Many passages of our liturgy, and especially the High Holiday liturgy, derive their power from the integral connection between music and words. Indeed in some cases, the melody may seem more important than the words. Kol Nidre is an obvious example. But at least as important is the Un’taneh Tokef, an integral part of the High Holiday liturgy, for many generations a showcase for cḥazanim (cantors). Unlike the words of Kol Nidre that we hear on the night of Yom Kippur — a dry, repetitious legalistic formula — the words of Un’taneh Tokef are among the most beautiful and powerful passages in our Jewish liturgy. But what lies beneath the melody and the words? What theological assertions do they express? I confess that although I always feel moved to hear and sing or recite them, they raise for me some serious problems.
Let’s begin with the introductory section about the awesome majesty of this day: “On Rosh HaShanah it is written down, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed ... Mi yicḥyeh u-mi yamut ... Who will live and who will die, who shall see ripe age and who shall not, who shall perish by fire and who by water, ... who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague ... ,” and so forth.
A personal memory from several years ago powerfully illustrates the problem. It was a Friday night, a week before Pesach, in 2008. Jacob Rubenstein, 58 years old, who had been a student with me in the PhD program at Harvard, was the rabbi of a flourishing modern Orthodox Young Israel congregation in Scarsdale, one of the most affluent communities of the Westchester suburbs of New York City. While asleep with his wife, Deborah, lightning struck their house setting fire to the roof and the loft, which collapsed on the second floor bedroom. By the time the fire department arrived it was too late for them to be saved. Congregants came to their synagogue the following morning to discover that between Kabbalat Shabbat and Shacḥarit of Shabbat HaGadol, their beloved, brilliant, vivacious rabbi and his wife had passed away.
The words of Un’taneh Tokef appear to affirm that on the previous Yom Kippur it had been sealed in the heavenly computer that this rabbi and his wife would die by fire — and possibly even that God had decided when and where, and dispatched the lightning to this one house to do the job. I suspect I am not the only one who finds such a belief deeply problematic, and I would not be surprised if many of the Orthodox members of Rabbi Rubenstein’s congregation found it problematic as well.
So did many of the great rabbis in the Middle Ages. They quoted biblical verses and Rabbinic statements and invoked the empirical experience of all Jews to insist that there are many wicked people who survive from one year to the next, and many fine, good, decent people who die prematurely and sometimes without any warning, for no apparent reason or purpose. Many pre-modern Jews also found it difficult to defend the principle that God is responsible for every such event.
One late-15th-century Spanish Rabbi, Isaac Arama, maintained that the judgment on the High Holidays does not apply to death due to natural causes, but only to special kinds of death that are clearly punishment for the sins of the individual. This is an extremely important distinction, because it leaves natural causality intact, free of divine manipulative intervention. It means that even the most saintly person who carelessly steps out into the street before an oncoming bus will not be miraculously saved because of his merit. It means that a good, decent person who becomes deeply depressed — and we all know that such things happens — and decides to end his or her own life by jumping off the top of a tall building will not be miraculously saved because the suicidal decision was irrational. It means that a cruel, malicious, self-centered person may indeed live out the coming year not because he was sealed in the book of life by some heavenly court, but perhaps because he eats a healthy diet, exercises regularly, and pays for the best possible medical care.
The language in this opening part of Un’taneh Tokef indeed suggests a heavenly court in which God — who serves as Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness — reviews each individual (not just every Jew but every human being) and decrees the destiny of each person for the coming year. This is powerful poetry that indeed should make us stop and think about our lives and our behavior. But it is metaphor; it is not to be taken literally to conclude that every death in every possible manner is the result of a divine decision dependent upon what we deserve.
A second passage: at the end of this litany in the first part of Un’taneh Tokef come the climactic words: ut’shuvah, ut’filah, utz’dakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha gezerah. The first three words are easily translated: repentance (or penitence), prayer, and charity. But the full assertion is not so simple. Max Arzt, in a classic commentary on the High Holiday liturgy1 published two generations ago, wrote that this statement “assures us that it is within man’s power to annul an evil decree.” This is the good news; it suggests an escape clause, a way out: even if a decision for death has been made and sealed on Yom Kippur, it is not irrevocable. It can be overturned, cancelled, nullified by repentance, prayer and charity.
But while that assertion is reassuring, it too is deeply problematic. Another personal experience: Near the beginning of my rabbinic career, I had a part-time pulpit at a congregation in a suburb of Boston while I was doing graduate work in Jewish studies at Harvard. One Rosh HaShanah morning, I was aware of a nine-year-old girl and her eleven-year-old brother, sitting with their father near the front of the congregation. The mother, who had not yet reached her 40th birthday, was in the hospital, dying of cancer. (She actually died just a week later; I led the funeral service the day before Yom Kippur.) As we read this passage in Un’taneh Tokef, I found myself thinking about the nine-year-old daughter. How would she react when the inevitable comes, when her mother dies? Did the words we had just read mean that it was within the power of the child, or her mother or father or brother, to arrest the cancer through penitence, prayer, and charity? Would the mother’s untimely death after an agonizing struggle prove that she and her family had not engaged sufficiently in penitence, prayer, and charity, and that they were therefore deficient and in some way at fault? Is that what this liturgy means?
Disturbed by this possibility, I looked into the matter more deeply and discovered that this statement is based on a passage in Rabbinic literature that begins in the same way, ut’shuvah, ut’filah, utz’dakah, but continues mevatlim et hag’zeirah, “penitence, prayer, and charity annul the decree.”2 The author of Un’taneh Tokef changed the classical Rabbinic statement in two details. He changed mevatlim, “annul,” to ma-avirin, literally, “cause to pass.” And he changed the direct object, “decree” to ro-a hag’zeirah, “the evil of the decree.” I believe that these small changes make for a very different kind of affirmation — the difference between a magical conception of religion and a rational conception, the answer not to “Why bad things happen to good people,” but how we should respond “When bad things happen to good people.”3
Death, sickness, impoverishment, tragic as they may be, are not the same as evil, but they do bear the potential for truly evil consequences. They can poison, embitter, fill us with self-pity, undermine and destroy a marriage, blind us to the needs of others, turn us away from God. But the evil consequences of even the most appalling decree are not inevitable. If penitence, prayer and charity do not have the power to change the external reality, if they cannot stop and reverse the malignant cancer, they can indeed ensure that the evil potential in that reality will not become enduring, that the “evil of the decree” will pass. Penitence, prayer, and charity can enable us to transcend the evil consequences of the decree. This is a message that I believe reflects the actual meaning of the words, a message that we could share with that nine-year-old girl and her family, and with others today.
Let us therefore be aware that behind the haunting melodies and the beautiful language of Un’taneh Tokef, if we take the words seriously there are some critical theological issues:
- Do we believe that by the end of the closing N’ilah service God will indeed have sealed our destiny for the coming year and that whatever happens to us is the result of an all-powerful divine decision? Or are there things that happen to us because of natural causes and because of chance?
- Do we believe that penitence, prayer, and charity can actually nullify aspects of our destiny, including the progression of a cancer? Or can these three principles change the way we respond to what happens, though not what happens itself?
The answers to these questions may have a significant impact on how we respond to the experience of Yom Kippur and the decisions we make for the future.
1. Max Arzt, Justice and Mercy: A Commentary on the Liturgy of the New Year and the Day of Atonement (NY: Holt Rinehart Winston, 1963)
2. B’reishit Rabbah 44:5
3. Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (NY: Random House, 2007)
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein, after having taught Jewish Studies at American universities for 29 years (Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, George Washington University in D.C.), relocated in 2006 to England for a five-year term as Principal of Leo Baeck College. His recently completed book, Agony in the Pulpit: Jewish Preaching in Response to Nazi Persecution and Mass Murder, will be published by Hebrew Union College Press.