I’ve always been fascinated by the interface between Christianity and Judaism. My early church experiences taught me to respect both the New Testament and the Old Testament of the Bible as God’s Word, and I realized early that the Gospel message in Christ is deeply rooted in the self-revelation of God to his people Israel. As I learned about the consistent antisemitism shown by Christians throughout history, it didn’t add up. Christians had so much in common with Jewish people, and still found reasons to hate them with a passion. What’s worse, I found some of that strange drama inside of myself. I think that’s one reason why I was drawn into deeper Bible study.

 Throughout my years of Biblical scholarship, especially my deep dive into the Hebrew language during my time in seminary, I learned a bit about how to feel Judaism from the inside. My association with people who identify as Messianic Jews (Jews who accept Jesus as Messiah) has given me another perspective. Both the churches I’ve pastored, in Sharon MA and in Altadena CA, have brought me into close contact with synagogue congregations, and I’ve gotten to know some wonderful Rabbis personally. This is my background for a recent journey into the soul of the Jewish faith.

 In my YouTube browsing, I came upon the site of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, where I’ve been friends with the last three Rabbis and have worked on joint worship with the current Cantor (the worship coordinator and music leader). I watched a recent High Holiday service, and I found myself totally absorbed. I was especially fascinated by the part of the service when the Cantor led in singing/chanting the Avinu Malkeinu.* This traditional prayer is a series of petitions to God, pleading with him to forgive, protect and guide us in the year to come.

 Afterwards, I researched the history of Avinu Malkeinu. I found that its roots probably go back to near the time of Jesus. The esteemed Rabbi Akiba (AD 40-135) is credited with originating it as a prayer for rain in a time of severe drought. Over time, more and more requests to God were added, until now, where there are forty-four stanzas in the current synagogue prayer book, each beginning with the words Avinu Malkeinu.

 The haunting minor-key melody has become one of the most beloved and memorable worship moments for Jews all over the world. Famous Cantors have recorded versions of it that have led even non-observant Jews into the depths of their shared Jewish faith and heritage. Here you can join in a profound moment when Barbara Streisand sang it in Israel during the 2013 commemoration of Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday.**

 However, the lasting power of this prayer is not in the melodic line of its music, but in the meaning of that opening phrase Avinu Malkeinu. Hebrew lesson: Ab is the word for Father (as in Abraham, Father of many nations); Malk is from the root Melek, the word for King; nu simply means our. So in this prayer, the worshiper is saying, over and over again, “Our Father, Our King.”

 Think of the tension:

“Our Father”—Appealing to the loving heart of a Parent for his children.

“Our King”—At the same time, seeing him as the Absolute Monarch who can’t be questioned.

The second reality, that he is the King, drives the worshiper to total submission; that’s why in some traditions worshipers lie prostrate on the floor during this prayer. But the first reality, that he is the loving Father, calls on the worshiper to stand expectantly before him as his child. Closeness and Distance are side by side in this repeated phrase.

 Jewish scholars have emphasized certain Old Testament passages in support of this dual view of God in prayer. They point out that both titles are given to God by the prophet Isaiah: “Our Father” in Isaiah 63:16; “Our King” in 33:22. (Check the context around both of these verses.) They also reference the great Psalm 103, where verse 13 says:

As a father has compassion for his children
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
(see also verses 14-18)

while verse 19 reads:

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.
(see also verses 20 to 22)

 I believe Christians should keep the Avinu Malkeinu model in mind when they pray. They should come as God’s children, expecting and anticipating his loving response. But they should not presume on their privilege and start dictating to God what he owes them. At moments when they hear themselves praying that way, they should stop and say in awe and total respect, “Our God!” Maybe they should lie prostrate on the floor when they say “Malkeinu!

— Pastor George Van Alstine

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtyHy5_sUIw&t=11631s (102-109)

** https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydxePZKCyvo