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The Torah of Amy Chua

01/18/2011

I can’t help it: I’ve got Amy Chua on the brain. In case you missed it, she’s the author of the just-released & heavily hyped book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, now in the #4 spot on Amazon. An excerpt from Chua’s book published in the Wall Street Journal includes this list of items she never allowed her now teenage daughters:

  1. Attend a sleepover
  2. Have a play date
  3. Be in a school play
  4. Complain about not being in a school play
  5. Watch TV or play computer games
  6. Choose their own extracurricular activities
  7. Get any grade less than an A
  8. Not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  9. Play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  10. Not play the piano or violin.

This is a parent who called her 7-year old lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic when she didn’t want to practice a complicated piano piece for 4 hours. She called her other daughter garbage when she behaved disrespectfully toward her. She threatened to haul away toys for lack of cooperation and berated her (Jewish) husband when he didn’t agree with her methods. Her explanation? Chinese mothers – and by this, Chua means a particular style of parenting not only taken up by the Chinese – know how to produce math whizzes & child prodigies. They assume children are strong, not fragile bundles of nerves. Children owe parents everything, and must therefore obey them and make them proud. And parents always know what’s best — self-expression and choice are highly overrated Western attributes.

I’ll leave it up to you to read any one of thousands of articles, blogs, and commentaries that have been posted on the Internet in the days since the WSJ article hit. Take sides, craft your own finely wrought analysis, rant & rave, or ignore the whole damn thing. For the record, I was horrified and mesmerized, but would now like to turn to this week’s Torah portion:

…the sound of the shofar was very powerful and the entire people in the camp shook. Moses brought the people out of the camp towards God and they stood at the bottom of / underneath the mountain.

After that: thunder & lightning & fire, God’s proclamation of the 10 Words/Sayings/Commandments. After that: a people constantly falling short. After that: thousands of words written about the underneath/bottom of business. Seems that (and this comes from Talmud, not some disreputable fable-spinner) the people weren’t just standing around at the foot of Mt. Sinai. At the crucial moment, God held the mountain over their heads and said: don’t like my Torah? This mountain could be your burial place instead.

Which kind of calls the whole free will aspect of I’ll-bring-you-out-from-Egypt-and-you’ll-be-my-people into serious question. No wonder we were such a whiny bunch! No wonder we wandered around the desert like chickens with our heads cut off.

There are those who claim the Jewish people didn’t need the mountain as incentive and would have gladly accepted the yoke of the commandments. Some say that we just needed an extra little push – the package of laws is not something to be taken lightly. And there are those on the other far end, like the Maharal (R. Judah Lowe of Prague)(of Golem fame) who argue that since the existence of the entire world is dependent on the Torah, it wouldn’t be appropriate for the Jews to have a choice. God forced an acceptance of the Torah — and spent the several thousand years since with carrot & stick — because primordial chaos was a far less pleasant alternative.

Either way, I think that God read Amy Chua’s instruction manual on tough love. Gotta get the chosen people in line? Try gentle persuasion. If that doesn’t work, try plague. If plague doesn’t work, try pestilence, warfare, prophetic tongue-lashing, and exile. Throw in an occasional return to the promised land or other goody so that they don’t give up hope altogether. Tell them you’re doing it for their own good. After all, you know how much better they can be if they only try.

Given how many Nobel Laureates & Hollywood moguls we Jews have produced, maybe the method works. Maybe never feeling good enough is a fair trade-off for the planet and our continued life on it. But, no sleepovers? That seems a little harsh.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah permalink
    01/18/2011 3:01 pm

    Thank you for your rant, Sue. I’m still managing a conversation – not an easy one – after last week’s Torah discussion here in Keene asking why God played Pharaoh so hard. Why must God (or why did the authors of this story imagine God needing to) harden Pharaoh’s heart in order, as the text suggest, for the Israelites to “get” God’s power? Where, as someone here put it, was God’s love for Pharaoh? After all, Pharaoh even says, “perhaps your God has a blessing for me” (or some such).

    So here we are again – are the Israelites so dense that the mountain must be held over their head? Or as another midrash says, that the people have to be ready to post their children as bond for the receipt of this great “gift” of Torah, the heavy hand of law?

    Then there’s that old softy, Yitro, who recognizes that we are all just human, even the mighty Moses, who is after all just another person in Yitro’s family and with a responsibility to his own family. From whom do I want to learn parenting – from God, or from the real parent in this story?

    • sue swartz permalink*
      01/18/2011 5:19 pm

      Yitro! I feel another parenting post coming on…. Stay tuned.

  2. 01/18/2011 8:26 pm

    My favorite rereading of the midrash where God inverts the mountain over the Israelites’ heads (that midrash comes from the Talmud, tractate Shabbat) suggests that when God held the mountain over our heads, it was actually our chuppah — not a coercive gesture, but a gesture of spreading shelter over us and God as we said our vows to one another. (That reinterpretation comes from Rashi.) I love that the rabbis of the Talmud were already worrying over questions of the power dynamic between us and God, wondering how it could be possible for us to accede to covenant in this way — and I also love how Rashi cleverly reinterprets the Talmudic image to give it an entirely different resonance, at least for me.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      01/19/2011 9:40 am

      Rachel – and I say this without any sarcasm – that you resonate with this lovely midrash and I continue to have the little voice in my head that is more interested in the coercion angel angle may explain why you will make a terrific rabbi and I would not.

  3. Lynne permalink
    01/18/2011 10:11 pm

    I’m just thinking that Jewish culture seems to support a high level of performance and expectation, and yet also creates an atmosphere in which the child feels valued and loved. I think that’s about right. Asking nothing of one’s children is not a service to them or to the world, but neither is being so demanding and harsh that they’ll end up on a therapist’s couch talking about how they both love and hate their mother…

    • sue swartz permalink*
      01/18/2011 10:44 pm

      Agreed that we should be asking much of our children – just as we ask of ourselves (no more, no less). Ayelet Waldman wrote a great piece, which I can’t find at the moment, about the kind of parenting that both allows sleepovers & discipline, goofing off and responsibility. Also tutors and the occasional sigh of relief when our kids don’t want to be on every sports team and in every play and singing in every show.

  4. Aviva permalink
    01/30/2011 1:15 pm

    Great piece, Sue. I think what we see in the God of Israel is a combo of different parenting styles. Rage, frustration, shaming and high expectations are a part of GOd’s persona as parent. So is forgiveness, mercy and understanding. Zacharti Lach Chesed Nurayich — even when the Jews behave badly we remind God of the goodness of our former ways. One of the many differences between God and Amy Chua are that GOd does not micro-manage as much. They both, however, have terrific p.r. machines

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