Blowing my own horn (er...shofar?)
Happy Torah prep

On Fathers and Kings

Over the course of the last decade I've gone from being indifferent to God-language to caring about it quite a lot. In the course of that journey, I have at various times subscribed to almost every theory there is about how we should refer to the fundamentally unnameable.

In college I realized I didn't want to refer to God only as Adonai (Lord) and Melech (King) anymore. Masculine God-language seemed unduly androcentric to me; doesn't Torah tell us that both genders were created b'tselem Elohim, in the image of God? For a while I alternated Melech and Malkah, King and Queen, Father and Mother. Then I decided that these were tainted with power-over, while I wanted my God-language to reflect power-from-within; I wanted words which didn't smack of dominance. So I started using terms like Creator and Source, Wellspring and Breath of Life.

None of these was exactly right all the time. I was caught in the dialectic of All-Mighty and All-Merciful, transcendence and immanence, wanting the word that would span and include all possibilities and always, frustratingly, unable to find it.

Today I love having a range of words for God; it's like having a box of paints at my fingertips, being able to choose which color I want at any given moment. The truth of the matter is, all of our words -- no matter how traditional or unusual, homespun or haughty -- are mere shadows of the real thing. All our words for God are metaphors, and those metaphors teach us paradigms for viewing the world and our place in it. If יהוה is our parent, we are children; if יהוה is our teacher, we are students; if יהוה is our potter, we are clay.

Questions of God-language arise anew for me as I study the High Holiday liturgy every year. Many of the liturgy's themes date back to the 2nd century B.C.E, making them twenty-two hundred years old, give or take a few; most of the prayers are medieval, dating from the 6th century C.E. So the dominant metaphor for God in the Days of Awe liturgy is the one people in those days associated most with power and majesty: God-as-King.

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  The metaphor recurs through the liturgy, and it's showcased in Avinu Malkeinu ("Our Father, Our King,") one of the cornerstones of the machzor (Days of Awe prayerbook).

The friendly folks at Chabad explain that the title's central metaphor can be understood thus: imagine a prince abducted in his childhood, who can always return to his father's land because it is his own heritage to which he returns. Just so, they say, a Jew can always return to Torah, even after years of estrangement, because it is his heritage: and just as the prince returns to make amends with his father the king, God is our father and our king.

There's actually something kind of radical about how the pairing of father and king intertwines  far-away authority with intimate authority. God controls everything as far as the eye can see, and God is twined into the fabric of our lives. But even though Avinu Malkeinu mingles transcendent authority with authority that's close-to-home, as it was written it speaks only to a masculine God.

That bothers some of us more than others. For my part, I'm a house divided. On the one hand, invoking the Shekhinah (the immanent divine Presence, which the mystics conceptualized as feminine) -- invoking God as Mother and Queen, Womb and Source -- can be tremendously powerful for me in a way that invoking Father/Lord/King often isn't. On the other hand, it's possible to sacrifice a prayer's majesty and cadences on the altar of political correctness, and some variations on prayers like Avinu Malkeinu don't hold up well over time. So what to do?

Burt Jacobson wrote a bi-gendered version of the prayer, which alternates between masculine, feminine, and gender-neutral terms for God. His version also provides a lovely variation on the petitions that make up the bulk of the prayer. Rabbi Arthur Waskow argues in favor of using both genders in prayer to break through gender binarism and expand our understanding of God; he favors the mind-bending imeynu malkeinu, "Our Mother, Our King."

My tallit case (the woven bag which carries my prayer shawl) is home to a creased and folded page. It's a copy of an Avinu Malkeinu variant which I found some years ago, written by cantor Catherine Madsen. I learned recently that she wrote it as a kind of protest against a bad variation on the prayer; I'm still not sure whether she meant for it to be used as a prayer.

Our father, our king, we resent fathers and kings.
Our mother, our teacher, we resist mothers and teachers.
Our eclipse, our no-one, renew us for a good year.
Our figment, our construct, hear us, pity us, and spare us.
Our guess, our denial, seal us in the book of pardon.
Our hope, our dismay, speed our liberation.
Our doubt, our division, temper us to your need.
Avinu malkeinu, for your sake if not for ours.
Our limit, our secret, remember us 'til we live.

Our rock, our redeemer, give us endurance in pain.
Our place, our midst, root us in the cracks of your being.
Our breath, our life, evade all our theologies.
Our midwife, our surgeon, bring out of us what is in us.
Our infant, our patient, demand from us 'til we provide.
Our lover, our consoler, lie down beside us in loneliness.
Our enemy, our catastrophe, goad us to act justly.
Our mugger, our rapist, shatter our lives with your claims.
Our maker, our destroyer, build us again from the ground up, carefully.

(--Catherine Madsen)

I like her version because it shakes me up. It knocks me off-kilter, in the best of ways, and reminds me that I have a ways to go in my journey towards a truly expansive understanding of what God might be. I wouldn't pray it instead of the original, but I always pray it in addition to.

The machzor we use at my shul pairs the traditional Hebrew with a fairly traditional translation...with one change. Instead of translating "Our Father, Our King" at the beginning of every sentence, the English prayer repeats Avinu Malkeinu. (We do the same with Adonai, which we transliterate instead of translating.) On the one hand, it's not really a change; we're still invoking God-as-Father and God-as-King. On the other hand, the English terms are loaded for me in a way that the Hebrew terms aren't; the Hebrew words exist purely liturgically for me, whereas the English words have mundane baggage.

As if this internal struggle weren't enough, I'm also always torn on the question of what melody to use. Because my family switched affiliations from Conservative to Reform just after I became bat mitzvah, I learned one melody as a young child and another as an adolescent, and I love them both. Fortunately, in this my current shul has (for me) the perfect practice: we sing most of the prayer to this melody, then switch to the older, more minor and Semitic-sounding, melody for the final two lines.

Just humming it gives me shivers, regardless of language. Maybe the melody's what it's all about: beyond words, just like God

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It's been argued that Rosh Hashanah is set on our calendar at the time of a pre-existing Near Eastern coronation ceremony, in which all subjects publicly reaffirmed their duties to the king every year.


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Yehuda Amichai wrote a gorgeous poem called Avinu Malkeinu, inspired by the prayer. I can't fit it into the blogpost proper, but it's wonderful and you should go read it.

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