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Thoughts on the “Lord’s Prayer” and Jewish Liturgy

Thoughts on the “Lord’s Prayer” and Jewish Liturgy


Most of us who went to public school prior to the decision of the Supreme Court in 1962 banning prayer in schools, remember that after pledging allegiance to the flag we were invited to sit with bowed heads and folded hands and recite what Christians refer to as the “Lord’s Prayer.”  As Jewish children, we probably were not even aware that “the Lord” referred to in the name of this prayer was not God Almighty, but it referred to Jesus who Christians sometimes refer to as the Lord.  It was he who suggested this prayer during his Sermon on the Mount when discussing prayer in general, emphasizing its brevity and simplicity. The original text is found in the Gospel of Matthew and in a somewhat shorter version also in Luke’s Gospel.  Many people refer to this prayer simply by its opening words, “Our Father” or in Latin as the Paternoster which means the same thing.


An often-repeated quip that appears in various versions, seems to have originated in a column in the Charleston News and Courier by the columnist known as Ashley Cooper and was even repeated by President Ronald Reagan, that as long as there are final exams, there will always be prayer in schools.  Of course, private prayer has never been banned.  The problem has been with mandatory prayer imposed by the school administration or the State, reflecting a particular religious tradition or, from the perspective of atheists, imposing any religious tradition. We’re seeing now new attempts in some states to again breach the separation of Church and State by mandating the posting of a version of the Ten Commandments on classroom walls or requiring Bible Study in public school settings.


Once one permits such practices, we could quibble over which translation or version of the commandments should be used.  Which Bible should be studied and which translations should be utilized?  Jewish Scripture, the New Testament?  Why, if one is studying religion from an objective viewpoint and not as a religious observance, limit oneself to the Bible?  How about studying the Qur’an or some Hindu or Buddhist text or perhaps traditions of our native American predecessors?  As a Jew, I’d like to see more people know and understand more about our tradition and sacred texts, but as an American, I believe in freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion.  Religious belief and practice should be a matter of free choice.


As a hospital chaplain, I am expected to serve the religious needs of people of diverse faiths.  On occasion, I have been asked to obtain the services of a local priest to anoint the sick.  Other times, patients or their family members have asked me to pray for them.  I generally ask for more information about their prayer needs before creating an extemporaneous prayer.  Other times, I’ve asked if they would like to pray themselves and, if so, how would they like to pray or for what are they praying.  Sometimes they are praying simply for the obvious, healing or alleviation of pain, but on other occasions they have expressed greater concern for their family members, spouses or children.  These concerns may be general in nature or sometimes are quite specific.  In formulating an impromptu prayer, I try to incorporate these concerns into the words I offer.  On several occasions, I’ve invited those gathered in the patient’s room to offer their own prayers and, more often than not, they turn to the Lord’s Prayer, which I learned in grammar school in both the Catholic and the Protestant versions, depending on which teacher I had in a given class.


Though I oppose mandatory prayer in school, I have no particular problem with reciting the “Our Father” prayer in other contexts.  After all, it was first proposed by a Jewish preacher who, speaking in Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, to some of his fellow Jews, incorporated not only Jewish concepts, but the very language of Jewish prayer in these few lines.  To my knowledge, we do not have the Aramaic original of this passage, though it has been translated back into Aramaic and into Hebrew as well as Greek and Latin, and countless other languages.   If one consults Google and asks about English translations of the prayer, you will find page after page of varying translations and paraphrases in countless editions of Christian scripture or liturgies. While there exist modern versions in contemporary English, it seems that most people utilize roughly the same version that we learned in school and which appears in the King James Authorized Bible from 1607, reflecting the language of Shakespeare’s time, including words current in those days such as “art,” “thy” and “thine.”


“Our Father” is a very common usage in Jewish prayer; think of the Avinu Malkenu prayer we say on the High Holidays, “Our Father, Our King or Sovereign.”  The combination of “Our Father who art in Heaven” (Avinu Shebashamayim) is found not only in one of the prayers said on weekday evenings, but it introduces the official prayer for the State of Israel issued by the Chief Rabbinate.  Several other phrases in the Our Father prayer call to mind the words of the Kaddish.  When we begin that prayer in Aramaic, “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabbah,” we are saying “Magnified and Sanctified be His great name.” Hallowed is just another way of saying sanctified, thus Hallowed be Thy name, in Hebrew would be yitkadash shimcha.  Even if one claims that the Kaddish was not composed until later in history, its language is taken from the prophet Ezekiel, in a passage we read as a haftarah during Sukkot. 


As we continue, we read “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” again I hear echoes in the Kaddish, “B’alma divra chirutei v’yamlich malchutei.”  We’re saying that God’s name should be sanctified or hallowed in the world created according to His will, and may His kingdom be established. That seems to be more or less the same thought.  The rabbis speak of a heavenly Jerusalem above the earthly city, with a Temple ready to descend at the proper time when the city will be on earth as it is in heaven.


 As for the next phrase, usually rendered, “Give us this day our daily bread,” there is apparently some disagreement among the scholars as to whether Jesus was talking about providing our food today or if the original expression was about tomorrow’s bread.  Amy-Jill Levine, a well-known Professor of New Testament, notes the redundancy in the verse, “this day” and “daily bread” which might better be said as Give us this day our bread.  This translation comes from the uncertainty of the Greek word used here and nowhere else, epiousios.  She suggests that if one retro-translates this word back into Aramaic, Jesus seems to be saying, “Give us tomorrow’s bread today,” and it may well be a reference to future reward, the banquet prepared in the world to come for the righteous, described in the book of Isaiah.  She notes the emphasis on eating in the New Testament and pictures a rather chubby Jesus when one thinks of all the tables at which he is said to have eaten. No doubt these tables may be seen as symbolic of that future table in the world to come, his disciples and others already eating at the table of the Lord.


I recall the next phrase from school days as “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  It seems that some versions prefer the word “debts” instead of “trespasses.”  Dr. Levine explains that the Aramaic word “chob” or “chobah” can be translated as sin, debt, or trespass.  She writes of different metaphors for sin and tells us “sin was also imagined as a debt, as if we all had heavenly bank accounts, and when we sinned, the account became drained.  Forgiveness restores the balance, literally between humanity and divinity as well as among members of a community.”  She mentions that some see this metaphor as connected to Jesus’s concern for economic justice, a recurring theme in the prophets as well and perhaps he was invoking the Jewish concept of the Jubilee year when all debts are forgiven.


As we come to the final phrases of the prayer, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” I think of one of the prayers that is part of our daily worship toward the beginning of the weekday morning service, right after the opening blessings of birchot hashachar.  There we say, “Lead us not into error, transgression, iniquity, temptation, or disgrace.  Do not let the evil instinct dominate us.”  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the Koren Siddur has taken the word “nisayon” as “temptation.”  It also could be translated as a test or trial and indeed that is the wording of some versions of the Lord’s Prayer as well, “do not bring us to the time of trial.”  Once again, we find a similar sentiment expressed both in the Lord’s Prayer and in the traditional Jewish liturgy.


The point in the comparison is that while we have many differences in our theology and our religious traditions, there is little difference in our hopes and aspirations for the future as expressed in our liturgies.  Our prayers are often for the same things that we and all people seek.  In offering this prayer out of his Jewish tradition, a prayer so lovingly embraced by most Christians and even recited, like the Amidah, three times daily in some places, Jesus truly has arranged for us all to be on the same page. In spite of one’s comfort level with this important prayer in Christian tradition, it or other religious obligations should not be imposed upon school children raised in diverse faiths and traditions or whose families choose not to participate in religious belief and practice at all. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right of all Americans.

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