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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776
Un'taneh Tokef


  1. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-10

                …what kind of struggles [do] you all deal with in relation to the Untaneh Tokef on the High Holy Days…it seems to me the most egregious of all instances that I can find of how Judaism as expressed in the ancient liturgy is just plain dangerous. This prayer professes a theology in which God decides who lives, who dies and how they die. Even t’shuvah, tzedakah and avodah only mitigate the severe decree. It seems to me that no one--or almost no one--who really thinks about this believes it. In all the discussions I’ve held over the years, I think my not very scientific sample bears that out. It seems to me that it is a form of pediatric Judaism--from what I hear from people in these discussions and workshops, they seem to believe that the stick of getting into the Book of Death is a good thing for us to have over our heads on Yom Kippur, even though they don’t believe it. Even though they don’t believe it.
                It seems to me incredible that we choose these two days, when the largest collection of Jews who are ever going to attend synagogue in a year show up and we profess that this is what we believe. An enormous roomful of my people are telling me all together that God intentionally chose to kill the children starving in Sudan or the millions kills in Rwanda or Cambodia, or at the hands of a drunk driver, let alone of course the Holocaust. All over the world, my people are telling me that. Any person whose family has died “badly” cannot but hear this prayer as telling them God meant it to be so.

    Is this really the message we want to share? I can’t believe it, and I can’t accept it. The nicey-nicey translation we read from Gates of Awe instead doesn’t reflect the message of the majesty of the day, ducks the issue of why people die (which seems to me to potentially be the real point of the prayer--trying to answer that question, and doing so quite poorly). We also read a beautiful piece from Rabbi Harold Schulweiss which is also theologically suspect--God is only in the good? How is that possible?

    It seems to me that most people automatically want to leave the prayer as it is.
    But I find that when I ask people to really look and listen to what those words mean, and when I self-disclose about the personal level on which it grabs me, most people begin for the first time to engage in a serious thought process. I don’t want to keep having to self-disclose, to be honest, because I’d like people just to get it without that.

    One woman suggested that struggling with the text is a good thing. I agree with this in general. That’s what makes us Jews. But sometimes struggling should mean that the text goes, not me. And I’m not sure struggling with the text is what we want people to do during the flow of the service. The worship committee has discussed the incredible importance of the flow, making things seem seamless, that they fit.
                Any suggestions?

    (We have two different services on the High Holy Days, one large one, with choir, the other smaller and lay led--we do the prayer at both services.)

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  2. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-10

                One suggestion is to make the topic of a S'lichot evening study program and/or a Yom Kippur afternoon discussion. I have done so and also use this piece each year as a springboard to conversation with my Confirmation teens for it is one that, upon close read, leads to much thinking and conversation. I have also often used, as a companion piece, an article by Rabbi Steven Leader, from his book The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things, that focuses on this issue. Its focus is a roller coaster ride, and is called "The Wild Thing."

    If we can offer opportunities for people to really look at the texts we read and struggle with them to think about their personal theology, what a gift that can be.


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  3. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-10

                I've either been awestruck or disturbed by Un'taneh Tokef.  As one whose faith is preserved by belief in "God's inscrutable will" (see reading before Kaddish, Union Prayer Book I, p. 151), I am awed by the prescience of the Almighty.  But, when my awe is dispersed and reality rears its ugly head (like my father's two cancer diagnoses and successful surgeries during the past year and my recent cancer diagnosis and upcoming surgery), I wonder how anyone can be comforted by Un'taneh Tokef.

    I find it interesting, but not surprising given our movement's move in the direction of "tradition", that Un'taneh Tokef appears in Gates of Repentance in both Rosh Hashanah morning services and the Yom Kippur morning service, but in the Union Prayer Book only in the Yom Kippur afternoon service.

    If our movement is going to publish a new High Holiday prayer book, I wonder how Un'taneh Tokef and other similarly problematic passages will be dealt with.

  4. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-10

                Thank you for bringing up this topic. It had never bothered me, but I agree that it is a troubling aspect of the liturgy and one that deserves discussion.

    After considering the points of view here, I am almost surprised that I am not troubled by the prayer. Perhaps it's because I don't take it literally. I wonder whether it's included in the Gates of Repentance because the Reform Movement is not Fundamentalist. I mean, Fundamentalists take the Bible literally, whereas I think the Reform Movement approaches things such as this in a more figurative manner.

                    To me, the Unataneh Tokef prayer points out some realities of life. Some people are going to die, and some of those deaths are not going to be pleasant. Some people will be secure or driven, tranquil or troubled, poor or rich, humbled or exalted. [To me, this is figurative, not literal.]

    Then, as you point out, the liturgy says that, "Repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment's severe decree." To me, that's the whole point of this prayer. Our actions, our deeds, define who we are, and I do believe that those three acts can be life-changing.


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  5. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-10

                It doesn’t just point out that some people are going to die. It very clearly states that God will decide who will die and how they will die. That’s very different from “some people are going to die and some of those ...won’t be pleasant.” Who by fire sits not so well here in the west with our fires, for example. I would imagine those of you in Florida might be more disturbed if it said Who by hurricane, for example. That we are saying that God decides this is very troubling. Is that really the best we can do? On the holiest days of the year, when so many of us get together?
  6. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-10

                There was a workshop at a recent biennial, whose title struck me and has remained in my mind even though I did not attend it:  “Can we pray what we don't believe?”

    Clearly the Classical Reformers could not.  In fact, I'm kind of surprised to hear that Unetaneh Tokef is in the UPB at all (I came into the Reform Movement about the same time as Gates of Prayer.)  I gather that the editors of the new Mishkan T’filah are going back and forth on mechayeh metim (giving life to the dead).  We still maintain a high degree of the rationalism that characterized early Reform--but we can be rational and still recognize the value of poetry, of symbolism, and of a dramatic reminder that we don't really know why bad things happen to good people, or, for that matter, why good things happen to bad people.  Mystery is an important component of spirituality.

    One more point about the inclusion of this prayer in our liturgy (aside from the howl that would arise in the pews if it were removed)--there is value in knowing where we came from, what our predecessors believed, and also in being reminded that the author of this prayer was martyred for his beliefs.  There is also value in being reminded that all those people who are filling the pews on the High Holy Days are doing so because at some level they want to believe that the season of repentance has meaning in their lives.

  7. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-10

                [Re: "On the holiest days of the year, when so many of us get together?"]

                I do think that that is appropriate. There are a lot of people who come for whom this is really the only time for our religion to have an impact on them. For me, it is a strong way to gain attention and teach some strong ideals.

  8. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-11

    I'm seeing a lot of concern for the people who attend services only on the High Holy Days, and I wonder about that. Do we tailor the HHD services for people who attend faithfully every Shabbat, are familiar with the liturgy, and want to immerse themselves in worship? Or do we tailor them to reach the people we don't reach every week?

    I don't have answers, though I do have an opinion on Untanah Tokef. I find it the most moving part of the service, in many ways--it's a moment to stop and consider the next year, and how my actions can affect my life and the lives of others.  I can't speak for anyone else, and I haven't studied the HHD liturgy, but the meaning I draw from this is that my prayer, my repentance, my tzedakah may make a difference not only in my own life, but in the lives (or decrees) of others as well. I don't hear it as a catalog of evils I should pray to avoid for myself and my family, but as a litany of the potential sorrows of the whole human family, and a reminder that each of us may be able to temper some of those sorrows, and even prevent others.

    No matter how you interpret it, it's a hard-hitting prayer.


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  9. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-11

                ……I am saying that the words as written are harmful.

    First, I am stating my concern both as a regular (albeit not weekly) service-goer and for those who only appear on these two days. But mainly for the people who find the theology so appalling.

    I agree that the High Holy Days are the time to reflect on our lives and our actions and to see the role of tzedakah, t’filah and t’shuvah in our own lives and in the healing of the world.

    However, that is not what the prayer says.

    I also have big issues with the Book of Life (because it makes me think of Santa Claus--only with much higher stakes and because I do not believe that most Reform Jews believe that God is "Judge and Arbiter, Counselor and Witness. You write and You seal, You record and recount."

                The prayer continues after comparing us to a flock of sheep, whose every soul is considered by God, and whose destiny is decreed by God to say of those decrees:

    “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, On Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; Who shall live and who shall die; Who shall see ripe age and who shall not; Who shall perish be fire and who by water; Who by sword and who by beast; Who by hunger and who by thirst; Who by earthquake and who by plague; Who by strangling and who by stoning; Who shall be secure and who shall be driven; Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled....”

    That's what it says in the Gates of Repentance.

    What that says to me is not that some people suffer and life isn't fair and we should turn to God for support and strength when bad things happen. What is says to me--because really this is what it says--is that God decrees this. So we are saying--and some people apparently find it very moving, which is bewildering to me--that God decides who shall be severely mentally ill and end up living on the streets, that God decides the children in Darfur shall perish of hunger, that God decides that girls in Africa will be subjected to ritual circumcision, that God decides that some people will be so troubled they will kill themselves.

