Why do the Sages say there never was nor will there ever be a truly rebellious child?
Table for Five: Ki Teitzei
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And they shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.”
Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles
The rebellious son is put to death. The Talmud (amidst an extensive treatment of this subject in Tractate Sanhedrin) explains that God is letting us know that if a youngster acts this way, there is no hope but that he will eventually take the lives of others in acts of banditry. Should the boy exhibit certain very specific signs of rebellion, better that he should die now whilst innocent than later after committing capital crimes. Yet strikingly, the Talmud then tells us that there never was a rebellious son, and lets us know that there never ever will be one.
The Torah only wrote this to us to give us the opportunity to benefit from learning lessons from this subject, but it’s not really something that will happen. Now what could be the message of that? Is there not already plenty of Torah to learn? What lesson are we to gain from discussion of putting to death theoretical at-risk youth? But in fact, I think that the Talmud is telling us something crucial to anyone raising children. You can never ever give up on them.
You see, there will never ever be a child who is definitely going to be wicked. There has never been such a child, nor will there ever be. Every single person has the chance to change. No behavior that you are seeing in your teen is reason to write them off. There is hope for all of our children. We may never give up.
Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org
The Talmud says that a wise person is one who can see what is being born (Tamid 32a). Not just born, but how it will “grow up,” meaning to what it will probably lead. The commandment of killing the “rebellious son” teaches a similar message (even if it was never carried out).
A ben sorrer umoreh is not killed because he has already done something that warrants the death penalty. He is killed because he has done things that seem to indicate that he will do such things in the future. The Beis Din kills him now while he is still “meritorious,” before he becomes guilty of the death penalty. But what if the boy grows up and matures nicely? What if he leaves behind his troubling ways, as so many other “rebellious” children have done over the ages? If saving one soul is like saving an entire world, isn’t it worth the risk to see how this one turns out too? What if the concern does not apply to this son?
The Torah says assume that it does and go with the signs. And not just in the case of the rebellious son, but in life in general. Many bad things have happened because people have disregarded the signs of where they were going. They suffered from cognitive dissonance, psychological conflict that results from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously. As they say, “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, Mashpia, writer, businessman
The “Wayward and Rebellious Son” precept is so outlandish that some Talmudic rabbis say (Sanhedrin 71b), “This commandment never occurred, nor will it ever occur in the future! If so, why is it in the Torah at all? Expound on the Torah’s passages and receive the reward.”
Is this just a scholarly pursuit? What is to be learned from something that can’t happen? Underlying this law are lessons for parents to be gleaned regarding their critical role in raising their children. Each child is a tabula rasa, a clean slate. Parents need to introspect into their role in their child’s rebelliousness.
“They shall say, our son is wayward and rebellious, he does not listen to our voice (exact translation); he is a glutton and a drunkard.” (21:20) The precept of the “rebellious son” applies only if his father and mother speak in the same voice. This means both parents must take an active role in educating their child and must relate to their child with an equal sense of seriousness, and most importantly, both parents must convey to him the same message and the same value system.
Only if parents have met these criteria are they blameless if their child becomes rebellious. But if the parents have not worked together harmoniously in bringing up their child, then the fact that the child has become unruly may not reflect his innate depravity, but rather a dysfunctional upbringing. Change these factors and the child might well improve.
Rabbi Rebecca Schatz, Assistant Rabbi, Temple Beth Am, LA
Both parents must willingly present him to the community for what will result in punishment. But we’re not told what anyone might have done to prevent the development of such a person, or what was tried privately before going public.
The 20th century Rebbe of Piaseczna wrote in his singular work, Chovat HaTalmidim, “It is not enough to just teach the lad that he is obligated to listen to the educator, and nothing more. The main point is to bring this opinion into his heart: To know that he – the child himself – is the main educator. Rather, he is the sprout of God’s planting in the garden of Israel.” Though the quote continues to say the responsibility is on the father and rabbi to teach the child, the child must own his progress and success, as well as his failing. Our job as parents, teachers and community is to make the child feel supported and safe when questioning, exploring, and sharing new learning. Public shaming will ostracize and brand the child, dooming him.
Proverbs 22:6 reminds us to teach children individualistically, connecting with their abilities and interests, so that they will not grow disloyal to the Teaching. The same Hebrew word is used for “disloyal” in Proverbs and our Torah verse, reminding us of the lofty obligations of raising our community’s children. We must prepare our family to sprout in God’s garden. We must offer an attentive and loving first chance and then a second chance!
Lori Shapiro, Rabbi, Artistic Director/Open Temple
Today’s social media influencer is tomorrow’s tossed aside child unpacking a public display of thoughtless behavior. Torah’s strident proscription for the rebellious and wayward child bears wisdom for today’s parenting. The rabbis seek to justify his actions as being aberrant and problematic; Rabbi Bachya admonishes: “Parents’ love of God must supersede their love of their children; if the Torah commands it, they must be ready even to hand their son over to the court.” Parenting styles encouraging “your child to find his own interests and pursue them” seemingly present as anathema to Torah wisdom. But are they?
The rabbinic stridency towards the “wayward and rebellious child” serve as a cautionary tale reminding us of our parenting responsibility. Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching (Taoism), is credited for stating: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words, watch your words, for they become actions, watch your actions, for they become habits, watch your habits, for they become character, watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
Parents are the gatekeepers, planting the seeds of thought, nurturing the value of words, seasonally modeling habits, harvesting character in community and walking a destiny that becomes our children’s inheritance. As adult children, parents must embody both the self-discipline of our seasoned relationship with our own inner-rebellion as we serve as cultivators of awareness for our children, guiding their curiosity towards godliness, lest their social media handles lead them into acts of rebellion and intemperance and into the contemporary court of public scrutiny.
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Read more at the Jewish Journal.
The Butterfly Series creates a space for us to engage in conversations about our rebirth as we evolve from a year of pandemic and disruption. In this installment we featured Hope Edelman, bereavement expert and New York Times bestselling author of The AfterGrief: Finding Your Way Along the Long Arc of Loss. Hope helps us address our feelings of loss. Loss for all that never happened; a lingering sense of emptiness for the celebrations disrupted, those who died that we were not able to memorialize with our communities and a general sense of malaise.
…and It’s Opon Us.
This week I offer a longer than usual email; please stay with it, as the message concerns Each and Every One of Us.
The Los Angeles homeless population proliferates like a plague of human depravity. While driving down Venice Boulevard, I watched as traffic slowed down and swerved to avoid an unkempt, elderly man unsuccessfully navigate his wheelchair across the street. I stopped my car in the middle of the street, stopped traffic, and moved him to safety. Asking where he lived, he pointed to an encampment nearby. I wondered why I was the only one to stop, why we have elderly individuals living in encampments and how each and every one of us can convert our hearts to say, “It is upon me to help in any way I can.”
Feeling utter futility and tasting tears on my burning cheeks, with a heavy heart I returned to my car and drove to my doctor’s appointment.
Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so he walked faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.
He came closer still and called out “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”
“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.
To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”
Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”
At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”
About a month ago, while riding my bicycle through Venice, I happened upon a woman sitting outside of the Oakwood Rec Center and began a conversation with her. I learned that Germaine was living in a homeless shelter that was about to close. I invited her to share her story at the Passover Seder Crawl, and after that event, many of our hearts turned to find a solution for Germaine, and her son, Chris. Open Temple’s Electric Starfish Project began as a collective of individuals who circled around one houseless individual and advocated for them through the labyrinthine system of social services. We found inspiration in the above essay from American anthropologist Loren Eiseley entitled “The Star Thrower”. Eiseley was also the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and History of Science at the UPenn. Considered a “modern day Thoreau”, his virtuous work connects the world of social science, culture and science as a call to humanize our civilization.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor, asks us to hear “the holy utterances” in our midst, and cultivate justice as an essential quality of character (or middah/virtue). It reminds us that justice does not dwell in the savage mind, but requires a cerebral calisthenic that elevates our consciousness to seek and create justice from the chaos and ugliness that is also a part of the human condition, literally a ladder of neurons moving from the more primitive part of our brain, the amygdala, to our pre-frontal cortex. Eiseley, and the scribes of Parshat Emor, whisper to us from the beyond: “Do Something with those emotions of anger, frustration, indignance and futility. Go Find Your Starfish.”
The above photo, “Bashert”, was emailed to Open Temple from Chris and Germaine Montgomery as an expression of gratitude for our work moving them from houseless to home. The word “Bashert, or Beshert,” means “soulmate,” and most commonly refers to our fated life mate. But, as any Starfish washed upon the shore can attest, one simple act of kindness can turn the course of fate for another with an impact resetting the course of history.
Germaine received the key to her new apartment this week, and sent this text:
“I’m surfing channels and what’s on…Yentl. You are a blessing to us. Thanks so much. Now I can rest my mind. Signed lease, got keys. Looking for stuff to make it home now…I appreciate all the support. Thank you Open Temple.”
Germaine returns to the sea of her life; but, what about the elderly man on Venice Boulevard? What about the encampment near Erewhon, the homeless on Ocean Front Walk… and on and on and on. It is clear that our local, county and state government are not solving this problem at a pace that provides immediate relief. Sure, we can continue to move about Los Angeles with our hearts dissatisfied with the lack of solutions and other feelings of futility or disempowerment. Or, we can seek-out our own Bashert.
Beachcomb Your Starfish:
Open Temple Electric Starfish Project circles NOW FORMING throughout Venice and the Westside. We join forces with other local agencies and take justice into our own hearts and hands. Enter into the next cohort of OT Electric Starfish Project, and find a way to help the humans on our streets by letting them know that They Matter:
The Butterfly Series creates a space for us to engage in conversations about our rebirth as we evolve from a year of pandemic and disruption. In this installment we featured Dr. Cara Natterson, one of the founders of 10th Street Pediatric in Santa Monica. Dr. Cara is on the vanguard of re-opening and vaccination conversations, vaccinating children conversations, and spends a lot of time advising schools throughout LA about how to do what comes next on the heels of pandemic.
On Thursday, April 8, Open Temple invites all of us in conversation about how to relaunch into life responsibly. Physician Cara Natterson, who is on the vanguard of school reopenings in Los Angeles, shares with us her frontline insights, important data about children and the future of COVID Times. For all of us wondering, “Just how the heck do we do this right?”, this important program provides a roadmap.
There is a concept in Hasidut that considers the mystery of why a butterfly must first live the life of a caterpillar, and then spend some time in the dark prison-cell of the pupa, instead of coming out as a butterfly straight from its mother’s egg.
The rabbis question: Perhaps The Creator meant to tell the butterfly, fluttering by and seemingly so proud of its sparking colors: “Don’t be so proud, butterfly! Remember where you came from…”
We are all eager for life to begin again. And yet, we are humbled. Many are broken. There is unresolved grief, loss and still the threat of virus endures. As all of us are eager to “return to normal life,” it is important to remember that the transformation we have all been through is messy and unresolved. How we act now is really a moral question.
Open Temple created a 3-part series that will help all of us ease through these times with community, education and wisdom.
The Butterfly Series creates a space for all of us to consider this evolution:
CATERPILLAR: Pandemic Fatigue and Reopening: A Morality Tale
CHRYSALIS: Isolation and Darkness: How Do We Bear Grief During this Time?
BUTTERFLY: Spreading our Wings in the Wave of Disruption.
Spreading our Wings in the Age of Disruption
Friday, June 4 @ 5:30 pm
Featuring Dr. Denise Berger, Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility
Live at the Electric Lodge/Open Temple Parking Lot (reservations available soon)
Why on earth would we put God on hold?
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Wondering who or what spoke to Moses in the first verse of Vayikra? What’s with the small Alef? How are these first eight words a sign of leadership, transmission and “black fire on white fire”? Sal Litvak and his Accidental Talmudist probings invite Rabbi Lori and others to contemplate these thoughts.
And He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying… – Lev. 1:1
Rabbi Lori Shapiro, Open Temple
The Book of Leviticus departs from the Biblical narrative as the scribal voice shifts. Our text illustrates this idea, weaving “Something spoke to Moses,” a phrase that splinters or dilutes the relationship of Moses and God through this non-specific pronoun, and replaces this formerly explicit and intimate relationship with God as a nebulous “He” or “It”. The ambiguous pronoun construction continues, “and God said to him at the Tent of Meeting.”
Just who is the subject speaking to Moses? And who is God speaking to? The scribe answers the question by directing us to the temporary “construction site” – the Ohel Moed, a space that only permitted the Priestly class as the gathering place within. In this subtle, seemingly throw-away verse with ambiguous grammar, we discover the transmission of authority — moving away exclusively from God to Moses — and passing it over to the Priests standing by, eager to scribe their expressions of holiness to follow in this Priestly Book of Torah.
Lt. (res.) Yoni Troy, Israel Defense Forces officer
Why begin the third book of the Torah with this eight Hebrew-word seemingly banal sentence?
This supernatural Godly encounter with flawed human beings touches upon a basic question: Why not create a perfect universe? Why create one with such flaws?
G-d wants us to be the completing factor. Throughout the Bible, G-d seeks a partnership with humanity — to challenge us to improve ourselves and create a better world.
