This article was originally published June 16, 2013
Contrary to popular belief, Father’s Day did not originate with Hallmark. The first Father’s Day was celebrated in Spokane, WA in 1910. It was initiated by Sonora Smart Dodd, who wanted to find a way to honor her father, William Jackson Smart, who was a Civil War Veteran and a single parent who raised six children. She was inspired after hearing a sermon about Mother’s Day, which also did not come from a card company, but began in 1908 in West Virginia. Anna Jarvis had a memorial for her mother and wanted to honor her memory by marking a day for mothers in the United States. The ideas of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day resonated around the world, so much so that today there are more than 55 countries that celebrate these days.
As we honor our fathers and grandfathers this Sunday, I am struck by how many times our Siddur refers to God as a father. We call God Av Harahamim, our merciful Father, Avinu Malkeinu – our Father our King, and Avinu She’bashamayim, our Father in heaven. How does viewing God as a father resonate for us in prayer?
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Of course calling God “father” is a metaphor to help us relate to God, not a statement on God’s gender. God is also referred to as shehina, or Divine Presence, which is a feminine noun. As Maimonides writes in the opening chapter of his Mishne Torah, God is not a physical body. Rather, the Torah uses metaphors to describe God to help human beings relate to Him. This is why in prayer we also call God “rock,” “shield,” “king,” “judge,” and many other names. We do this to help us comprehend God’s eternity, or protection, or authority, or justice. Like all of these titles, and many others, when we call God “father,” we ascribe characteristics to God that we are familiar with from our own experience.
One of these fatherly characteristics is best expressed in Psalm 103, which explicitly makes the connection between our earthly father and our Heavenly Father. “As a father has compassion for his children, so may God have compassion for those who revere Him.” The 12th century commentator David Kimhi explains, “there is no greater compassion than the compassion of a father for his son.” Like a father who watches over and protects his child, so too we believe that God watches over and protects us.
There is a trend today in some prayer books to present a gender-neutral conception of God. While certainly God is not male nor female, presenting God as neither strips away two important metaphors for how we relate to God. We each have a different relationship with our father and our mother, and as parents we have different relationships with our sons and our daughters. There are times that we want our mom, and times that we want our dad. It’s not that one is superior to the other, but the dynamics of the relationship are often different. Translating God’s name and the pronouns associated with it gender-neutrally leads not only to a clunky translation, but it also deprives the worshipper of a God who can be like a mother or a father, or a man or a woman. It is true that, because of the way the Hebrew language works and the inertia of translations, God is more often referred to as male than female. But that should not cause us to wipe away all gender associations with God. Rather, we can think about the places in our liturgy where it might be appropriate for God to be a “Him,” like as a “man of war,” or a “Her,” like “Her sheltering presence.” This creates more metaphors that help people connect to God and prayer, rather than making God so politically correct that the name loses all meaning.
So on this Father’s Day, as we thank and celebrate our fathers, let’s also remember Avinu She’bashamayim, our father in heaven. And next Mother’s Day let’s reflect on Imaynu She’bashamayim, our mother in heaven, as well. Expanding the metaphors we use to relate to God can help us to move closer to the Divine.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.