Rosh Hashanah is a time when we celebrate the past even as we embrace the future. We mark the arrival of the High Holy Days by honoring the old while welcoming the new. We chant ancient words, but often add new melody and translation.
This Rosh Hashanah I would like to partake of the old/new by starting a new tradition. Now, on the eve of the Holiday, rather than giving a sermon on contemporary matters, I would like to offer a Davar Torah, a commentary, on one of the key prayers in our holiday liturgy.
After all, we recite these prayers year and year, sometimes by rote. They form the backbone of our service. They move us in an emotive, nostalgic way… but what do they mean? What are we saying? Why are they important?
I am going to start with perhaps the best known prayer of the High Holy Days⎯the Avinu Malkeinu. (That is why I am delivering these words now⎯before we recite the prayer, rather than the usual spot afterwards). And as you will see in a few moments, I will have some help.
That is because my commentary will include some creative interpretations of the Avinu Malkeinu from the new Reform machzor, called Mishkan Hanefesh, which was published just last year. It is a beautifully produced two volume set, and expensive, and it is unlikely we will purchase it anytime soon. But I want to introduce some of its best new material into our service, and this is one way to do it.
We know that the oldest surviving prayer book, Seder Rav Amram, which dates to the 9th century in Babylonia contains the Avinu Malkeinu. So Jews have been reciting this prayer for at least a thousand years. But the original phrase, Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King, is known from a Talmudic tale of Rabbi Akiba, who died around 132 during the Second Revolt against Rome. So Jews have addressed God in this way for almost 2000 years.
This prayer obviously has staying power, and star power. It remains the centerpiece of the High Holy Day liturgy before the open ark. It has been set to so many stirring melodies. But as Professor Lawrence Hoffman, a leading authority of Jewish liturgy, and one of my rabbinical school professors, notes, “The music... so overwhelms the lyrics that most people remain relatively unconcerned with what it means.” While that is not a tragedy, it behooves us to consider the content of what we are saying, or rather, praying. And as we will see, how to properly translate and understand Aveinu Malkeinu is a challenge.
Another scholar, Richard Saranson, writes that,
It is an irony of history that the very language now so controversial in Avinu Malkeinu (namely the masculine-gendered, hierarchical images of God as "Father" and "King") is what make this prayerful appeal so distinctive and effective for its original users.
Avinu Malkeinu, Rabbi Saranson, goes on to say,
is a penitential litany. That means that it uses the... refrain, "Our Father, Our King," repeatedly to invoke the gracious favor of a God who is conceived of as both distant and approachable, both stern and merciful; whose powerful nature can be portrayed as both Ruler and Parent toward the people Israel, who view themselves during the High Holy Day season as both dependent and unworthy of favor–"Deal with us graciously for Your own sake, since we can plead little merit before You." Encapsulated here are the ambivalent feelings of we mortals toward the power in the world outside us over which we have uncertain or little control.
The story in the Talmud tells of Rabbi Akiva stepping before the ark during a great drought and exclaiming, Our Father, our King! We have no king but You! Our Father, our King! For Your sake, have compassion for us! And then the rain fell. (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 25b)
Over time the number of petitions for God’s compassionate care grew and grew. For example:
Our Father, our King! Deal with us [graciously] for Your name’s sake!
Our Father, our King! Send a complete healing to the sick among Your people!
Our Father, our King! Remove from us plague, sword, famine, and destruction!
Our Father, our King! Remember that we are but dust and ashes!
Our Father, our King! Speedily bring us salvation!
In the traditional Ashkenazic rite there are forty-four such petitions! Most Reform prayer books have reduced that number significantly. For those of us who remember the old Union Prayer Book there were only seven. Reform reduced the number of petitions for reasons of length and because the strong penitential rhetoric of some of these petitions did not sit well with a modern sense of human empowerment. Gates of Repentance, which we use, brings back more of the Avinu Malkeinu petitions, and concludes with the one that pleads our lack of merit. Why? That last line is commonly sung to a well-known eastern European melody, which we use too, and thereby has come to typify the entire litany for many American Jews.
While earlier generations of Reform Jews had difficulty with praying that we have no merit, our generation has also had trouble with the Avinu Malkeinu’s masculine and hierarchical images of God. You might say that it is no longer politically correct to use such language. Already in 1996 the new gender-sensitive edition of Gates of Repentance included at the back of the book a feminized version of the prayer. But for many, substituting parent for father, and ruler or monarch, for king, takes away from the power of the prayer. It has led to quite a debate, and in the end the new Reform machzor leaves the key phrase untranslated. How’s that for ducking the issue?
A final point before the interpretative readings. As Rabbi Barry Block write in sermon about this prayer a few years ago: "Calling God Avinu and Malkeinu, in the same breath, is an oxymoron." A parent is not a monarch, and "does not rule with strict justice." A ruler, on the other hand,
cannot remit penalties out of loving favor....
The one, true God is two opposite things⎯Avinu, a loving parent, and Malkeinu, a strict ruler⎯at one and the same time. God is a living, divine oxymoron. God seeks to love. God needs to judge.
The ancient rabbis teach that both strict justice and divine love are required to establish and sustain creation….
So what do we need God to be, at this High Holy Day season, Avinu or Malkeinu?