Each one of us was created in our own way, born into certain situations with certain abilities. While this creates a lot of conflict, when harnessed correctly the mix can lead to perfection. If we use our strengths to help others rather than hurt them, we can create a synergy overcoming our weaknesses.
In the army, every job is essential to keep Israel safe. Some jobs are considered to be more prestigious such as pilots and commandos. However, without the cooks and mechanics the army could not function. As it is in the army, so too in civilian life and throughout the world: each country, culture, religion offers its unique contribution.
G-d’s call to Moses symbolizes the great connection between G-d and humanity. This connection continues through each of us. While Moses already took the receiver-of-the-Torah slot, each one of us has our own special way to do G-d’s bidding. We each can offer a unique contribution. While G-d’s summons today may seem less direct, by remaining attentive we will hear The Call to fulfill our destiny.
Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO SANE; Counselor; Author
In the wilderness, the Tent of Meeting was the special place G-d would rest His presence to speak to Moshe Rabbeinu. It was set up beyond the border of the main camp, distanced from the home-tents of the people. At times, even Moshe would not enter this tent, but spoke with G-d at its doorway. Although the Bnei Yisrael were able to look at the doorway, it was not possible to “sneak a peek” into that tent and catch a glimpse of the Holiness it contained, unless one was invited to do so.
Similarly, the people’s tents, which of necessity were set up fairly close to each other, were also arranged in a way that prevented uninvited scrutiny from the neighbors. Why would that be? Why would the Tent of Meeting be inaccessible for the casual viewing of the people? Perhaps one reason is that, had they seen the G-dly perfection within that tent, they would have continually compared every other tent to it, and found them all wanting.
According to the Baal Shem Tov, “not looking into one’s neighbor’s tent” means that the Jews did not scrutinize their neighbors’ faults. The way to develop ahavas Yisroel, to come to love your friend as you love yourself, is by not looking at their faults. Look into your own tent, and work on your own shortcomings. But don’t be too hard on yourself–realize that G-d speaks to each of us from within our own tent, and His holiness resides there, too!
Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Adat Shalom
The third book of the Torah begins with God calling out to Moses. As compared to the rest of the first Hebrew word – VaYikra – the Aleph is always written in a smaller size, making it pronounced.
Our people’s Exodus and our communal effort to build the Tabernacle has proven successful in the previous book, and now the institution is ready for personal interactions with God. The first interaction is of course between God and Moses. Each year at this time I wonder, “What did Moses say prior to this verse that prompted God’s call?”
We strive for a prayer experience in which we, as individuals, receive a call back from the large Aleph, the Oneness of the universe. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel acknowledged the personal nature of prayer in his book Man’s Quest for God (1954). The transition from communal structure in Exodus to personal worship in Leviticus is a tension we have lived with as Jews from antiquity through today.
Sometimes my prayer is for Israel, for our people or for our national homeland, and sometimes my prayer is personal, for my family or for myself. Sometimes my prayer feels heard and sometimes perfunctory. As Heschel argued, the key is to keep praying. Sometimes the Aleph will feel large, and sometimes small. Through prayer we try to connect the small Aleph of our self to the larger Aleph that joins us all together, as one.
Dini Coopersmith, Speaker, Israel Trip Director, www.reconnectiontrips.com
When the call initially comes for Moshe, it is anonymous – “He called to Moses.” Only afterward is it more specific – “the Lord spoke to him, saying….”
The Baal Shem Tov refers to the statement of the Zohar (3rd part, 126):”every day a heavenly voice rings out, saying ‘return, my naughty children.’” Like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest, he asks: why don’t we hear this heavenly voice? and if we don’t hear it, is it really happening?
This is the hidden voice of God that comes to each and every one of us, through the events and circumstances of our lives. Saying: “return to me, return to your true self.” We can choose to listen, grab hold of that voice, make a positive change, meet the challenge, or we can ignore that still small voice within, which directs us toward an Infinite source of wisdom and insight.
What a shame if we ignore this heavenly voice, thinking: Maybe this isn’t God, maybe people are to blame, this is a meaningless event, just a hassle that I have to overcome. Moshe teaches us that when that call comes, we listen, even if life’s twists and turns are confusing. The details will become clear later on.
As we close a strange Covid year, let’s tap in to the insights we have gained. Let’s listen to that inner heavenly voice, exhorting us to find our true selves, to grow and connect to God through all events and become great.
