A Jewish Theology of Parenthood

September 20, 2011
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Rabbi Fred Morgan

It was the great philosopher Emil Fackenheim who famously asked, after the Shoah is there a new mitzvah to be added to the traditional list of 613 mitzvot?  He derived from the Jewish experience of the Holocaust this mitzvah: You shall not hand Hitler a posthumous victory.  He went on to say that this mitzvah is carried out by having Jewish children.  He knew that by saying this he was placing a heavy psychological demand on the generation of the Holocaust.  But I’m not sure he appreciated the theological weight he was asking parents to carry.

The classical Jewish text that portrays what Jewish parenthood is all about is the passage that we read every Rosh Hashana: Akedat Yitzchak, the “binding of Isaac”.  Abraham is tested by God.  God tells him to take his son, his only son, the one whom he loves, Isaac, to a place that God will show him.  The place is Mt Moriah, identified by the rabbis with har habayit, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  There Abraham is to build an altar and offer Isaac as a sacrifice.  Abraham and Isaac go off on their journey.  When they arrive at the place, Abraham sets up the altar, binds Isaac and raises the knife.  But Abraham’s hand is stopped by a messenger of God, an angel, who assures him that God recognizes his faithfulness.  A ram caught by its horns in a thicket is offered up in place of the boy.

That is the story.  Many scholars from the medieval period onwards have argued that the purpose of the Akeda is to tell us that those who follow Abraham’s faith will never have to offer their children again as sacrifices to God, in the manner of pagan faiths.  The point of the story is to inform us that our God, the one true God, does not require the offering of children.

That is how the story is interpreted from the standpoint of the history of religions.  It marks a revolution in theology, a turning away from pagan child sacrifice.  Yet, looked at not from the angle of the history of religions but from the angle of parenthood and family dynamics, the story reads very differently.  We are constantly called upon to offer our children on the altar of life.  We constantly struggle with the fact that our children are the same as us, yet different from us; that we identify them with us, and yet must let them go to risk life on their own.  Since Freud we have recognized that these tensions, between sameness and difference, between identification and letting go, define parent-child relationships.

But this insight long predated Freud.  It is there in the Akeda.  Some of the greatest joys in life, and also some of the most intense agonies of life, are modeled by the relationship between Abraham and Isaac, – and yes, between Sarah and Isaac (Sarah lurks behind the story of the Akeda without being directly mentioned in it).  They are expressed in the nisayon, the test that is borne of those relationships.  The test is ultimately God’s test of us; hence, the theological character of parenthood in the Akeda, and in our lives.

A personal anecdote:  When one of our children was only six months old, we noticed that she wasn’t responding to a dog barking, so we took her to the local ENT clinic for examination.  They determined that she had a congenital hearing problem and gave her massive hearing aids that she had to wear in her tiny ears.  We also had to make regular visits to the major ENT centre in London to learn how to work with her to develop her speech skills.  I remember vividly my feelings at the time.  I was shattered that our perfect baby had a “flaw”.  Of course, we didn’t love her any less, but it upset me that she wasn’t sh’leimah, complete; that she was sh’vurah, broken.  Several months later, she had her first cold and developed an infection.  The doctor put her on antibiotics.  When Sue brought her home from their next visit to the ENT clinic, she was no longer wearing her hearing aids.  The congenital defect was, in fact, glue ear!

Though she hadn’t had a congenital hearing problem in the first place, when I saw our child without the massive hearing aids hanging from her ears, it felt to me like a miracle had occurred.  She had been delivered from the altar, saved from life-long bondage.  I can recount this story now without any difficulty; in fact, it makes quite a good tale.  But for many years whenever I spoke of it I had a lump in my throat.  I imagine it’s the same sort of lump that Abraham would have had in his throat, when he accompanied Isaac up the mountain.

Another of our children was accident-prone.  As a toddler, he used to ride his toy car at break-neck speed through the house.  One morning, he rammed the car into the leg of a table, flew over the toy bonnet and cracked his head on the table.  With blood flowing everywhere I rushed him to the doctor’s surgery for a few stitches and bandages.  After our third visit to the surgery for similar mishaps, the emergency nurse told me that if we appeared a fourth time she’d have to send a social worker to check us out at home – rabbi or no rabbi!

Luckily, no more accidents occurred for a while; not until we arrived in Melbourne.  In the first month of our arrival our son broke his arm playing football at The King David School.  Another parental offering on the altar of childhood.

With your indulgence, a final story from our home album:  It follows Yom Kippur last year; Yom Kippur when we pray in the Unetanne Tokef prayer, “On Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass on, how many shall come to be, who shall live and who shall die, who shall be secure and who shall be driven.”  I might add to the list of dichotomies: mi sh’leimah u-mi sh’vurah, who shall be whole and who shall be broken.  On the last day of November, a Thursday, I arrived at work and had just begun my day when I received a phone call from Sue.  Our daughter had been in an accident.  While driving her Vespa motor-scooter to work, a car had pulled out just in front of her.  She couldn’t swerve to avoid car and the bike had gone straight into it.  She’d flown over the car and landed on the road several meters away.

We’re all still recovering from that accident.  I can’t tell the story yet.  It’s too close, too real, too dangerous.  But it is very much part of our Yamim Nora’im this year.

