Avinu Malkeinu

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

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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.

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Carl M. Perkins

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