Avinu Malkeinu

The language of merciful Father can still speak to us on the Day of Judgment.

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Perkins affirms the power of the traditional metaphor of God as father and reflects in general on the use of metaphoric language in describing God. With permission from Sh'ma, September 2, 1994.

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.

 

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?

man reading prayerbookFor 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, Mulkeinu particularly appealing.

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?

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Carl M. Perkins

Carl Perkins is the rabbi of Temple Aliyah in Needham, Massachusetts.