Igniting the Flame for Practice During Pandemic
By: Dr. Zach Lasker
A few days ago I tried to start my car in order to run an errand and … no power. Irritated since I had replaced the battery earlier this year, I looked up and noticed I had left the reading light on. No wonder that nine days after I last used the car (for my pre-Thanksgiving COVID test) it was empty. Now, I’m not too proud to admit that this isn’t the first (or second) time that my battery has failed from car neglect. When will I learn?
At first I chalked this up to yet another casualty of pandemic quarantine. With so many restrictions and the disruptive pains of isolation, the lights that animate my life are at risk of powering down. Nine months earlier I was supposed to see The Book of Mormon at the Ahmanson Theater the exact night the first round of Los Angeles lock downs occurred and since that time I haven’t enjoyed big screen or live stage performances, felt the pulsating beat and communal energy of spinning in a cycling studio, nor hosted a Shabbat dinner for friends. There are days when life feels so hopeless.
My challenge can be summarized in a single word: Tapas. No, I’m not referring to the tasty small plates of food that come out of a Spanish kitchen. Tapas is a concept in yoga that points to the inner flame in each of us which inspires dedication to our practices; the discipline that fires us to pursue our goals and dreams regardless of the obstacles we face. In the words of my teacher Constance Habash:
“Think of Tapas as that little flame inside of you that motivates you and keeps you on track with anything of importance in life. It makes you floss when you don’t feel like it. That inner fire motivates you to make changes when you know you need to. Without Tapas, we probably wouldn’t bother to do the “hard” things in life, and therefore to make any sort of progress…”
This pandemic has pushed me to confront my Tapas at a raw level of intensity I never fathomed in the 10 years I’ve been practicing and teaching yoga. It seems the only effortless ritual is binge-watching tv shows on my beloved streaming platforms. Each day I wake up and dig deep to gather strength for rituals that I previously took for granted – my morning run, connecting with family and friends, and even showering, shaving, and getting dressed.
Back in my car, as I confronted my depleted battery, a lightbulb switched on over my head revealing the unprecedented relevance of Chanukah this year. On a “p’shat” (simple/direct) level, we celebrate the flask of oil which lit a Menorah salvaged from destruction for eight miraculous nights. Yet, the power of Chanukah runs deeper as we honor the Maccabee family and their crew who drew inordinate Tapas-energy to protect their Jewish practices and freedom from the merciless grips of religious persecution.
As we head into this next dark phrase of pandemic I’m curious to know if and how my fellow Americans generate and maintain the lights of faith, joy, and connection that keep us from sinking into despair. While unquestionably a time of loss, the virus is also pushing us to adapt and make new discoveries.
At Open Temple in Venice, CA I partner with Rabbi Lori Shapiro – a spiritual leader, artist, parent, and entrepreneur – who is more determined than ever to re-enchant Judaism and create open doors for each person to carry on their Soul Journey. We’ve converted our parking lot into a holy paradise with green pods for households to engage in ritual while social distancing. Car scavenger hunts and outdoor puppet shows nurture the creative spirit of our children. Challah dough, incense, and lanterns have dropped on the doorsteps of our families to help them usher Shabbat in and out of their homes. We gather under the stars for contemplative walks, ocean dunks, and fire-pit discussions on holidays ranging from Tisha b’Av to Rosh Hodesh to invite reflection and growth. Bicycles and kayaks are used to glide through prayer services – six-feet apart, yet together – surrounded by the rhythm of music as we exchange blessings of gratitude. And, we use Zoom rooms and online platforms to engage people in Jewish yoga, text study, respectful dialogue around the future of American democracy, and to stream offerings that help people stay safer-at-home when necessary.
As Jews we are familiar with barriers to entry. Rather than retreat, we carry the legacy of the Maccabean Tapas to illuminate new ways to sustain and evolve our spiritual practice.
Rabbi and scholar Moshe Davis taught, “A candle is a small thing. But one candle can light another. And see how its own light increases, as a candle gives its flame to the other. You are such a light.” This Chanukah it is more important for each one of us to re-dedicate ourselves to the fight for social, racial, and spiritual freedom. The volatile combination of pandemic and political division has revealed the plague of inequity that creates suffering. May each night of Chanukah empower us to nourish our inner flames of compassion, justice, and love and may we use this heat to lift each out of darkness and into light.
Click here to register for Open Temple’s virtual Shabbat Yoga class on Saturdays at 11:00 am PST.
Dr. Zach Lasker is a Jewish educator and communal leader who serves as Executive Director of The Open Temple in Venice, CA. He is also a 500-hour certified yoga instructor.
