Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un'taneh Tokef
Edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD.
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, 253 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 19, 2010
Anyone expecting Rabbi Hoffman's book to contain imaginative and sermonic material built on but unrelated to the true history, content, difficulties, and relevance of one of the most moving prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, will be pleasantly surprised, because the book does not do so. Rabbi Hoffman offers his readers a wealth of information about the poem/prayer Un'taneh Tokef and introduce them into the history of prayers, why the ancients set aside a special prayer book, called machzor, for holidays, when and why poems, such as Un'taneh Tokef,were added to the service, who wrote this poem, why, and what meaning it can have for us today. The book includes essays by over forty rabbis and scholars from three continents, from all the major Jewish denominations, from mystics to rationalists, from halakhics to dancers.
There is a legend that the poem was composed by a rabbi who suffered martyrdom. Rabbi Hoffman presents the legend translated into English from its original Hebrew source, analyses it, and shows that while the tale is inspiring and meaningful, it is not true. One contributor translates Un'taneh Tokef, offers a line by line commentary, and shows the sources of the poet's imagery, and the difficulties that exist in virtually every line because it is composed in ancient poetic Hebrew, because it is a composite of at least two original poems, and we do not know what the editor of the composite intended to convey. The book defines Un'taneh Tokef as "And let us acknowledge the power (of this day's holiness)."
Some contributors point out the difficulties they see in the ideology and theology of the poem. Others highlight the seeming contradiction between the poem saying that a person's fate is sealed on Yom Kippur, while it later says that "repentance, prayer, and charity help the hardship pass."
The primary image of the prayer/poem is God possessing tablets or scrolls in which He inscribes the deeds and destinies of human beings. This notion predates Israel. The people of ancient Mesopotamia held the identical idea. Many of the writers in this volume found this view of God disturbing. Do we want to portray God anthropomorphically, like a forgetful king who needs to write himself post-um notes to prompt him to remember to act? Another central idea of the poem is that God is involved in producing evil. Is he responsible for the holocaust? Did he cause men and women to have cancer? Another idea is that "penitence, prayer, and charity avert the evil decree" (or, as translated in the volume, "help the hardship pass"; the book explains the difference). Yet, experience has shown that this is simply untrue. A fourth disturbing picture in the poem is the people passing passively before God like ignorant unthinking sheep, a view that is antithetical to the heroism of Abraham who argued with God about Sodom and Gomorrah. Should these ideas be understood metaphorically and, if so, how?
Writers offer their positive suggestions, such as the poem is telling its readers that this is a time to wake up, to take notice, to see the fragility of life, to consider how judgments are formed and sealed, to change, to abandon despair and apathy, to set goals, to reshape our character, to challenge and take control of our fate and our destiny, to reject the notion that we are helpless before nature and God, decide to control our reactions to events that we cannot control. Victor Frankl, who survived years in a Nazi concentration camp, understood this when he wrote: "Human freedom is not freedom from conditions, but freedom to take a stand toward the condition."
Readers will obtain a new understanding of this important prayer and the new understanding will aid them in seeing other High Holiday prayers more meaningfully.