Avinu Malkeinu

The prayer for "our father, our king," said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Like most Jews who daven (pray) on the High Holidays, I am captivated by the Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King). Especially when I am davening with a congre­gation that sings the last stanza together over and over, the prayer touches me deeply. More acutely than at any other time during the service, I feel myself pray­ing from the heart.

Read the full text of Avinu Malkeinu

But to Whom? To my Father? To my King? No prayer has better helped me appreciate the metaphoric nature of God-language. Whatever the author of Avinu Malkeinu might have meant by “Our Father, Our King,” I feel certain it wasn’t meant to be taken literally. After all, we Jews don’t believe that God is anyone’s biological father. The same logic can be applied to the word “king.” Both “father” and “king” are human attributes imper­fectly and inadequately projected onto the Divine to aid us in prayer.

The Comfort of “Our Father”

But the question may be asked how useful these metaphors are for us today. Leaving for others to wrestle with “king,” which for many is an image that resonates unpleasantly with hierarchy and domi­nance, I would like to explore the image of God as avinu, or “our Father.” Given its inescapable masculinity, is it too lim­ited a metaphor?

For some it may be, and may remain. A masculine vessel may not be capable of holding everyone’s prayer. But for me it is otherwise. I recognize that this may be because I am a male (and a father myself), but I find the fatherly image implied by Avinu, Malkeinu particularly appealing.

Listen to Avinu Malkeinu (courtesy of Mechon Hadar)

I understand Avinu, Malkeinu in light of another prayer that we recite during the musaf service on Rosh Hashanah, Hayom Harat Olam. (This connection is made by R. Barukh Epstein in Barukh She-amar, his commentary on the prayer book.)The passage reads as follows: “Today the world is conceived. Today all creatures stand in judgment, whether as children or as servants. If we merit consideration as children, have mercy on us as a father has mercy on his children. If as servants, our eyes beseech You to be gracious unto us in judgment, O revered and holy One.”

Shattering Traditional Images

I have always been struck by that odd request that God have mercy on us “as a father has mercy on his children.” How unexpected! Don’t we assume that a mother, from whose womb (rechem) we are born, is the true(r) source of mercy (rachamim)?After all, the Talmud refers to women as rachmaniyot or “Merciful Ones.” How could the liturgist have gotten it wrong?

The liturgist, of course, is quoting Psalm 103. This psalm invokes the 13 attributes of God’s mercy and assures us that God will have mercy on us “as a father has mercy on his children…for he knows how we are formed, he is mindful that we are dust.” This allusion to our birth does not resolve our earlier question: Doesn’t the mother, from whose womb we come, best know our origins? Isn’t she the “Merciful One”?

This issue can be resolved in two ways. First, we can understand the word av in the psalm and in the liturgy not as “father” but rather as “parent.” After all, nothing in the psalm develops the masculinity of the word av. Perhaps the word is simply the automatic choice of the biblical author and the liturgist. God is the paradigmatic merciful parental figure. Some may find this way of reading avinu helpful or appealing. (It is worth noting, though, that none of the English versions of the biblical passage or of Hayom Harat Olam I have reviewed translates av as “parent” even though all of them translate banim as “children,” not “sons.”)

Defying Constricting Definitions

I find it more meaningful to read av as father and not as genderless parent, and to understand the curious juxtapo­sition of fatherhood and mercy as an intentionally mixed metaphor. After all, Hayom Harat Olam is a study in contrasting divine images. First we are reminded of God’s role in “conceiving” the world, a strikingly feminine image. Then we picture God as both merciful father and stern ruler. Our liturgy may be telling us that God is like a father in some respects but like a mother in others. Perhaps we are intended to appreciate God as the unexpectedly merciful father.

Moreover, by pairing av with rachamim, the liturgy may be confounding our expectations and exposing our own limitations when we perceive virtues in human beings to be gender-defined. For human parents are also not (or should not be) stereotypes. A father can certainly show mercy in ways similar to but also different from those of a mother. A mother should not be the exclusive source of compassion (middat ha-rachamim) in a family nor the father the exclusive source of stern justice (middat ha-din).

Understood in this way, the image of the merciful Father, which occurs not only in Hayom Harat Olam and Avinu, Malkeinu but also throughout our liturgy, can encour­age us to imagine God as God rather than to limit Him/Her in any way. Perhaps sensitive to the limitations of using human attributes as metaphors for God, the liturgy is deliberately challenging us to look beyond them. I for one am happy to have this complex, challenging metaphor before me as I pray for mercy from the Master of Mercy on the Day of Judgment.

Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma, September 2, 1994.

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