Covenant, sin and certitude

The evolution of Avinu Malkeinu

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
AS A child, I hated seeing the High Holy Days fall on Shabbat. My Orthodox synagogue obeyed the halakha of omitting the Avinu Malkeinu prayer then – and I missed it. The High Holy Days wouldn’t be the same without it.
But Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) has changed dramatically since it began. Its history is simultaneously the history of us, the Jews who say it, because the three chapters of its development are also three stages in the life of the Jewish People.
Chapter one is the prayer’s very origins.
The printed Talmud traces it to Rabbi Akiva’s successful prayer for rain during a drought:
Avinu Malkeinu, we have sinned before you.
Avinu Malkeinu, we have no king but you.
Avinu Malkeinu, for your sake, have mercy upon us.
The manuscript editions, however, remember the prayer differently. They think Akiva said simply:
Avinu Malkeinu, we have no king but you.
Avinu Malkeinu, for your sake, have mercy upon us.
This original version has no reference to sin! Chapter one, then, reflects a time when the Jewish view of human nature was not as sinsoaked as it became in the Middle Ages. Akiva’s prayer reflected the patronage system of the Roman Empire. To get anything done, you appealed to your patron, the person above you to whom you owed fealty and from whom you received favors in turn. The patron of all patrons was the Roman emperor, the king of kings.
Jews knew, however, that God is king of king of kings, one step higher still. We Jews have no king but God, Akiva maintains; we owe God fealty; God owes us rain.
Label chapter one in the history of Avinu Malkeinu “Covenant,” a product of early rabbinic theology where the mutuality of covenantal responsibility predominated.
By the Middle Ages, consciousness of human sin had grown, especially in Christian Europe where notions of original sin inevitably bled into Jewish thinking, as well. Given this more jaundiced image of human potential, there seemed less reason for God to grant favors altogether – especially on the High Holy Days, when our sins are exposed for all to see.
Medieval readers deemed it unlikely that Akiva would have brazenly demanded rain without some preliminary caveat acknowledging our sins. They, therefore, inserted a new introductory line, saying: “Avinu Malkeinu, we have sinned before you.” In addition, the last line that requested God’s mercy (in the form of rain) now argued that God grant it “for your [God’s] sake” – since, obviously, we were too sinful to plead for favors on our own behalf.
Label chapter two “Sin.” Chapter two thinking has governed Judaism for centuries. Jews still attend synagogue with the sense that the High Holy Days are primarily about sin; that we are all backsliding children; that we must demonstrate our remorse over and over again; and that Yom Kippur, especially, is the day for fear and trembling.
The one-sidedness of that perspective is medieval, however. As much as the rabbis acknowledged sin, and as much as Yom Kippur was the day when “all who enter the world” appear before God to be judged, the negative assessment of human beings as saturated in sin was a medieval add-on to the more balanced assessment of earlier times.
Many Jews today are uncomfortable with the medieval perspective.
We still love Avinu Malkeinu, but not because it acknowledges human sin. It has grown mightily through the years to the point where it voices a set of petitions that are near and dear to our hearts: not just forgiveness from sin, but freedom from sickness, war and want. These are the thoughts that dominate our consciousness as we rise to sing this wonderful prayer from our tradition.
Perhaps what matters most is that we rise to sing it! Jews bemoan the omission of Avinu Malkeinu because we miss its melodies. There is something powerful in music that we know from childhood, eagerly anticipate, and experience annually.
Label chapter three “The Music of Certitude.” High Holy Day services provide many examples of music that moves us ‒ especially Avinu Malkeinu, which signals hope for a better life, a fresh beginning, a new year of goodness and blessing, and the certitude that life matters.
Rabbi Dr. Hoffman is the Barbara and Stephen Friedman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College, New York. This essay was drawn from his recent book, ‘Naming God: Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father Our King’ (Jewish Lights Publishing)