Part 2: Hunting Elephants with Tag Clouds
The first elephant I wanted to catch was actually a pretty easy target: What did other mitzvot did people feel should be added to the list? Teaching my son(s) Frisbee was my personal favorite (it is a healthy sport!), but I was sure other people had different, possibly better ideas. So I included the question on the survey and received a wide variety of answers. Of course, as with all open ended questions, it was too hard to just put on an excel sheet, so I decided I would capture this particular pachyderm with a tag cloud.
For those of you who do not know what a tag cloud, here’s a brief explanation. A tag cloud is a graphic display of of text which uses relative size to rank the importance of words, much the same way Egyptian art pictured the Pharoah as much bigger than his subjects. I took all the answers and categorized them, fed them into a tag cloud maker and got the following graphic:
Midot, that is, moral behavior, was the clear winner. It included suggestions that ranged from “respect other people” to “be a mentsch” and few other choice examples. Of course, I feel that this was inherent in teaching Torah — like Hillel told the impatient man “That which you hate, do not do to your friend – this is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go and learn.”
If a father isn’t teaching that to his son, he’s just not teaching Torah. I won’t get into analysis, here, but let’s just say I am very happy people put midot at the top of the list as an integral part of our legacy to our kids.
With the next set of questions though, my elephant hunt really went underway. Where were the mothers and daughters? How did we manage to leave them out of the list all these years? And how would we reframe the list now?
The first question in the set was: What should fathers teach their daughters? The answers were as follows:
The most common answer (given by both men and women) was that fathers have the same obligations to their daughters as to their sons. Some people took one or more of the items from the list and made them the key responsibility (teaching Torah, teaching a trade). Others added new responsibilities reflecting contemporary life skills.
The second question was: What should mothers teach their daughters? The answers here were:
Here Torah was the most common answer, with “Same as sons” in second place (just the opposite of set of answers to the previous question.) But also showing up on the list — though not as frequently — were ‘Parenting,’ ‘Self-Respect.’ and less often, ‘Self-Defense’ and ‘Understanding Men.’
Finally, I asked the big question. If the list were expanded to include mothers (much more common in today’s world): What are the mothers’ obligations to their sons? Here are the answers:
On the one hand, the popular response was the same obligations as the father. But neck-in-neck to that was housework, followed by ‘Torah,’ ‘Derekh-Eretz’ and ‘Respecting-your-Wife.’
One interesting point is that the idea of respect for husband/wife showed up more prominently in the list of the mother’s obligations, not fathers. In teh father’s new list, the closest was teaching daughters to understand men.
I leave the interpretations up to you.
The End of the Hunt
I began with the idea that the list in Kiddushin was not complete, and from the survey responses I received, so did everyone else. I was also curious as to how including women in the list would change it. But could the responses be acceptable to an observant Jew like me? Was I setting myself – and anyone else – up? We saw the list change over time but could it change so much that we could add women to it?
I believe the answer is yes.
In Kiddushin, the list is meant to show the difference between those who are commanded to observe a mitzvah and those who are not. The guiding principle is: one who observes because he is following God’s commandment is greater than on who observes because he feels like it. A commonly held interpretation is that one who is commanded gets a reward, and one who isn’t commanded doesn’t illustrated by the sages’ story of Dama ben Netinah, a non-Jew who is handsomely rewarded for honoring his father. If one who is not specifically obligated to observe is rewarded, the sages go on to say, how much more so would one be rewarded when he is obligated!
But like the list he principle itself has evolved.
In its earliest incarnation, it became a reason for excluding those who do the mitzvah without being oblgated. Unfortunately, elements of that interpretation still remain to this day. Later, it developed into an attitude of tolerance:”No, it’s not a mitzvah for you, but if you do it, well, we won’t necessarily stop you.”
For me it was always psychology. One who observes out of personal desire or ‘me-too’ism may stop observing when the attraction fades. One who observes because s/he is commanded, however, will do it because s/he has to. Based on that that I came up with a new interpretation (which I gratefully discovered later was actually a teshuvah)
This interpretation says that when you take upon yourself a mitzvah as a mitzvah, then you are as obligated as if you, yourself, were commanded. And today, we live in a time when men and women equally take upon themselves the commitment of participating in the community and society then for everyone the mitzvah of raising a child is an obligation – a mitzvah. Therefore, there are no real exclusions from who is responsible for these basic parenting requirements. Today, men and women are equally obligated to teach their sons and daughters those skills that are on the evolving list.
It’s a Man’s World. Not!
The conclusion –we are all obligated to teach all our children what they need to know to stay safe, to succeed and to live Jewish lives. Fathers and mothers share this responsibility equally, whichever way they can. And even if it does take a village to raise a child, the mitzvah is for the parent(s) – man and/or woman.
Although our sages wrote this list in their time, they wrote it for all time, but like Talmud itself, it was not meant to be left alone. It was a starting point. In every generation we need to examine it anew and reframe it to accomplish the same ends they intended in ways relevant to us for our time.
That’s the Talmudic way.