again, his prescience is amazing. Close to 150 years ago he laid out for us an agenda for parenting that is more than relevant. It is essential – absolutely urgent – in our times.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice-president emeritus of the Orthodox Union. He practiced for many years as a clinical psychologist, with an emphasis on school-aged children.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.