Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father our King”: over the years, Jews have looked forward to this High Holy Day prayer as they have few others. It comes with verbal familiarity, music we love – and with problems: is God really a “Father” and “King” after all? Now my newest book handles all of that — the history, the music; the meaning, and more (Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed., Naming God: Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King” (Jewish Lights Publishing) — https://www.jewishlights.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?
Naming God is Volume Six of my High Holy Day series, “Prayers of Awe” (Jewish Lights Publishing) and like its predecessors, this book too assembles some 40 authors from The United States and Canada, but also Israel and Europe – rabbis, artists, composers, scholars, and thoughtful everyday worshipers, who tackle the meaning of High Holy Day worship in their lives.
The issue of Avinu Malkeinu runs deeper than the prayer itself. At stake is how we dare to name God at all, especially in prayer, which seems to presuppose our calling God something or other: if not Father and King, then what? “Our Mother and Queen?” “Parent and Ruler” solves the sexist issue, but sounds so distant! Children in pain never run into the room crying, “Parent! Help!”
In the end, what we name God says more about ourselves than about God – which is not to say that God is a fiction of our imagination. Nothing grand and glorious comes without imagination as the conceptual map to take us there. Love, loyalty, honor, character – these must all be imagined by artists and poets, who teach us how to find what we would otherwise miss. Life requires imagination to make sense of its complexity, and prayer is the longest running play of imagination that the human species has ever devised.
One of my own essays here (“The Many Ways that Liturgy Means”) is on that very topic – a way to appreciate prayer even for people who don’t believe in it. Disbelieving in prayer is like disbelieving in literature or in painting or in music. These are matters of appreciation, not belief, and “Prayers of Awe” is a series that instils appreciation – like a do-it-yourself course in art or music, but in prayer.
Even people who think they disbelieve in God may find themselves praying, because contrary to “common sense,” the success of prayer is independent of the certainty that there is “someone up there listening.” Since names for God are metaphoric, all three terms — “someone,” “up there” and “listening” — are far from literally true. So we pray not because we believe in one any of them (God is not a “someone”; there is probably no “up there” up there; and if God listens, it isn’t in any way that human beings do). We pray because prayer is as much a human activity as listening to music and looking at art. You don’t exactly “need” Beethoven or Renoir, but life is impoverished without them.
Artists establish virtual universes: the sunflowers and waterlilies of Van Gogh and Monet are not exactly what you see in your back yard, but having experienced them in a museum, they are just as real, in their own way. So too is the exaltation of Beethoven’s “Ninth” and the pomp and circumstance of, well, of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” without which many a graduation would fall flat on its face. Great artistry intuits the depths of human experience and creates an alternative universe that explores it, and then changes us with that exploration. Prayer is such an art form.
Naming God provides everything you want to know about Avinu Malkeinu – and then some: but it also tackles the bigger questions of how we name God, how the “art” of prayer works, and why we pray altogether. I am proud of the whole series – and of this, the latest volume, in particular.