Thu, 23 February 2023
One of the great debates in the history of Jewish theology is about how to reconcile two contradictory truths. First, that God is beyond human comprehension, and—unlike pagan deities—does not have a corporeal presence and is not subject to human emotions. Second, that the Hebrew Bible often describes God in human, bodily terms, as do the liturgy and rabbinic elaborations on Scripture.
Thus, in one of the most poignant moments of the liturgical year, Jewish worshippers refer to God as Avinu Malkeinu, “our Father, our King.” This is but one of many Jewish prayers that, following the biblical text, describe God as a father. And God has long been thought of in paternal terms in the Jewish imagination.
Yet, as Moses Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers never tire of reminding us, God exists beyond such human categories as sex, and can’t be fully comprehended as a father. Therefore it is no contradiction that there are also aspects of womanhood and motherhood—specifically its creative, generative capabilities—that can be used in describing God. And perhaps that is why the Hebrew Bible sometimes portrays God not only as a father but also as a mother. Malka Simkovich, whose essay on this subject was published in August 2022 in the Christian Century, discusses biblical portrayals of God’s maternal love with Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver.