Fatherhood in Judaism


Judaism knows numerous fathers. Genetics accounts for one, whereas the labors of nurturing shape others. Instructively, the very first appearance of father in the Bible is in the context of abandonment (Genesis 2:24). The continual cycle of life entails leaving father and mother for marriage outside the family. Fatherhood is grounded in anticipating its replacement —in the anxiety of separation.

The first biblical exchange between a father and his son where each acknowledges the other is in the context of the binding of Isaac: “And Isaac said to Abraham his father and he [Isaac] said father, and he [Abraham] said I am here my son” (Genesis 22:7). They address each other this once, in the fullness of father/ child relationship, never to speak again. This defining moment of fatherhood is when the father, out of obedience to God, must sacrifice the son. It remains unresolved whether Jewish law condones the sacrifice of the father/child relationship for a metaphysical one. This precedent morbidly plays itself out during the Crusades when Jewish fathers protectively slaughter their children to escape the coerced baptismal waters of Christianity (Chazan 1996, 2000).

The Jewish father must ensure the viability of his children’s future. He is obligated to teach his child Torah, teach him/her a trade, facilitate marriage, and even provide his child with swimming lessons. The father therefore guarantees the Jewishness of his son while equipping him with the tools he needs to cope with the world as a human being. Every step the father takes in rearing the child also empowers the child to take a step away from home. As Emmanuel Levinas states, “The father discovers himself not only in the gestures of his son, but in his substance and his unicity [uniqueness].”

The father’s love for his child knows no bounds. Precisely when death strikes the worst of sons, the Bible lets us hear the unendurable, agonizing cry of the father—as in the story of Absalom, who killed another of David’s sons; publicly raped his father’s wives; and staged a coup to unseat his father. Yet, when Absalom dies, David weeps uncontrollably, repeatedly reaffirming his paternity, my son, eight times. The rabbis consider David divinely punished for the undeserved love he has shown a wicked child.

Morality trumps a father’s love only in the divine order of things, but not in the human realm. Though the rabbis deem Esau undeserving of Isaac’s legacy, the gates of hell open up before Isaac when confronted with Esau’s anguish at the thought that his father has wronged him. Israel’s entire destiny is haunted by the tears shed over this violated father/child love and trust.

Although God possesses a unique paternal relationship with Israel (Deuteronomy 32:6), as Creator He is also the father of all mankind (Malachi 2:10; Isaiah 64:7). He can forge even narrower paternal relationships with individuals (Solomon: 2 Samuel 7:14) or the particularly weak and vulnerable such as the fatherless (Psalms 68:6). Petitionary prayer calls on God to act mercifully as a father. Considering the paramount rabbinic mandate of imitatio dei, the ultimate purpose of representing God as Father is to engender in the Jew a fatherliness—one that increasingly broadens its domain from fellow Jew to fellow less-fortunate Jew who needs fatherly protection, and finally to fellow human being.

Ultimately, Judaism’s archetypal father is the teacher whose children are his disciples. When the prophet Elisha sees his master, Elijah, departing this world he cries out, “father, father” (2 Kings 2:12) and rends his clothing as Rabbi Akiva, the greatest of all second-century rabbis does later at the loss of his master.

The loss of a teacher orphans an entire generation. Elijah, who symbolizes a utopian harmony envisioned by the messianic era he will herald, is the very essence of fatherhood. Elijah’s critical role, which opens the door to utopia, is the reconciliation of fathers and children (Malachi 3:24). Maimonides (d. 1204) extends the resolution of family strife to world peace via the universal acknowledgment of Torah/Truth as the common father of all.

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