                While it is true that all those things will happen until we collectively perform tikkun olam in sufficient strength to prevent genocide and hunger, keep faith with those who sleep in the dust and work to prevent mental illness and find better cures (for examples), to say, as a central prayer in the liturgy, that it is God's decree is almost unspeakable.

    As Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes in his book The Journey Home:

    "A starting point is a consideration of the age-old question of why we suffer... It comes in various guises, but it boils down to a particular theology and anthropology that conspire to blame people for their own suffering or to create the illusion that suffering is justified, usually a punishment for human sin or as appropriate divine chastisement. In either case, people deserve what they get. God, meanwhile, is held to be all powerful, all knowing, and all good; if we only pray hard enough and rectify our evil ways, we will be rewarded for our virtue by a God who cannot fail to make Night [suffering] vanish....

    "Sickness is not sent by God; it is not God's way of punishing us; we are not responsible for it ourselves; it does not express our inner character; and pain is not good for anyone."

    I agree with him wholeheartedly and want to be able to rework the Unetaneh Tokef so that we are not left with the theology as stated in the prayer as written above.

  10. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-11

                ……A lot of what our prayers say and what Torah says is wrapped in ever changing metaphors.  It calls upon us to discuss and reinterpret that which has come before.

                There is precedent in changing and omitting prayers. The Amidah in one ancient form included a blessing hoping for the rapid destruction of the Christians. That probably could not be handled in any metaphoric fashion.

    Finally, while you may take issue with the prayer, to call it dangerous is preposterous. It is a prayer that leads people to think about the past as well as the future. Should we do a way with t’shuvah as well? While I will admit that that t'shuvah, tzedakah, and t’filah/avodah are lofty goals which on an individual basis will not save the world, I dare say that it has to start somewhere before it can take hold.


  11. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-11

                The writer who questions the theology of Unetana Tokef perhaps is reading something into it that is not there.  Nothing says that those who will die this year by stoning, strangulation, etc, are morally inferior in any way to those who will spend the year secure and tranquil.  The prayer is not making an ethical judgment.

    What it is saying is that there is a higher Meaning, or Pattern, or Law, which makes sense of mortal lives, their beginnings and also their ends. It therefore offers comfort: We don't need to fear death, because it is an ordained part of the cosmos. It further reassures us that even though much of life is out of our hands (for example, its beginning and end) there is still much we can do (for example, prayer, return and tzedakah).

    We in Judaism have traditionally called this deeper reality God. This title can get in the way, however, when people picture a superman in the clouds vengefully zapping hapless mortals. The writer might ask herself: Does she believe there is any meaning to an individual's life and death? If so, she can begin to explore the values she finds that transcend life, and develop her own concept of God.
  12. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-11

                It seems to me that you're trying to deal with the basic theological question: How can we reconcile an omnipotent G-d, a good G-d, and a suffering world? The only "answer" I have found acceptable is that I don't see the full picture. It's not a very good answer, but I can live with it.

    I may not have expressed myself well before, or we may disagree on this. When I say that I find the Untaneh Tokef moving, I don't mean that it's uplifting. The prayer reminds me that terrible things will happen to people. As far as I know--please correct me if I'm wrong--we are told that G-d judges and writes and seals, not on what basis or merits or reasoning. We are told that some people are fated for terrible deaths, and some for life. We are told that prayer, repentance, and tzedakah may mitigate the decrees.

    So here I am, given the knowledge that death and horror exist in the world G-d created and that G-d continues to decree suffering and death. What, then, is my role? Should I worry about my own suffering and try my best to pray, repent, and give my way to a better fate? Or should I try to use my prayer, repentance and tzedakah to mitigate the pain caused by the "severe decrees" of those around me as well?

    I don't disagree that a G-d who decrees that some will burn, and some be torn by wild animals makes for really difficult theological questions. I don't have good theological answers. I do have a pragmatic view that allows me to get on with my life--while it's up to G-d to decree things I cannot approve or understand, it's up to me to do the work of tikkun olam that I can begin to understand. And that is the direction in which Untaneh Tokef moves me--into mourning in advance for the sorrows we will all suffer, and working to add to the joy and the strength and the righteousness that allow us to continue and to, perhaps, mitigate the suffering.

    Thank you for making me think about this; as you can tell I'm still trying to work out my own opinions and beliefs.


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  13. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-11

                This is a seminal prayer in the High Holyday liturgy. I have listened to it (and studied it) for over fifty years and it still frightens me--calls me to attention--directs my soul to stand up and take notice. Yes, I think it is the best we can do, as Jews at that moment, when we are all

    together. I do not take exception to bringing up the subject or debating the merit of the “words of the prayer,” but the prayer transcends the purely rational and defies logic. Nevertheless, Untaneh Tokef, one of the most awe-inspiring prayers in our machzor, tolerates both rational and metaphysical analysis. It is lyrical, rhapsodic, and poetic. It is at the same time demanding and pleading, cruel and kind, judgmental and sympathetic. It directs our vision to the harsh light of G-d’s reality and tempers it with love and rachmanos. It is deep, multilayered, and apparently, irritating to some and comforting to others. What more could one want in a prayer?

    It is true that it may be difficult to define the exact place in our liturgy for a prayer. Times change and congregational sensibilities are determined by the social milieu and societal evolution. Nevertheless, this particular prayer has always had such power to direct my kavanah that I just could not stay silent on this matter. I believe that a machzor without it stands weaker and emasculated.

  14. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-11

                …… perhaps it was a musical struggle you were talking about, because I have had some experience with some very traditional melodies done in the grander style of yesteryear, being abandoned for the more contemporary version, especially at High Holiday time. In fact I was thinking of another prayer at first (u shofar gadol) that had been part of the services for years and years at a former synagogue where I was in the choir. One day a member of the congregation asked me why we were not singing the traditionally sung melody, because he felt that without it the service did not take on (at least for him or me either) the same atmosphere of aura he had enjoyed so much.

    Then as I read further that the struggles you were referring to were textual, I saw a similarity in the issues of music and text, which for me seems to be more about emotion and tradition than it does the exact text.

    ……I would have to do much more studying on this prayer, but I don't believe from what I know about Judaism that the words were meant to be taken in a limited or literal way. I think it is possible that in the ancient society, the early writers used certain words and  concepts to make behavior in society more civilized (maybe in controlling kind of way,) although I don't know if this was the case with the Untaneh Tokef prayer. Prayers are only dangerous (which I think is a strong term in this case) when certain radical people use them to further harm to human beings, which I think is not the intent of Judaism, then or now.

    ……I have to ask, how many people really understand most of what they read or even pay attention to what they read in a religious setting, and if they do, I think they interpret it in a self discipline kind of way for the sake of self improvement, at least I think this is might be the case;  that no one is perfect and we all make mistakes and we need the time to reflect on our morality in life and the mortality in life.  My interpretation is that God doesn't cause these bad things to happen. Other than natural phenomena, people can cause the bad things in the world, but we have the individual choice to try to do what is right even in the face of those who do not do the right thing and that the Untaneh Tokef prayer points out, but maybe in terms that seem more harsh. I think this is what the prayer is saying--that time is limited (the allegory from the opening of the gates to the closing of the gates or the opening of the book to the closing of the book), and we have a short period of time to look at our human frailties (as taking inventory in a book) and the reality we live in, and that we can make a change in our lives and in others' lives. I'm sure there are many other interpretations. We do not know what are fate will be (most of the time), and our fate may not always be our choice, although maybe we can influence it, and I think the Untaneh Tokef prayer reflects this sentiment and that perhaps we can have some hope in a higher power that we can get through life's hardships.

    ……I think the message is that we have to accept what happens in life, and if we can make something better, then we should do what is needed.

    ……I agree that the translations in the Reform books to do not give a realistic or exact indication of what the words say, but neither does the prayer book have the space to go into the many meanings and interpretations of the exact words. I think Reform Judaism went out of its way to soften the words and take out the references to death which are still in the Conservative

    and Orthodox prayer books, and as far as the people I know who are involved in other branches of Judaism, they are still devout followers and do not have a pessimistic view of Judaism or the text. The message I try to give to my own children is that the many years of study and interpretation thru the years of Jewish sacred writings were meant to make Judaism a living religion to be meaningful in all generations not just to those back in ancient days. It is hard in our modern world to accept what the older texts say, but does that mean we have to change the text to conform to society, or do we need to conform society to the standard of the meaning of the text? Do we abandon tradition altogether? There is no simplistic answer, and that is why  study and discussion are such an important part of the Jewish nature.

