Sunday, February 8, 2015

Davening the Lord's Prayer

My parents used to sing us to sleep every night.  One of the songs that took a regular turn in the repertory was The Lord's Prayer, the Perry Como version, I think. And this could have been strange. We were a Jewish household, holding onto our identity in a nearly all-Christian suburb of Pittsburgh. The song is based on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Yet it seemed perfectly natural and in tune with what we believed.

Ten pages of The Misunderstood Jew, by Amy-Jill Levine, explain my childhood experience to me. Those are the pages where she shows, phrase by phrase, that the "Lord's Prayer" is made up of concepts that are entirely Jewish. In fact, she suggests that Christians would understand the prayer better if they knew more about its historical context. Follow this with me.

"Our father in heaven": Jews in the first century used the term Abba ("father") regularly, and even today Avinu (our father) is a common term in the Jewish prayerbook. Back then, it was also a political statement: a rejection of the Roman Caesar's claim to be the father of all his subjects.

"Hallowed be your name": every Jewish prayer service includes repetition of the Kaddish prayer, which begins "Magnified and sanctified be [God's] great name." And name in Hebrew is not just a word or a sound but the expression of God's active energy in our lives.

"Your kingdom come": this expresses the Jewish wish for the olam ha-ba, the "world to come," which is not an afterlife but the kingdom of God during the Messianic period. Again, this is a bold rejection of Rome's claim to be the ultimate sovereign.

"Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven": because the kingdom of God will create a world of justice and peace, here, where we live, and not exclusively in a spiritual realm.

"Give us this day our daily bread": Levine argues persuasively that this translation, in its redundancy, is missing the point. She would translate it "Give us tomorrow's bread today." Tomorrow's bread, for which we hunger, is precisely the Messianic age.

"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors":  This is a Jewish idea as well. We help those who are in economic distress, which would have been the only reason to take on debt in an agricultural economy. We believe that God will help us in our distress and keep us from paying all that we owe for our actions, whether they are sins ("trespasses") or just falling short of the mark.

Levine says, "The Greek phrase usually translate as 'Lead us not into temptation' is better rendered 'Do not bring us to the test.'" If the Roman empire would persecute you for practicing your religion and give you a good job if you would renounce your people and your traditions, that is a test that no one should have to face. Jesus knew that, and ultimately had to face that inhuman trial himself.

"But deliver us from evil": better, "the evil one." Satan in the Jewish tradition was the prosecuting angel when we were put to the test, always arguing that we had failed. For first-century Jews facing the trials of the Roman empire, it must have felt like an evil enemy pursuing them at every turn.

So, what I learn from Levine is that we could understand the "Lord's Prayer" this way:

Avinu malkeinu, our father in heaven, the way that you use your power in our lives is holy. Bring about the world to come, the Messianic age, so that what you have commanded us will be our actual everyday lives. Let us taste that world now. Don't hold our wrongdoings against us. Be merciful as you have told us to be merciful. Especially, don't let worldly powers put us in a position where we have to pay a terrible price for doing the right thing. Release us from their justice which is no justice. You are our only God and ruler.
If Jesus were alive today and prayed this prayer, as a Jew I would respond, "Amen!"

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