The People and the Book: Thinking Like Parents

As we mark the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, we must remind ourselves that blind obedience to abstract ideas can make us cruel. It can turn us into murderers.

Abraham Sarah (do not publish again) (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Abraham Sarah (do not publish again)
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
HOW IRONIC THAT THE portion named for Sarah – the only one named for a woman – refers to her life but mentions only her death. I would like to think that this is so we can learn about her life from her death.
Sarah’s life is defined by motherhood: for most of her life, by the physical, social and existential emptiness she suffers because she is unable to conceive; later, after she gives birth, she is defined by her narcissistic mothering when she rejects Ishmael and Hagar.
Finally, she dies after Abraham agrees to sacrifice her only son on Mt. Moriah.
The midrashim tell us that Abraham, a loving father, hesitated before fulfilling God’s command; yet he ultimately agreed. Abraham did not kill Isaac, but he did sacrifice him. In his blind obedience to his faith in a vengeful, demanding God, Abraham sacrificed Isaac’s right to life. Rashi, the 11th-century commentator, tells us that Sarah died from the shock of the realization of what Abraham was willing and capable of doing.
Abraham acted out of a sense of duty, not emotion. As a young girl, I was taught that Abraham’s ability to overcome his emotions and obey his sense of duty epitomized the ultimate moral act. Our lessons about the binding of Isaac focused on Abraham’s sacrifice, with little attention to the life he was willing to take. Yet since becoming a parent, I have come to think about this very differently.
Indeed, parenting changes the way we feel and the way we think.
The practices of parenting, says feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick, require distinctive cognitive capacities, metaphysical attitudes and conceptions of virtue, which can be elucidated as a “rationality of care.” Seen this way, parenting can be seen as a social experience that leads to a particular moral and political orientation, with profound societal and political implications, How different all our lives would be if we all – politicians and policy- makers included – were to apply what we know as parents to our public world! Parents know that true equality does not mean that we should ignore the difference between individuals and groups, and that neutrality and similarity can be inherently and essentially unfair and unjust. Parents know that true equality is based on differences and not on similarities.
Imagine if we applied this to the public sphere, in the realm of allocations of social benefits and welfare – how more truly equal society would be.
Parents know that concepts of justice must be tempered by concepts of care. Imagine if we thought of justice as a substantive outcome, and not as an abstract procedural concept – how much more truly just our society would be.
As parents we know that our highest responsibility is to protect the life of a child.
Parental “efficiency” is measured according to a calculus of “cost and benefit” that figures in happiness, satisfaction, potential and growth. Yet we allow our Education Ministry to measure efficiency according to matriculation exams while it fails at its most important assignment – the promotion of the creativity and vitality of the children en-trusted into its care.
If we were to apply Sarah’s rationality of care, rather than Abraham’s rationality of duty, then we would behave differently toward the weaker members of our society. If we were to apply a rationality of care to our political thinking, then the pseudo-rationality that allows politicians to depict 1,200 children of foreign workers as a demographic threat becomes abhorrent to us.
And we would reject military terms such as “acceptable losses” or “necessary casualties” because we would know that the losses and the casualties are made up of individual lives.
As parents we know that we have power over our children, and we know how easy it is to be powerful over human beings who are weaker than we are. And when we are honest with ourselves, we know how tempting that power can be. But we also know that power must be moderated and that both the abuse and the abdication of authority can be destructive. As Ruddick writes, parents know what many military enthusiasts forget: the ability to destroy can shock and awe, but compelling the will is subtle, ultimately cooperative work.
Yes, we need ideologies to guide us. But when we allow ideology – or belief, or faith, or commitment or any other similar term of duty – to overcome our ability to care, then we lose our ability to truly live.
As we mark the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, we must remind ourselves that blind obedience to abstract ideas can make us cruel. It can turn us into murderers.
Rona Shapiro, writing in The Women’s Torah Commentary, notes that after Sarah’s death, Abraham finally learns to live her life; he becomes a man of the heart, who cares for his family members and lives out his life on a human plane, finding truth and meaning within the context of family and loved ones. He learns, Shapiro writes, that God is not enthroned in heaven, but wherever human beings let God into their lives.
May we, too, learn from Sarah’s death so that we can learn to live her life.
Eetta Prince-Gibson is editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report.