    …… The service as we know it has evolved over much time. It is still changing, but still fashioned after the order that has become tradition. How the interpretation is written may be part of what the flow is all about, but is flow the underlying objective of the service? What is seamlessness? Is that something like perfectionism? Is time the major factor? Is it the text of the service or is it the deliverer of the service that makes it flow and/or makes the service meaningful?

    ……If we take out all the text that  seems offensive,  then is Judaism still the same religion? Does it have the same principles? Does it have the same emotional and spiritual moments? Some things already have been removed; sometimes that is good; sometimes too much has been removed; some things may have been added. I think Judaism, as well as other religions, are grappling with this in many ways today. I myself, for example, am not particularly partial to neutral gender language, although I understand the reasoning behind it, but I know that Hebrew is gender specific so it doesn't bother me if the English text is closer to the Hebrew translation. I never looked at the issue as a gender exclusive one. I have had to adjust my thinking and practice on that, but  like the Untaneh Tokef prayer suggests to me, there are bigger issues in life that are more important.


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  15. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-12


    1.      One of the ways I intellectualize the problematic content of this prayer is to remember the incredibly arduous circumstances under which it was supposedly written: by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz as he was being burned at the stake during one of the many pogroms of the Rhineland. Historians tell us that the Rhineland Jews, the ancestors of the Ashkenazic movement, are practically the inventors of self-immolation "al kidush hashem". Until I studied this period in depth I had bought the Masada story as the origin, but the historians point out that Josephus's story of Masada was unknown to Jews until the early modern period.

    2.      I made two shivah visits yesterday. I was struck by the fact that today, we rarely see death. But in the pre-modern world, where infant mortality was high, every wound could lead to infection, and every infection could lead to death, death was everywhere. We have the luxury to want to avoid talking about death, but for most of Jewish history, the prevalence of death required an explanation.

    3.      We hosted Rabbi Arthur Waskow several years ago on Shabbat Noah. He spoke movingly about the rainbow, about the ecological connotations of the parashah, and really gave us some wonderful Torah. But he was stumped when asked by Dr. Gidon Elad of Kibbutz Hatzerim (z"l) - a former shaliah to the Union for Reform Judaism-- "How do you reconcile the image of G!d as mass murderer?" The question was met by a resounding silence.


    Leaving the Shoah aside (though this issue touches it, and all problems of theodicy)--the flood story leaves a distinct impression that G!d's goodness is not about human life or human goodness. This is a very big theological issue, and always has been. The Untaneh Tokef prayer is just one attempt to tackle it.

  16. Dec 2004 Digest #2004-12

    I do not believe anyone is ruling out the possibility of re-working a prayer, but you will never convince anyone of this by referring to our theology as dangerous and appalling. I do not know what a survey would say, but I do know that a significant number of us have no problem with this prayer.

    Long ago, long before the Reform Movement began, the rabbis recognized the problem with p’shat, the literal meaning of our texts. They clearly understood something needed to be done and so the Oral Tradition was begun. Now, although this usually is applied to Torah, those of us who have no problem with the prayer are able to look beyond the simple text and find meaning in its words. It goes beyond metaphor to the point at which it touches our minds, hearts, and souls. This effect cannot simply be measured by some politically correct reworking of the prayer. Just as we cannot know just how God touches us each and everyday, the effect of this prayer, even on a subliminal level, is incredible. True, you may wish to skip to some other reading while the congregation recites the prayer, but any attempt to rob us of this incredibly moving prayer is unfair.

    Now you raise the issue about the Book of Life. Santa Claus? Well, I guess some of us understand the meaning of Santa Claus. The Book of Life is the focal point of the Days of Awe.  It seems to me you are moving in a secular humanist direction. What makes Judaism so wonderful is its colorful traditions. Its wonderful stories. Do you have any proof that any of the Patriarchs or Matriarchs existed? Did Moses exist? Did he lead the Exodus of anyone out of Egypt? Are any of the Biblical stories true? What is the point of being called to the Torah if these questions exist?

    You have taken Rabbi Hoffman's words out of context. He states what is clearly true, but simply using this as a proof-text is disingenuous. Perhaps you are in possession of his series My People's Prayer Book. I am uncertain whether he has included the High Holy Days in that series, but I can tell you from what I have had the chance to read, he, along with the other commentators, do not approach this subject in the same manner as you have done.

    Perhaps, if we are going to move in any direction, rather than getting stuck in hitting this back and forth, you might want to accept that many of us do not share your sentiments that we are using dangerous and appalling theology.  Can we improve upon what we have? Can we reach out, welcome various opinions, and share some common ground? You bet we can!


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