G-d as power or the G-d who mothers us?

(Photo: Unsplash/Daniel Sandvik)

For the Jewish community, this week's Bible reading is called Toldot (Genesis 25-19-28:9). It includes the famous story of the birth of Jacob and Esau, when G-d tells their mother, Rivka: "Two nations are in your womb and two people shall be separated from your bowels. And one people will be stronger than the other people. And the great [many, stronger] will serve the young (lesser)."

This is the paradigm Jewish view of how we are in the world – a weak small people (Jacob), constantly overpowered and outsmarted by Esau. Esau represents the other nations, and, from our view, for the last 2,000 years, the power of Christendom.

Later on Jacob realizes that he will not survive the world of Esau as Jacob. Therefore he struggles and, during the encounter with the 'angel', he overcomes, albeit with a permanent limp. And so Israel realizes from the outset that he isn't omnipotent. He also realizes that he has to work in partnership with G-d to sustain the Jewish way of life, to be a light to the nations and to steward the environment.

This theme of the weak Jew, strong Israel and the perfidious world has been playing out at COP26 at present.

First, in discussing the importance of COP26, the present head of the Church of England outrageously downplayed the Shoah to which his own Church sadly contributed not so long ago. He was right to apologise for his comments.

Then, speaking to the BBC, the Minister for the Environment blamed his Israeli counterpart after she was unable to access COP26 because she is a wheelchair user - even though wheelchair access is compulsory in the UK. It is highly unlikely that a wheelchair user from any other country than Israel, the Jewish State, would have been treated in this way and that people would get away with it.

But it gets worse. Recently the Pope has come out with shocking statements about the status of Judaism. He makes a number of factual errors about the Hebrew Bible, insults the Jewish Patriarch, Abraham, and states that Judaism doesn't give life. No wonder that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has stated that, as far as the Pope is concerned, Judaism is now obsolete, for Jews as well as for Christians.

This is in contrast to Pope John XXIII and John Paul II, who stated the opposite. Not to mention American Catholics, such as Dorothy Day, who became a Catholic solely through her experience of Judaism, which she viewed as a 'sacrament'. And Thomas Merton, who had similar views about Jews to those of Dorothy Day.

I must also take issue with the views of one former Church of England priest recently converted to Catholicism who, on the pages of this website, used very strange language when discussing G-d's covenant with the Jewish people, or lack of it. In a piece on the Queen and her Christian faith, he states that the monarch's devotion to Jesus is in contrast to the Jewish G-d, which is pretty difficult for a Jewish theologian and historian to hear! That is because the UK coronation is actually grounded in the Jewish marriage ceremony, with lines used from the Hebrew Book of Kings, together with the choir singing Handel's 'Zadok the Priest', depicting the anointing of King Solomon of Israel - who was Jewish, not Christian.

It seems to me that there was a very short window from around 1948 until about 1967 during which the Church took stock of its own contribution to the destruction of Judaism. But, writing as a Jew, I cannot help but wonder if the Church has in the last thirty or forty years again become the enemy of the Jews, rather than working together for the betterment of the world?

While it may be an uncomfortable question for Christian readers, I ask it at a time of genuine growing concern among Jews in both Europe and the US about our future in these places and whether we will die out altogether. I hope in answer to my question above it will be the latter that turns out to be true, not the former.

Currently, I am undertaking the gigantic task of interpreting the whole of the Book of Isaiah with my friend, the greatest Hebrew scholar in the country, who lives down the road. And it is interesting to interpret Isaiah 40 verse 11, for instance, which in the Hebrew translation reads: "He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them at the breast; he gently leads those who are breastfeeding."

A Catholic interpretation of around 1965 waxes lyrical about how the G-d of Israel looks after His people, as a shepherd does his sheep. Yet the same publication, reprinted in 2000, by another Catholic scholar, decides to translate breasts as 'lap', and depicts the Jewish G-d as the G-d of power and aggression, compared to Jesus, who carries the people in his 'lap'.

This is where the translation of words is especially important because the Hebrew doesn't say 'lap'. It quite clearly says 'breasts', depicting G-d as mother. In any case, how can you carry a people in your lap if you are walking?! And so, this is one of many verses I could point to in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that clearly show G-d as tender and motherly.

My favourite medieval Jewish commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), forced to flee his native Spain, wrote his commentary on Isaiah in Lucca, Italy, in around 1145 in which he interprets G-d in Isaiah 40:11 as being like a breast-feeding mother, walking and feeding her babies - for us, the Jewish people - as they go on their journey.

Returning to Jacob and Esau fighting in Rivkah's womb, the Hebrew Bible is not afraid of female imagery, even when depicting the deity. This is in contrast to Christianity, a religion of hierarchy which finds it difficult to grasp this.

And as any breastfeeding mother knows, breastfeeding isn't easy. It takes some getting used to. Some people find it very difficult. But the more you feed your baby, the more milk comes back in. This is what ibn Ezra is telling us. Our partnership with G-d is two-way. G-d needs us to respond, in order to be able to give.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.

Courtesy of the Christian Today UK.