I imagine that we all share stories like these; all of us who are gathered together this Kol Nidre evening, all of us who have ever been parents, or indeed all of us who have ever been children!   You may be recalling your own moments when you have stood beside Abraham sharing the agonies of his parenthood; or when you have lain beside Isaac on the altar of childhood.  We are privileged to have with us this evening Shlomo Goldwasser.  Shlomo is the father of Ehud Goldwasser – Udi – whose name is very familiar to us here at TBI.  We have read it out every Shabbat in this synagogue for the past year and more.  Udi is one of the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped last July by Hamas and Hezbollah.  Later in the service Shlomo will be sharing with us his story.  Truly he stands here this evening like Abraham at the Akeda.

I would quickly add, it is not only those with children who suffer the agonies of the Akeda, fearing and facing the sacrifice of their beloved offspring to the vicissitudes of life.  So, too, those who are unable to have children suffer in the way of Abraham and Sarah.  It is important to include them: those who struggle with all their being to have children but find themselves unable to do so for one reason or another.  They, too, suffer from the “holding on” and “letting go” of the dreams and expectations that all parents face.  They offer their “children of the imagination” on the altar of cold reality.  (Rabbi Jacki Ninio, from our sister Congregation Emanuel in Sydney, composed a beautiful reflection on the struggles of childlessness for her Rosh Hashana sermon this year.  It is available on the UPJ website: www.upj.org.au, click on Learning/High Holyday sermons).

Some might argue that there is a significant difference between Abraham’s test at the Akeda, and us.  The difference is that Abraham freely chose to accept God’s test.  He chose to see the test as his destiny and went freely to bind Isaac on the altar on Mt Moriah.  By contrast, they would argue, we do not.

But I believe this argument is mistaken.  The proof I would point to is found in the prayer Unetanne Tokef that I referred to earlier.  This prayer tells us two things of great significance.

The first thing it tells us is that life is what it is.  By being born, we become subject to the vicissitudes of life.  By having dreams of children or giving birth to children we enter into all the joys and agonies that such dreams entail.  We do this willingly, freely, because it is our destiny to strive and to struggle with life.  Even though we know the cost, nevertheless our dreams – our hopes – carry us forward.  Like Abraham, we place our trust in the force that makes for life, even while – like Abraham – we remain realists about the cost.  That trust is expressed through the effort we put into creating and maintaining life – into the very act of living.

We seek to have children, we raise them as Jews, we celebrate their successes and agonise through their sufferings, because we have faith.  We feel it matters; the naches and the tzuris matter.  They confirm to us that life is not merely a matter of fate: que será será, what will be will be.  Rather, if we should aim to seek it, we shall find a destiny at the heart of life, a meaning and a purpose to our lives, no matter how modest that destiny may seem to be.  God decrees, and in God’s decree is our destiny.

Things don’t simply “happen to us”.  Rather, we absorb them, reflect on them, find direction through them.  The things that happen to us deepen our understanding.  They enable us to act towards others, our fellow creatures, with greater compassion, greater humanity, greater empathy.  In a word, they move us closer to seeing ourselves as “partners with God” in choosing life.

This leads to the second thing that the Unetanne tokef teaches us: repentance, prayer, giving (teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah) temper the apparent severity of life.  They make life more human and more purposeful for us.  They prepare us to face the harshness and the realities of life with sensitivity, grace and courage.  They take us out of our inner world, the world of the ego, and help us to focus our attention on others.

This is the argument of Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  This book has been translated into dozens of languages; it has touched millions of people.  Someone recently asked why Rabbi Kushner’s book has been so popular.  He answered his own question by pointing out that Rabbi Kushner’s theology grew out of his experience in encountering his son’s illness and death.  Kushner’s son suffered from a syndrome that caused premature ageing and he died as a young teenager.  Kushner the parent grappled with incomprehension, bewilderment, anger.  After a long period, when the darkness began to separate, he saw that there is still goodness in the world; that life cannot be defined by his son’s death.

The goodness that Kushner experienced despite all in a world that had been broken by the death of his son led him to a renewed understanding of God and the place of God’s will in his life.  His theology did not provide a framework into which he felt he had to maneuver his experience.  It worked the other way around: his theology followed the contours of his experience.  This is what makes his theology seem so authentic, and what attracts so many readers to his book.  They find real meaning and true solace in his words.  His book takes us out of our inner world and helps us to focus on the experience of others, their sorrows and their goodness.

Though Yom Kippur seems very inwardly focused, the inward focus is really there in order to give us the space to reflect on the needs and experiences of others, and then to reconnect and recommit to addressing these human needs through our own efforts.  The teshuvah that our prayer speaks of and that Yom Kippur seeks is a returning to others, not a turning to ourselves alone.  Teshuvah is about caring for others, caring about what happens to them, sometimes even putting their needs above our own, even as parents put their children’s needs above their own.  The model for teshuvah is parenthood: our own parenthood, God’s parenthood.  We do this, realizing that in the end there are no guarantees of success or joy or happiness.  Nonetheless we have faith – we trust – that what we do matters.  It matters to our children, it matters to those we love, it matters to the goodness that is God.

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