Yom Kippur Day
A High Holy Day Prayer that opens the door to Jewish history and to ourselves.
Recently at Shabbat services I led a discussion focusing on one of our prayers, the Unatane Tokef prayer. A member of the congregation commented that he remembered how his mother would cry when she read that prayer each year. The tears streamed down her face to the point that the page was basically yellow over the years as she returned to the prayer at the High Holy Days.
The generation of my grandmother who either came from the old country or whose parents were immigrants understood that life was a fragile thing. They were regular people; they had no college degrees nor did they hold important positions in the corporate world or in the professions. They did have courage and strength to break the chains of their oppression in Europe and immigrate to America. They inherited the belief that Rosh Hashanah was a blend of contradictory experiences. One was joyous welcoming the New Year with apples and honey. The other was unsettling believing that God hears us and judges us especially at this time.
The prayer Unatane Tokef is one of the most poignant examples of the High Holy Day drama of God who sits on high and opens the three books to determine our fate. Yes, it is hierarchical. But we do have the opportunity to change our fate. We have choices and we have the opportunity to make corrections through Prayer, Repentance and Giving to those in need. But there is a sub text in this prayer where history plays a role in our thinking about how vulnerable we are. Second there is a struggle today to come to grips to find a way to understand this prayer if we do not accept the literal and traditional notion of God as arbiter of our fate.
Last night on Kol Nidre I spoke to us about belief in god. It is a theological challenge. But what I want to focus on today is another question; how does Jewish history influence the development of our spiritual life? We need to be aware of and understand what was meant when some of our most important high holy days prayers were written. The prayers do not normally reveal their historic origins but the Unatane Tokef is an exception. And by exploring this one prayer and its historic origins we can better come to grips with a modern interpretation not only of the Unatane Tokef for our times but also for the entire experience of the High Holy Days.
If we peruse the pages of the High Holy Day Mahzor, particularly on Yom Kippur, we never see a preface about the history of any prayer except one prayer- the Unatane Tokef prayer. The prayers are supposed to be anonymous so that we should not cast them into any one time period. The goal is so that they should be timeless and not constrained to a particular time period which could narrow their meaning for future generations. That makes sense.
Yet if we examine the Unatane Tokef, we see the exact opposite. We read a preface regarding a story of Rabbi Amnon of Mayence who basically committed an act of martyrdom, and before going to his death he wrote this prayer. It leaves us with an impression that this rabbi was German and lived in medieval times. And the invoking of a historic context sets a tone that our history is very much connected to our prayer experience no matter when the prayers are recited.
In a newly published study of this prayer, one which offers us new interpretations for our times, the story of Rabbi Amnon is discussed. As might be expected there are lots of different scholarly views about him and the history of the prayer. Yet the predominate view is that the story is at least from the 11th century even if its roots go back even earlier. But the historic times of this period was the Crusades and the story goes as follows. Apparently the bishop of the community in Germany summoned Rabbi Amnon and requested that he convert out of Judaism into the Bishop's faith tradition. The rabbi responded that he would consider the request and get back to the bishop in three days. Almost immediately the rabbi realized that it was a major mistake to leave that opening. So the rabbi decided not to return with an answer. Afterwards the agitated cleric had Rabbi Amnon brought to him and decreed that his fingers and his toes would all be cut off.
Rabbi Amnon was brought back to his home. When Yom Kippur came, after he was carried into the synagogue, in a moment of divine inspiration he recited this prayer Unatane Tokef. That is basically the primary story of how this prayer came to be. Some scholars say that it came from Germany. Others will argue that its origin was in Italy and then France but the German origin stuck for all time. It was the one prayer that captured the feeling of vulnerability of the Jewish population in medieval Europe in the aftermath of the Crusades which impacted them in no less a traumatic way than the Shoah did in our time. Notice that if any or all of this is true that there is no evidence of hatred or bitterness. It is a prayer that acknowledges that life is unpredictable and that we are vulnerable on so many different levels.
We have no corroborating evidence about Rabbi Amnon but we know that the root letters of his name mean faithful one. How appropriate for this story of a martyred rabbi who defied the religious authorities that tried to force to him to convert out of Judaism. Whether the rabbi actually existed or not is not the issue. If he is a metaphor or a representative symbol of an entire generation we sense the dignity of his thoughts despite the unfathomable pain he experienced in his suffering. How does all this fit into our modern day mind set?
Putting aside the issue of defining our belief in God, modern people struggle with too much negativity in general and in religion as well. Do we not like things that are positive and the glass half full rather than deriving spiritual energy from someone else’s suffering? Who wants to be reminded of the traumas of our history? Yet that is exactly what the congregant’s mother understood who cried each year when she read the prayer. Her generation and those who preceded her understood and lived that kind of anti-Semitism. It was real for them and for us in America it is not real. Except for the remnants of Holocaust survivors, we have lived in a relative cocoon of security.
This may be one reason why modern Jews, particularly on the progressive side of Jewish life, ask how this liturgy relates to us. Have we lost something valuable or precious from our past that numbs us to the underlying meaning of our prayers? This question is not about God. This is about us and our connection to our history. This is about making an island in America believing that we are different and that we do not have a vested interest in our past. I fully respect that there are limits to how much we can relate to the history of prejudice and bigotry against the Jewish people. But can we abandon such a history? Do we strip the prayer of its roots especially when our rabbis wanted us to focus on this meditation of Rabbi Amnon before chanting Unatane Tokef?
My view is that during the High Holy Days we need to reconnect with a Jewish past. The issue is not simply judging the efficacy of the prayers in the Mahzor based upon how relevant they are to our lives. How can we make such a judgment unless we gather in a broader historic context to evaluate it? The High Holy Days are, in my estimation, a series of sacred moments in the lifecycle of our year when we receive a reminder that we are products of our history which does not mean we are automatically obliged to relive it and, I fear, we will experience a kind of spiritual amnesia of our past if we do not strive to learn our history. That thought worries me.
We come to these prayers with divergent beliefs in God. We enter the Holy Days with different expectations about what we are to get out of the long hours of worship. Our tradition says the Days of Awe are about a sense of reconciliation on multiple levels. We are supposed to ask not only God but ourselves some hard questions about our behavior and face the uncomfortable task of making peace with people who we have offended and those who have hurt us. There are religious and social reasons which motivate us to attend services. For some the purpose is social, that is, to be seen in the pews and for others the purpose is to reaffirm our communal connections in this spiritual convocation. We are even supposed to fast which can be painful and then within hours change our mood to break the fast with joy and lots of good food. There is a communal solidarity that motivates us.
What is most important is that we engage the prayers on whatever level we can as compared to reading them without any sense of investment or personal interest in the prayers. Unatane Tokef reminds us that god is the shepherd and we are the flock. The prayer is also a wakeup call that human achievement is still limited and cannot determine the outcome of everything that happens to us. This time honored prayer gives us a pathway how to make things right and avoid the justice that may be coming our way. There are a multitude of options today about how modern people can interpret this prayer and the role of God as judge over us. But there is another lens that we should wear when we read this prayer. It is a lens of memory. It is a lens that makes us remember that someone else like us long ago also read this prayer in a synagogue. Rabbi Amnon created it in a time when Jewish survival was a real question in the Crusader world of medieval Germany. His heart and soul should not be lost in the voice of our prayers.
Do we remember our parents reading this prayer? Or maybe it was our grandparent’s generation that evoked that unforgettable pathos that touched us so deeply? I like the idea of having the prayerbook my parents used to pray at High Holy Days. I would hope that we could own a prayerbook and one day bequeath it to our children and grandchildren. It isn’t much different than having a parents’ cherished possession after they die so that we can feel the memory in the object. It connects us to them. It provides comfort even when we miss them so much. These objects bring our loved one back to life. And it is not too different if we were to open their prayerbook. Their fingers touched the pages. Their eyes recited the words and their thoughts pierced the words of the book.
The idea of connecting to our past and personalizing that past with our loved ones is the main point. We need to reconnect that past like wearing the spiritual jewelry of our loved ones.
I would like to read this poem to you by Dan Pagis, a survivor and a famous Israeli poet.
Hidden in the study at dusk,
I wait, not yet lonely.
A heavy walnut bureau opens up the night.
The clock is a tired sentry,
Its steps growing faint.
From where? In Grandfather’s typewriter,
An Underwsood from ancient times,
Thousands of alphabets are ready.
I think that not everything is in doubt.
I follow the moment, not to let it slip away.
My arms are rather thin.
I am nine years old.
Beyond the door begins
The interstellar space which I’m ready for.
Gravity drains from me like colors at dusk.
I fly so fast that I’m motionless
And leave behind me
The transparent wake of the past.
The prayerbook is the old typewriter with lots of letters and ideas. But it was grandfather’s typewriter which connects to that nine year old curious boy. And we all, regardless of our age, hurry throughout our lives to work, raise children, pay our bills, go to parties, visit the kids and the grandchildren. Yet that typewriter and the memory of Grandfather is the point of departure that is what connects that kid to his grandfather years later.
I associate Rabbi Amnon’s prayer with Pagis’ image of the grandfather’s typewriter. It is also a link to his age and to his generation’s tragedy. It is more than that because Unetane Tokef ultimately proclaimed a message to the future of Judaism that we could prevail in hard times. Our own personal code of conduct would not diminish no matter what a hostile world was prepared to do against the Jewish people. Our relationship with God would never disappear. Our faith is steadfast no matter what curves and challenges life hurls at us and in particular what people or countries that dislike us will do to us. Unatane Tokef prayer captures the pride and courage of holding fast to our values even when the darkness surrounds us.