The High Holiday services – Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King”, is a legend. Yet it is inspiring like the Kol Nidre prayer probably because of the music associated with it. But is the prayer rational? More often than not, people are not drawn to the words but the music. The Kol Nidre has increasingly become controversial when it claims we can retroactively annul vows, and Avinu Malkeinu became controversial when it described G-d in masculine terms.
The Talmud, Taanit 25b, tells the story of a draught. Rabbi Eliezer prayed for rain in “twenty-four blessings.” G-d did not answer. Where was G-d? What did you except, a voice? That G-d would talk to you as He did with Moshe? Rabbi Eliezer knew G-d acted. Rabbi Akiva said three lines.
“Our father, our king, we have sinned before you. Our father, our king, we have no king other than you. Our father, our king, for your sake, have mercy upon us.”
And it worked. It rained. G-d answered him by natural law, what Maimonides calls the “first cause” because G-d did not actually do it, rather it is attributed to G-d because G-d triggered the Big Bang and thus, made it rain when Akiva prayed. G-d knows everything and established that it would rain in advance. No re-adjustments needed. But this anthropomorphic prayer sounds almost disrespectful. Can we tell G-d what is needed in the creation, in this case, more rain? Can humans produce rain with magic? Why does a short prayer works where a long one doesn't? Moshe prayed a five-word prayer to cure his sister of leprosy. It worked. Why?
Today this prayer is celebrated in the significant High Holiday prayers. We stand and sing to this prayer. Beat our hearts with our first to show penitence in this prayer. But most women dislike it. Is G-d only a "He?" Is there any metaphor that can or should be applied in this reading?
In Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman’s six-volume book “Naming God” (2015), he explains how the High Holiday prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should be understood. I literally read this book to answer this question more thoroughly. In it, the rabbi collected over a dozen prayers, analyzed them, and interpret them to the best of his ability. I think he answered this well. He touches upon the masculine imagery in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer. He explains that feminist have a hard time saying this prayer because it depicts G-d with male features. You would check Rabbi Tony Bayfield’s views on Rabbis’ Ishmael and Akiva, regarding this.
Rabbi Ishmael rightly assumed that G-d - as Maimonides explained - is transcendental and incorporeal. And although the Torah “speaks in the language people use,” it is because people have a hard time comprehending a G-d which has no body. The Torah, like sacrificers, allows G-d to be depicted in human form. For people to understand or get the message across. But people should realize that this is not literally. The corporeal language of the Torah, as with all the repetitions, were recorded in the way that people talked. For example, many people reinstate themselves for emphasis or to make more of a flowery point, and the Bible’s no exception. Though one could try and disprove the Bible for being written in such a fashion, Maimonides contends that it was done for humanity’s sake. Maimonides and people who are likewise as rationally-minded would agree with Rabbi Ishmael’s view. Though neither he nor Maimonides perfectly addressed this issue, we can deduce that this was the case because this was how people talked. Naturally, every culter/civilization has associated G-d with a “He."
Rabbi Akiva agrees that G-d has no body and is one. Yet, he saw the apparent repetitions in the Torah as teaching a new idea. G-d does not repeat Himself. He saw G-d approaching, willing to change natural law at any moment’s notice. G-d is always involved in the world and commands a leaf to fall, keep falling, keep falling, stop. His prayer for rain demonstrated that G-d is active and involved in prayer and responds to human needs. The Avinu Malkeinu prayer, a legend of the great Rabbi Akiva, reflects his poison when he metaphorically calls G-d a father and a king. But people who prefer Rabbi Ishmael's G-d concept or those who are feminist may struggle with this prayer.