Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The God-Parent Metaphor

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, pp. 24-25:

The use of a metaphor [of God as a parent], however, may at times change the meaning of the metaphor itself, and that is the case here. Alongside a revolutionary concept of God, Judaism gave rise to an equally revisionary understanding of what it is to be a parent. In the ancient world, children were the property of their parents without an independent dignity of their own. That gave rise to the form of idolatry most repugnant to the Bible, child sacrifice (against which the story of the binding of Isaac is directed: God wants Abraham not to sacrifice his child.) It also set in motion the tragic conflict between sons and fathers dramatized in the myth of Oedipus, which Freud, wrongly I believe, saw as endemic to human culture.

The Hebrew Bible tells the long and often tense story of the childhood humanity under the parenthood of God. But God does not want humankind to remain in childhood. He wants them to become adults, exercising responsibility in freedom. In Jewish law, the obligations of children to parents begin only when they cease to be children (at the age of 12 for girls, 13 for boys). Before then they have no obligations at all. Paradoxically, it is only when we become parents that we understand our parents -- which is why the first recorded command in the Bible is that of parenthood ("Be fruitful and multiply"). A weak parent seeks to control his children. A true parent seeks to relinquish control, which is why God never intervenes to protect us from ourselves. That means that we will stumble and fall, but only by so doing does a child learn to walk. God does not ask his children not to make mistakes. To the contrary, he accepts that, in the Bible's own words, "There is none on earth so righteous as to do only good and never to sin" (Eccl. 7:20). God asks us only to acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them. Forgiveness is written into the structure of the universe.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More