Children of God

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Throughout the Torah, both be’kesav and be’alpeh, we are described in different ways insofar as our relationship to God. We are called “mamlechet kohanim ve’goy kadosh,” and the “chosen nation”, as well as the “nation of God,” and many more. One other reference is found in Parshas Re’eh, where we are singled out as “banim atem la’Hashem.” This identification is the subject of debate in the Talmud, with some important philosophical ramifications.

We see the reference as follows (Devarim 14:1):

“You are sons to Hashem, your God; do not lacerate yourselves and do not make yourselves bald between your eyes for a dead person.”

Most commentaries note the juxtaposition of the classification as “sons” and the subsequent prohibition of “lo sisgodedo.” However, the Talmud offers a unique interpretation (Kiddushin 36a):

“That is wanted for what was taught: ‘Ye are sons of the Lord your God’; when you behave as sons you are designated sons; if you do not behave as sons, you are not designated sons: this is R. Yehuda's view. R. Meir said: In both cases you are called sons, for it is said, they are “sochli” children; and it is also said: They are children in whom is no faith; and it is also said, a seed of evil-doers, sons that deal corruptly; and it is said, and it shall come to pass that, in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God. Why give these additional quotations? For should you reply, only when foolish are they designated sons, but not when they lack faith — then come and hear: And it is said: ‘They are sons in whom is no faith’. And should you say, when they have no faith they are called sons, but when they serve idols they are not called sons — then come and hear: And it is said: ‘a seed of evil-doers, sons that deal corruptly.’ And should you say, they are indeed called sons that act corruptly, but not good sons — then come and hear: And it is said, and it shall come to pass that, in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God.”

The passage is nearly impossible to understand without further analysis. For one, what type of argument is this? Are we always sons or are we not? Furthermore, what is the benefit or advantage of being the sons of God? It is difficult to posit that God is our “father” in any sort of literal way – such a belief is the core of other theologies and anathema to Judaism. 

The Talmud also devotes a great deal of attention to the different verses, substantiating the opinion of R’ Meir. Rashi helps elaborate on the meaning of these. In the first description, Rashi explains that “sochli” refers to “shetus”, or ignorance. In other words, we are still the children of God even if we act in a manner of “shetus”, but we may not be considered so if we do not express belief in God. In the last description, where being “sons who act corruptly” is equivalent to worshipping idolatry, we are referred to as “good sons”, as denoted in the last verse. Rashi explains that one might think we would be considered to be these corrupt sons indefinitely. Instead, through the potential of teshuva, we are able to retain the title of “sons”, rather than that of “corrupt sons.” These steps must be understood. Why does the Talmud assume one particular defect might result in the loss of our status as sons of God, and then reject it? And why the extensive detail?

The overall debate is what needs to be understood first and foremost. The concept of the Jewish people as the children of God implies a certain type of relationship between God and the nation. We are not strangers to God – instead, a unique bond exists between us. The concept of being God’s children then is really a reference to a degree of familiarity.This relationship is comprised of different features and characteristics, as we shall soon see. Once the nation does not act in line with the demands of such a relationship, the debate about identity emerges. The initial question then is whether this is an intrinsic designation, or is it one that can be eradicated. And yet one can take the question one step further. The basis for the link as being intrinsic or not depends on the perspective. According to R’ Yehuda, when Bnai Yisrael do not act like the children of God, they forego the relationship altogether. The actions of the Jewish people clearly convey a rejection of this status.  Yet according to R’ Meir, it is from God’s vantage point that the designation exists. Much like a bris, or covenant, whose source from God is immutable, so too this relationship is one that God will never terminate, regardless of our actions.

Of course, as alluded to above, we must understand the parameters of this relationship. The first of R’ Meir’s steps indicates how the relationship might unravel. What is he referring to with the term ”shetus”? Are we just talking about the nation possessing a low IQ? The correct behavior of the nation refers to people living a life in line with chachma, personified by adherence to the Torah. If people give in to their base instincts and turn away from Torah, they embrace the world of “shetus.” It is ignorance not of the intellect, but of the correct philosophy of life. At that point, it would seem, R’ Yehudah would maintain the nation as a whole has rejected their identity as God’s sons. However, R’ Meir, who maintains it is intrinsic, begins to show how even though we might have certain assumptions of at what point God should cast us away as strangers, the relationship stands. Straying from the derech hachayim would not bring about this consequence. What about a lack of faith in God? To not believe in God might seem to be a pretty valid reason to terminate the relationship, but R’ Meir explains this is not the case. The Talmud then moves to idolatry. For the Jewish people, idolatry is, in fact, a two-step process. The first entails a denial of God – yet this does not necessitate a move to idolatry. It is both the rejection of God and ultimate acceptance of idolatry that is the definition of avoda zara. At this point, there is a slight derivation. Once the nation has embraced idolatry, they are referred to as “sons that act corruptly.” In other words, they retain the identity of being the children of God, yet with the added description of being corrupt/idolatrous. Rashi’s explanation is that such a designation would last forever. What he is referring to is the stain of idolatry that is left on the nation’s identity. It could be that the effect of idolatry is so powerful that the nature of this relationship is permanently altered (similar to what occurred after the sin of the eigel hazahav). We are still the children of God – but we are viewed negatively.  A similar concept is conveyed with the four sons of the Hagadah. Even the rasha, who is antithetical to that which the Torah stands for, is a “son”. He does not shed the identity; instead, he is always characterized as this type of child. However, as R’ Meir concludes, it is the system of teshuva that prevents us from ever permanently bearing the mark of the corrupt. Therefore, as powerful as an effect that avoda zara may have on the nation as a whole, we still retain that unique relationship with God.