Address given in Synagogue on Yom Kippur 5775 (4 Oct 2014)
Over the nearly 40 years of my involvement with the OJC, most of the High Holy Day addresses delivered from this platform have made an almost obligatory reference at some point to the threefold dictum that stands at the heart of our rosh hashana and yom kippur services, namely u'teshuva u'tefila u'tzedaka ma'avirin et ro'a ha-g'zera (usually translated as 'but penitence, prayer and charity will/can avert/lessen the severe decree'). Some addresses have gone on to explore the challenges of teshuva; others, the nature and meaning of tzedaka; but few – if any – have sought to address even obliquely the implications – intellectual, emotional and practical – of the third requirement for personal salvation, namely tefila (prayer). Perhaps that is because the sea of tefila runs very wide and very deep. So it is with some trepidation that I propose to dip
into that great ocean, and to do with reference to the very prayer from which the threefold dictum emanates, namely the u'netana tokef prayer which we read on rosh hashana and will read again shortly in today's musaf service. I must say at the outset that I will not pretend to offer you any definitive conclusions in addressing this topic; the most that I can hope for is to stimulate, hopefully in a positive way, your own individual and personal reflections on what we are doing here today and why we are doing it.
My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a prayer as a 'solemn request or thanksgiving to God'. By this rather narrow definition, u'netana tokef (UT), is not strictly a 'prayer', since it contains no overt supplication, petition or thanksgiving. Instead, it is built around its terrifying core concept of individual divine judgement and sentencing of every living being, leading to its highly deterministic mi yich-yeh oo mi ya-mut ('who shall live and who shall die') verses, and thence to the glorification and sanctification of God's nature and God's name.
But Jewish payer is nothing as simple as a 'solemn request or thanksgiving to God'. At the front of the familiar green-covered siddur that we use throughout the year in this shul, there is an extended essay on the subject by the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. As those of you who, at some time or other, may have read or even just dipped into the essay will be aware, Jewish prayer is both multi-faceted and multi-layered. As R Sacks puts it, prayer is "the language of the soul in conversation with God". In UT that conversation is particularly challenging.
UT is also not just a 'prayer' in another technical sense: it is a piyut, or devotional poem inserted into the broad liturgical structure of our normal daily and weekly services, especially – but not only – the amidah. However, while UT is only one of the scores of largely mediaeval piyuttim that comprise the greater part of our traditional RH and YK liturgies, it is beyond doubt the most significant piyut. Although we do not literally prostrate ourselves while reciting UT (as we do when reading aleinu or when recalling the priestly service in the temple on YK), at no other stage do we demonstrate more fundamentally a sense of total submission and humility towards an essentially unfathomable 'presence'. The primacy we accord to UT is also reflected in the fact that it is one of very few passages read in both English and Hebrew in this congregation (although in recent years, for some reason, the English reading has been limited to the first half of the piyut – a great pity that, since the second half contains some of the most beautiful and moving images available in any poetry and any language, liturgical or otherwise).
However, despite its importance, UT is also a highly controversial piyut. Profound, moving, even persuasive, it may be; but its prescriptive message is also morally and theologically perplexing and challenging. Indeed, for some Jews, the stark fatalism and determinism inherent in UT is unacceptable, even blasphemous.
Before going any further, it is worth recalling the context in which UT stands in the mahczor. Put briefly, as most of you will know, UT had its origins in the legendary martyrdom of one R Amnon of Mainz. According to the legend, R Amnon suffered
the horrendous torment of having his fingers and toes successively hacked off while repeatedly rejecting demands from a local bishop that he should convert. Eventually, at RH, Amnon asked to be carried into a shul. At the point in the service at
which the kedusha was to start he called out, asking to be allowed first to sanctify the name of God. He then proceeded to recite the piyut in its entirety, following which he expired. Post-expiration, R Amnon appeared in a vision to Rabbi Kalonymos, who wrote down the text and distributed it throughout the diaspora.
