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

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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.)

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

14 Comments

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  • Ruach Ha Kodesh.

    The Holy Spirit.

    That God has a feminine aspect does not support feminist ideology or theology.

    Anyone that takes umbridge to the male connotations in the Tanakh or the New Testament has a bigger problem than simple political correctness (which of course may be a huge oxymoron) can appease.

    God as Father? Abba?

    How beautiful an image when one views the happy family in the 21st century. And weeps for the tragedy of the fatherless ones.

  • We Catholics are lucky. Jesus said on the cross to one of his apostles standing there: “Behold your mother” referring to his mother (and from then our mother. And Jesus said to his mother also standing there:: “:Behold your Son”. And Catholics and virtually all Orthodox have taken Christ’s words seriously.
    The trouble is that since the Protestant Reformation Protestants have ignored or dissed having a spiritual or prayerful relationship with Mary leaving a giant hole in their spiritual psyche. Unfortunately many Catholics are copying this giving short shrift to Our Blessed Mother.

  • Jesus instructed us to pray only to our Heavenly Father, or God, and no one else (Matthew 6:9-13), just as Jesus always prayed to his Heavenly Father.

    It is therefore our prayers and worship that should be given exclusively to our Heavenly Father, not to Jesus, the holy spirit, Mary, or anyone else.

    Jesus had to obey his imperfect earthly parents when he was a child, but his obedience to his Heavenly Father was more important.

  • Jesus was talking to one person. Not some controlling Roman Catholic organization that would one day violate so many of his teachings.

  • Jesus said, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:14). We must remember that God is Father Son and Holy Spirit. (Matt 28:19), so when we pray to any one, we are praying to God. But of course both our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, seek ultimately to glorify the Father (v. 13). But worshiping Jesus is biblical, as he is God (Matthew 15:25).

  • Be Brave: Sacred Scripture is the Living Word of God. That means it is active, and alive, not a dead letter; it applies to all people, of every age (Heb 4:12). So there is more than just one audience Scripture is directed to. When our Lord “saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour that disciple received her to himself [literally “to his own”] (John 19:26-27). Likely the reason it says the “disciple” and not “John” is that it applies to each one of his disciples, including you. When Mary gave birth to her divine Son, she gave spiritual birth to all humanity. Jesus is Grace Incarnate (John 1:14), so “all Grace” entered in to the world through the womb of Mary, making her the channel of Grace. And, if the Church is the “bride” (Eph 5:29-32), and Jesus is the “groom” (Lk 5:34), then that makes Mary our eternal Mother in Law. Hi mom!

  • “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.”

    In other words, he is an imaginary father we create in our heads.

    Like Dumbledore or other man-made literary characters, gods are always wise and flawed – and most likely imaginary caretakers of our desires and yearnings.

    God’s failure to exist is his biggest flaw.
    God is just a literary device – he a metaphor like “Melting Pot” or “Eye Candy”.
    Melting pots cannot be prayed to! They do not interact with humanity! They are merely notions in the head.

    Mental health begins to unravel when one believes a God is real
    and not just a literary device.

    Prayer is Pretending to interact with a dead daddy.

    Humanity is much worse for religion.
    Longings and yearnings need human attention – not fairy stories.

  • The Word of God is never to be given in a such a way as to please the cultural agendas of the current time. It is timeless. It is truth. It doesn’t change. People change, but God does NOT. Neither does His Word. Messiah taught us to pray to the Father. Jesus/Yeshua often referred to God as Father. God is Spirit, but Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is how God is always referenced in the Bible. Never mother, or daughter or anything that is not male. Why not? Because God has designed His creation with order. The husband as head of the wife, Christ as head of the husband. And The Father as head of Christ. This is His order. So Father carries the concept of authority. Jesus chose 12 disciples..ALL men. Not one woman. Again for the same reasons. He is a God of order. It is man and woman who are in disorder. We need to receive Yeshua/Jesus as Savior and Messiah, and turn away from worldly concepts, and follow The Lord as He leads. God Bless Shalom

  • Jesus acknowledged his Heavenly Father as the only true God in his prayer to Him (John 17:1,3). We should take his word for it.

  • Who is God? God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” (Ex 3:14).
    Who is Jesus? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I Am (John 8:58).
    After Jesus cured a blind man, the Pharisees commanded him to “give God praise” (Jn 9:24), so the man did what he was told and “he worshiped [Jesus]” (Jn 9:38).
    Of course Jesus will only glorify his Father, and direct all praise to Him; that is what a Son does. But when you look at the Father, you realize that there is more than just the Father, He has eternally begotten a Son, who is God, as well. God is a Family.

  • So how do you translate Avinu Malkenu in your congregation? From what I understand Reform machzorim have several choices.

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