One common trope throughout Yamim Noraim davening is that the Jews have different types of relationships with Hashem – that of children and that of sons. I want to focus on an interesting machloket about the circumstances under which we are considered sons.
The Gemara in Kiddushin records a dispute:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת קידושין דף לו עמוד א
בנים אתם לה’ אלהיכם, בזמן שאתם נוהגים מנהג בנים – אתם קרוים בנים, אין אתם נוהגים מנהג בנים – אין אתם קרוים בנים, דברי ר’ יהודה; רבי מאיר אומר: בין כך ובין כך אתם קרוים בנים, שנאמר: +ירמיה ד+ בנים סכלים המה, ואומר: +דברים לב+ בנים לא אמון בם, ואומר: +ישעיהו א+ זרע מרעים בנים משחיתים, ואומר: +הושע ב+ והיה במקום אשר יאמר להם לא עמי אתם יאמר להם בני אל חי. מאי ואומר? וכי תימא, סכלי הוא דמקרי בני, כי לית בהו הימנותייהו לא מיקרו בני, ת”ש, ואומר: בנים לא אמון בם; וכי תימא, כי לית בהו הימנותא הוא דמיקרו בנים, כי פלחו לעבודת כוכבים לא מיקרו בנים, ת”ש, ואומר: זרע מרעים בנים משחיתים; וכ”ת, בנים משחיתים הוא דמיקרו, בני מעלייא לא מיקרו, ת”ש, ואומר: והיה במקום אשר יאמר להם לא עמי אתם יאמר להם בני אל חי.
R. Yehuda believes that we are only considered Hashem’s children if we follow “the ways of his children” – meaning we do what we are supposed to. R. Meir believes that we are considered children whether we follow the Torah or not. What lies behind this machloket?
For this, it is instructive to read the following passage in the Moreh Nevuchim (1:7 – I will provide the free online English translation):
IT is well known that the verb yalad means” to bear,”” they have born (ve-yaledu) him children” (Deut. xxi. 15). The word was next used in a figurative sense with reference to various objects in nature, meaning,” to create,” e.g.” before the mountains were created” (yulladu) (Ps. xc. 2): also,” to produce,” in reference to that which the earth causes to come forth as if by birth, e.g.,” He will cause her to bear (holidah) and bring forth” (Isa. Iv. 10). The verb further denotes,” to bring forth,” said of changes in the
process of time, as though they were things which were born, e.g.,” for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth” (yeled) (Prov.xxvii. 1). Another figurative use of the word is its application to the formation of thoughts and ideas, or of opinions resulting from
them: comp.” and brought forth (ve-yalad) falsehood” (Ps. vii.14): also,” and they please themselves in the children (yalde) of strangers” (Isa. ii. 6), i.e.,” they delight in the opinions of strangers.” Jonathan the son of Uzziel paraphrases this passage,they walk in the customs of other nations.” A man who has instructed another in any subject, and has improved his knowledge, may in like manner be regarded as the parent of the person taught, because he is the author of that knowledge: and thus the pupils of the prophets are called” sons of the prophets,” as I shall explain when treating of the homonymity of ben (son). In this figurative sense, the verb yalad (to bear) is employed when it is said of Adam,” And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat (va-yoled) a son in his own likeness, in his form” (Gen. V. 3). As regards the words,” the form of Adam, and his likeness,” we have already stated (ch. i.) their meaning.
Those sons of Adam who were born before that time were not human in the true sense of the word, they had not” the form of man.” With reference to Seth who had been instructed, enlightened and brought to human perfection, it could rightly be said,” he (Adam) begat a son in his likeness, in his form.” It is acknowledged that a man who does not possess this” form” (the nature of which has just been explained) is not human, but a mere animal in human shape and form. Yet such a creature has the power of causing harm and injury, a power which does not belong to other creatures. For those gifts of intelligence and judgment with which he has been endowed for the purpose of acquiring perfection, but which he has failed to apply to their proper aim, are used by him for wicked and mischievous ends; he begets evil things, as though he merely resembled man, or simulated his outward appearance. Such was the condition of those sons of Adam who preceded Seth. In reference to this subject the Midrash says:” During the 130 years when Adam was under rebuke he begat spirits, i.e., demons; when, however, he was again restored to divine favour” he begat in his likeness, in his form.” This is the sense of the passage,” Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and he begat in his likeness, in his form” (Gen. v. 3).
Rambam writes that the verb “yalad”, to give birth to, has several meanings. The first is the literal, which means to have a child. The first level metaphorical meaning is to cause to come into being – the Aristotelian efficient cause, as if you will. The second level metaphorical is to cause the formation of ideas. The first level metaphorical meaning, I assume, drives the assertion that there are “three partners in the creation of man: the mother, father, and God” (Kiddushin 30b) – they are all the efficient cause of the person. The second level metaphorical meaning drives the assertion that “anyone who teaches his friend’s child Torah, it is as if he gave birth to him” (Sanhedrin 19b, cited in Rashi Bamidbar 3).
When it comes to God, the literal meaning of child cannot apply – there is no biological connection between Hashem and people. However, we have two levels of metaphorical meaning that can apply. The first, that of efficient cause, is very close to the literal meaning, and shares the inalienability factor – God will always have caused a person to exist, whether he sins or not. The second, that of causing one to have certain ideas, the meaning that applies to students, is contingent. We only deserve that meaning if we follow in God’s ways. Thus, it seems to me that this “philosophical” machloket finds its roots in a subtle philological one – what is it about our relationship with God that makes us sons – it is something he did or something we do? The formulations of the Gemara support this – one perspective focuses on being “נוהג מנהג בנים”; the other focuses on זרע, which emphasizes the biological-like relationship. Whichever one is correct, it is our obligation to not rest on the former meaning which absolves us of responsibly, so to speak, but to be sons and students, to do our best to merit being Godly children, and not just children of God.