Nam­ing God: Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King

Lawrence A. Hoffman
  • Review
By – February 15, 2016

Rab­bi Lawrence A. Hoff­man, a rec­og­nized schol­ar in the field of Jew­ish litur­gy, is the edi­tor of a ten-vol­ume series on week­day and Shab­bat litur­gy. Shift­ing his atten­tion to the High Holy Days, he also edit­ed the Prayers of Awe series on the cen­tral prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kip­pur. In the sixth book of this series, Rab­bi Hoff­man focus­es on Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King), one of Judaism’s most beloved prayers.

Fol­low­ing two intro­duc­to­ry chap­ters — one of which traces the his­to­ry of the prayer’s devel­op­ment and the sec­ond of which con­sid­ers its lit­er­ary and lin­guis­tic aspects—Nam­ing God offers a series of essays by schol­ars, rab­bis, edu­ca­tors, and Jew­ish com­mu­nal lead­ers from across the denom­i­na­tions. These essays are divid­ed into sev­en cat­e­gories that address, respec­tive­ly, the litur­gy itself, the prayer’s music his­to­ry, par­al­lel motifs in oth­er texts, fem­i­nist cri­tique, con­sid­er­a­tions in a lib­er­al Jew­ish con­text, and broad­er inter­pre­ta­tions of the prayer. Two appen­dix­es pro­vide a col­lec­tion of dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the prayer from across his­to­ry and alter­na­tive ver­sions with a lib­er­al perspective.

High­lights of the book include a chap­ter by Dr. Eri­ca Brown, who grap­ples with the prayer’s thir­ty-third line: Our father, our king, remem­ber that we are but dust,” which might sug­gest our worth­less­ness. How­ev­er, through a close read­ing of oth­er bib­li­cal texts, Brown sug­gests that the reminder that we are dust is in essence a reminder of the love that God expressed in fash­ion­ing the first human being. It is with this love that we are sus­tained in our rela­tion­ship with the Cre­ator to this day.

In anoth­er chap­ter, Rab­bi Bradley Shav­it Art­son con­sid­ers the chutz­pah (impu­dence) that we express when we name God through Avinu Malkeinu. While one might under­stand nam­ing some­thing to be an expres­sion of one’s pow­er over the named, Rab­bi Art­son writes: Names reveal who we are but also what we hope to become, and they do so in terms of rela­tion­ship between namer and named….It [nam­ing] is an invi­ta­tion to con­nect, an expres­sion of rela­tion­ship, a dis­cov­ery of com­mon ground.” 

These words by Rab­bi Art­son speak to the core of what Nam­ing God seeks to achieve. It pro­vides a read­er not only with a stronger con­nec­tion to the nuanced lan­guage of Avinu Malkeinu, but also with a deep­er under­stand­ing of the mes­sages and mean­ing of the High Holy Days as a whole. Rab­bi Hoff­man has craft­ed a guide­book for the Days of Awe that pro­vides a wealth of voic­es to lead us on a spir­i­tu­al journey.

Relat­ed Content:

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions