Father, mother, parent, you: God is beyond our language

June 9, 2017

Torah Thought

About two decades ago, a bat mitzvah student asked me a familiar question, but with a surprising twist. She said, “Rabbi, is God a He?” And I answered, “No, He’s not.” Then we both thought for two seconds about what I had just said, and simultaneously, we burst out laughing. My student had just learned about the inadequacy of finite language to describe the infinite.

We are coming up on Father’s Day. Human fathers are not identical to human mothers. Both are potentially blessings in the life of their children, but not as clones of each other. But what does it mean to call God “Avinu She-bashamayim,” “Our Heavenly Father”?

When I was a student, the 1970s–1980s encounter of North American feminism and Judaism was producing many fruitful results, and also, of course, lots of controversy. I recall many earnest discussions about the masculine gender of God references being a relic of oppressive patriarchy. We would teach our daughters, and, just as important, our sons, as well, to claim God as a loving parent, not to perpetuate the disrespect to women of depicting God as masculine.

I still believe that. But now, a third of a century later, I would urge us to glean another lesson as well, the lesson that my bat mitzvah student of the late 1990s understood intuitively: to have more humility about all our God-language.

In truth, none of our options are perfect. If we retain the traditional, “God as Father” language, for the sake of continuity with the poetic choices of our ancestors, we are back at the starting point of the problems that we tried to solve two generations ago. We could alternate “Father” and “Mother”, and some of our liturgists do just that, but again, we need to supplement the words with explanations that we are being deliberately inconsistent, to make a theological point—so the alternation does not itself provide an elegant solution. We could substitute “Parent” for both “Father” and “Mother,” but in today’s English, “parent” sounds impersonal, which makes it still harder to inculcate the sense of God’s love that is already sadly underdeveloped in much of our teaching about God. We could eschew the metaphor, and refer to God in second person, but again, by avoiding the metaphor, we dampen our ability to feel the sense of intimacy in the Father-language of our sacred texts:

Just as a Father is tender with his children
So is the LORD compassionate to the God-reverencing… (Psalm 103:13)

My suggestion is that we become comfortable with telling our children, in the most positive ways, that “God is greater than everything”, and go on to say that “God is greater than our language for God.”

After all, that’s precisely what the kaddish prayer says!

“The Name of the Holy Blessed One…
[is]
Above all the blessings and songs, the praises and declarations of consolations that we can say…

This is an issue with which it is good to wrestle. Better that, than to grow too comfortable with the thought that God is no greater than our imperfect and sometimes bigoted imaginings.

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel

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