As Jews, we are well-accustomed to interpreting – and drawing lessons from – legends. Indeed interpretation, especially of torah, is what we do all the time. How, then, can we explain why UT is so controversial for so many people? My daughter, Rebecca, is pursuing a course in cantorial studies in Boston. Two years ago I came across in her bookshelf a volume entitled 'Who By Fire, Who By Water', edited by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, and containing some 40 essays on UT, contributed by rabbis and scholars from across the Jewish denominational spectrum in the US and Europe. It makes interesting – in some cases surprising – reading!
The first substantive contribution, which happens to be from a prominent UK Reform rabbi, shook me. Referring to UT's portrayal of God standing in judgment upon us between RH and YK, decreeing not only who will die, but how and when, and offering a possible – though uncertain route – to salvation and annulment of an adverse decree, this rabbi declares that he finds the whole premise (and promise) 'loathsome'. He does acknowledge that other responses are admissible: for example, that what matters is the music rather than the literal words; or that (as he puts it) "UT is a painting in words, open to creative
understanding". But these arguments are, he says, "no substitute for addressing the elephant in the sanctuary".
The second essay, also from a leading UK Progressive rabbi, considers the ambivalent attitude of the Progressive movement to UT, as reflected in the ways in which the prayer has been dealt with over the years in the various Liberal and Reform machzorim – sometimes included as a whole, sometimes only in part, sometimes moved to different parts of the service, sometimes with less 'offensive' translations, sometimes not at all. Although his ultimate personal view is that its inclusion is (morally) 'unacceptable', he offers the following rationale for exactly the opposite position: "Why not?", he asked. "(UT) contains wonderful imagery. What does it matter if we do not believe that God actually sits as 'Arbiter, Expert and Witness', remembering 'deeds long forgotten' and opening the 'book of records...of every human being'? Such a poetic vision can surely help us open our own book of records.... recall the errors we (have) made and seek to make restitution....Surely (the imagery and poetry) is meaningful even for the agnostic who might have trouble with the concept (of an eternal and
I find it hard to disagree with those sentiments. Moreover, the notion that UT is really about our own individual processes of
introspection, rather than of external judgement, runs through several of the other chapters. Many engage in 'creative interpretation'. In the words of one contributor, UT "is like a long flight, whose value lies not in the experience but in where it takes me". Another asks: why only teshuvah, tzedaka and tefila? Why not mitzvoth, Talmud torah or tikkun olam? Or even, since we are talking about life and death issues, a healthy diet and regular exercise? The answer? Because the chosen three have "a common denominator in a loss of self – not self-abnegation, self-denial, self-deprecation, self-enunciation....but a voluntary, loving, lessening of our selves....teshuvah, tefila and tzedaka all require increasingly smaller, rather than larger, egos. As one might expect, others subject UT to in-depth literary and textual analysis. One explores UT's biblical origins, noting that 90% (no less!) of its content is taken directly from biblical sources, spread across the whole of t'nach.
To sum up, the real issue, I think, is less about God or about God's judgements of us; it is more about our judgements of ourselves. As R Sacks says in his essay on prayer, "For Judaism, theology becomes real when it becomes prayer. We do not talk about God. We talk to God". None of this is intended to evade the really big questions. As one Rabbi puts it, the premise that underlies UT is so preposterous that its popularity over the ages can seem inexplicable. "Surely", he says, "(even) R Amnon must have noticed that there is no correlation whatsoever between righteousness and mortality. Any fool can see that very good people often die very young." The answer is that that is the wrong question to ask. Think instead of Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Przysucha; on his deathbed, he said to his wife, 'Why are you crying? My whole life was only that
I might learn how to die"?
I'll conclude on a very personal note. The 12-year-old grandchild of very good friends of ours is currently very ill, having been
diagnosed this week with advanced Hodgkins lymphoma. Lizzie's and my thoughts are constantly with the family. In that context, UT takes on very special significance (as indeed it did for us a couple of years ago when our daughter faced a life-threatening condition). The challenge, I suspect, is to use the opportunity afforded by UT to boost our inner strengths, rather than to be put off by the literal meaning of a legendary text.
I wish you all Shabbat shalom and g'mar tov. May you all be inscribed for many good years to come.
Jesmond Blumenfeld October 2014