Book review: Giving God a name

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

How do we imagine God? In Jewish liturgy, God is depicted not by physical characteristics, but by qualities of character – although sometimes the phrases used can contradict each other. For example, some people relate to a God who is a loving, forgiving parent. Others see God as a majestic, impartial judge who punishes wrong actions. These two extremes are found together in one of the best-known prayers in the High Holiday liturgy: “Avinu Malkeinu.” In “Naming God: Avinu Malkeinu – Our Father, Our King” (Jewish Lights Publishing), Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., offers essays written by rabbis and scholars about the history and theology of this popular prayer. This latest work in the “Prayers of Awe” series also explores the reading “Ki Hieni Kachomer” (whose opening line is “For behold, like clay in the hand of a potter”), although most of the essays focus on “Avinu Malkeinu.”
Although “Avinu Malkeinu” may seem an essential part of contemporary services, readers may be surprised to discover that not only is it a relatively late addition to liturgy, but that its length and content differ across the Jewish world. Hoffman does a wonderful job explaining this history in “The History, Meaning, and Varieties of Avinu Malkeinu.” He notes that two of its lines – “Our father, our king, we have no king but You. Our father, our king, have mercy on us” – are found in earliest versions of the Talmud in a story about two rabbis (Eliezer and Akiva) who are praying for rain. It’s only in Medieval times that a third line was added to the talmudic tale, the one whose theme is teshuvah (repentance): “Our father, our king, we have sinned before you.” Although the prayer spread, not every rabbi used it in their High Holiday service. For example, it’s not found in Saadiah Gaon’s machzor (High Holiday prayer book) nor in the one used by Maimonides.
Dr. Joel M. Hoffman offers a translation of the prayer with commentary that includes variations from different traditions. For example, while “Seder Rav Amram” says, “Our father, our king, grant us new decrees,” “Machzor Roma” reads, “Our father, our king, grant us good new tidings.” Different versions of another line include “write us in the book of redemption and salvation” (Machzor Vitry) and “write us in the book of salvation and comfort” (Machzor Roma). While many of these differences are just variations on a theme, there are also differences in length. To make it easier to understand the prayer’s development, the first appendix offers seven different versions.
Many of the essays focus on the difficulty some people feel when calling God either a king or a father. In his essay “Who’s Your Daddy,” Chazzan Danny Maseng notes that he was raised by parents who hated any type of anthropomorphism, including Walt Disney’s Donald Duck and Bambi. For them, imposing human characteristics on animals was an anathema, something “to be shunned and reviled.” Yet, Maseng embraces anthropomorphism, considering it “the very best tool with which to grapple with our ever-elusive God precisely because it is so obviously flawed.” This flaw means people won’t mistake the phrase for the real essence of God. For him, the real connection to the Divine comes less from the words than the music: “Music is the language of the heart, the color of the soul. Music, while definitely requiring intelligence to compose, to perform well, and to analyze, is first and foremost emotional and experimental.” Therefore, when Maseng composed his own version of the prayer, he had no difficulty “addressing it directly to a specific person – my father, my king, my daddy.”
“Naming God” contains too many interesting essays to describe all of them in detail, but some stood out:

  • Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, D.H.L., does an excellent job analyzing the talmudic origin of the prayer in “Prayer and Character: The Story Behind Avinu Malkeinu.” His look at the different personalities of Rabbis Eliezer and Akiva offers insights into their relationship to each other and to God.
  • In “Empowerment, Not Police: What Are We To Do With Problematic Liturgical Passages,” Rabbi Dalia Marx, Ph.D., offers a fascinating exploration of how the ancient rabbis handled biblical text they didn’t like, particularly when reading the Torah out loud in the synagogue. Their methods included replacing a word or phrase with one not in the original text and deliberately skipping a word or phrase when translating. She also looks at how contemporary rabbis approach similar problems.
  • Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar explores the meaning and use of metaphors in “Why We Say Things We Don’t Believe.” She writes about different types of metaphors – invisible, hidden and mixed – to teach us how “we do our best with words, and then we crawl into the silence of amazement, uniting speech with contemplation.” In this way, God is both “unknown and so very known.”
  • In “I Do Not Know Your Name,” Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, D.Min., uses her personal experience to write a moving essay about how inviting people to name God allows us to “see ourselves reflected in God’s image.” These names vary according to a person’s experiences, but all show their search for a connection to the Divine. She also notes how “no name is better than another, all the names for God are good. They are all partial reflections of the One who has many names and none.”
  • Rabbi Asher Lopatin discusses why “Avinu Malkeinu” has not been traditionally said on Shabbat in “Celebrating a Conflicted Relationship with God.” To do so, he offers a look at the difference between “the calming dream of Shabbat, and the searing reality of Avinu Malkeinu.”
  • In “Piety and Protest,” Rabbi Dennis C. Sasso, D.Min., discusses how Rabbis Akiva and Eliezer, who lived in the Roman Empire, would have understood the words father and king – particularly in terms of the Roman persecution of the Jews.
“Naming God” is one of the best volumes in the “Prayers of Awe” series. Readers will find themselves stimulated by its challenging and meaningful essays. Reading it is a great way to prepare for the holidays and enhance your spiritual experience.