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Happy Father’s Day, God!: On calling God ‘Father’ (COMMENTARY)

(RNS) When it comes to Jewish and Christian liturgy, we have no shortage of references to God as Father. But some have trouble with that. On the other hand, maybe "God as Father" isn't as retro as we thought.

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(RNS) Is it still OK to call God “Father?”

And if not, why not?

A congregant approached me right after High Holy Day services this past year.

“Rabbi, about that prayer ‘Avinu Malkenu.’ It means ‘Our Father, Our King,’ right? Why don’t we translate it that way anymore?”

I answered: “Those old male metaphors for God can seem both limiting and outmoded.”

To which he replied: “I don’t know about that. My dad died 20 years ago, and I still miss him.”

Hmmm.

When it comes to Jewish and Christian liturgy, we have no shortage of references to God as Father. Jews have “Our Father, Our King,” which only makes an appearance during the High Holy Days. Christians have the Lord’s Prayer, which begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven … ”

But feminists of all faiths have trouble with the notion of God as Father — or, as King, or any other masculine metaphor.

(“God talk” is the subject of a new anthology, edited by Lawrence Hoffman, and published by Jewish Lights — Naming God – to be released in August. This blog entry is a version of my essay in the volume).

But, as retro as it seems, maybe the metaphor of God as Father is not as bad as we once thought.

Consider:

  • It’s about relationship. Many people want a personal relationship with God, and if you want that personal relationship, you have to go through the tradition’s file folders and find an appropriate metaphor.

So, where does that leave us? God as King? Too medieval. God as Shepherd? Too pastoral. God as spouse? Fine — as long as the marriage works out. God as “friend?” Not bad, but a little too familiar for some people.

As metaphors go, the parental relationship is actually pretty good. The fifth commandment — the one that tells us to honor our parents — is right there in the middle of the Ten Commandments.

As Rabbi Richard Levy wrote: “How would you like your mother to be? How would you like your father to be? Your parents have the potential to be that way, but God is that way now.”

  • There is no such thing as a “generic” parent. When your daughter stubs her toe, she does not yell, “Parent! Parent!” Jews have reclaimed the Shekhina, the feminine presence of God, as understood by the ancient rabbis and mystics. So, if we can have Shekhina (the maternal side of God), what’s wrong with Abba (Father)?
  • Our own parenting helps us understand God. Our toddler takes her first steps. She stumbles. Of course, we want to catch her. But not always, and not forever. So, too, God watches humanity mature, and exercises self-restraint from intervening when we stumble.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: When we are young we idealize our parents; when we are adolescents we judge them; when we are older we understand them.

When the Jews were a young people, they idealized the God who was active in history. In the period of Jewish adolescence, which began with the destruction of Judean independence in 70 A.D. and ended with the Holocaust, Jews began to judge the God who was no longer active. Now that the Jewish people are older, perhaps we “understand” God more — a God who is not all-powerful, and who needs us as much as we need God.

  • God is a nurturing father. The Jews are, like Moses, an adopted people. “He found him in a desert region, in an empty howling waste. … Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, gliding down to his young, so did he spread his wings and take him. … He fed him honey from the crag, and oil from the flinty rock.” (Deut. 32:10-13).
  • God is a father with emotions and vulnerabilities. As Harold Bloom wrote, God is like Shakespeare’s King Lear — the simultaneous Father-King, who watches his three daughters (Judaism, Christianity and Islam?) fight, and who ultimately and tragically winds up alone. Except, God does not wind up alone.

The poet Yehuda Amichai put it this way: “What does a father do when his children are orphans and he is still alive? What will a father do when his children have died and he becomes a bereaved father for all eternity? Cry and not cry, not forget and not remember.”

  • As a “father,” God is pretty nonauthoritarian. In a famous passage in the Talmud, the sages argue with God over a Jewish legal matter, and they turn out to be right. “God laughed with joy, saying, ‘My sons have defeated me, my sons have defeated me.'” It is like the parent who loves being beaten in chess or in football by his or her child — or who loves it when his or her child comes back with a witty retort.

Henry Slonimsky once wrote: “God is primarily and pre‑eminently a great heart, caring most for what seems to be important and sacred to us, namely, our loves and aspirations and sufferings.”

And that is why I worry: What would we lose if God the Father suddenly moved to a retirement home, and did not return our calls?

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics.)