The ‘Mominee’: Supreme Expectations and Gender Bias in Amy Coney Barrett’s Confirmation
Marveling over motherhood was a theme, not a footnote of Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
Amid soliloquies about the Affordable Care Act, a tour of American government and constitutional law and explications of an originalism whose inherent countermajoritarian dilemma was left unchallenged, the hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett were laced with a disquieting gender bias. That it thrived during proceedings to fill the seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman who dedicated her life to eradicating that brand of stereotype, illustrates its insidiousness and bathed the hearings in irony.
At times, they resembled career night. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, casually asked Barrett for tips on managing children during the lockdown. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, was befuddled by the combination of Barrett’s CV and her seven children. “I’m genuinely curious,” he said. “Who does laundry in your house?” And John Cornyn, R-Texas, bet that young women, but not young men, were awestruck by her ability to balance personal with professional.
Fathers’ proceedings contrast sharply. During the hearings for Barrett’s role model, Justice Antonin Scalia, “balance” referred to the philosophical balance of the court, checks and balances, and the balance of powers—not career and kids. And Scalia had nine children. Talk of fatherhood was limited to him introducing his brood. When the chair asked him to do that, Scalia quipped that he might not be able to remember all of their names. Or ages. Surely, that would have been hilarious had Barrett said it.
Barrett was not just a nominee. She was a “mominee.” Marveling over motherhood was a theme, not a footnote. Senators called her a “working mom,” a shining example of “what a mom can do” and “a legal titan who drives a minivan.” Has any dad nominee—or any man, ever—been characterized as a “working dad”? At the Kavanaugh hearings, we learned that the judge coached girls’ basketball. But that detail suggested a man going beyond the call, choosing to daddy in his free time. It was less of an expectation than an extra. And so the paragons of the patriarchy continue to send a clear message: Caring for children and managing a home remain the province of women.
American law is no stranger to the trope. Nearly 150 years ago, the highest courts of both her state and the nation precluded Myra Bradwell from becoming America’s first female lawyer. As one Supreme Court justice explained in a concurrence that two others joined, the very “idea of a woman adopting a distinct and independent career from that of her husband” was “repugnant.” “The paramount destiny and mission of woman,” he said, “are to fulfil [sic] the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must be adapted to the general constitution of things[.]”
Though that view may now seem absurd, the malignancy of gendered expectations remain. It’s why a reporter asked Alexis Ohanian if he babysat his daughter while his wife and her mother, Serena Williams, traversed tennis tournaments. It’s why some men in academia find paternity leave to be hugely productive. And it may be why women have left the workplace in droves during the pandemic.
The legal profession is a serial offender. This bar exam season, professors implored state committees to let examinees bring their own menstrual supplies to test sites. Requests for breastfeeding accommodations were not always granted. And one examinee who was 38 weeks pregnant gave birth during the exam and still finished the test. Probably best, since her state had rejected her request for more bathroom breaks.
Climbing to the upper echelons of any career is a magnificent accomplishment, and raising children during the ascent is a feat. But allowing motherhood to give a near-angelic sheen to a Supreme Court nominee exposes a bias that is both systemic and suffocating. For those who cannot arm themselves with tenure, status or money, who feel relegated to a mommy track or who do not have a live-in relative to help, as Barrett has for the past 17 years, the stereotypes can be particularly stifling.
Because they may not affect the Senate’s vote, the Barrett hearings may have been little more than theatrics. But their tone and tenor offered insight, apparently lost on many, if not all, senators, into the deep rot of gender stereotyping. That matters—because they actually make law and because when senators fail to fawn over fatherhood and ask dads about their laundry, it leaves a societal imprint that parenting is for moms (which, make no mistake, harms dads) and perpetuates the myth that women can and should do it all.
Gender stereotypes are splinters in the social fabric. Their removal would benefit everyone. So start with the Senate. For the next nominee with children, introduce the kids, honor the parenting and leave it there. An acknowledgment, not an undercurrent. Then focus on the work. Otherwise, we feel the weight of biased expectations. And that heavy mantle—one that Ginsburg, with her quest for equal citizenship stature under the Constitution for men and women, worked to lift—leaves us less than free. In fact, it imposes a profound indignity on us all.
Julie Cantor is an attorney and physician who, for over a decade, taught a seminar on reproductive rights at the UCLA School of Law. She is the founder and CEO of Harlen, a brand that reenvisions accessories for women’s work.