A GPS for the Soul

September 1, 2010
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Who by Fire, Who by Water — Un’taneh Tokef, edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, 253 pp, $24.99.

Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah by Louis E. Newman, PhD, foreword by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, preface by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, 224 pp, $24.99.

Reviewed by Adena Berkowitz

Coming on the heels of Elul, Rosh Hashanah ushers in a ten-day period of deep prayer, introspection, accountability, repentance, and final judgment that leaves us with a gnawing feeling. What does the coming year hold for us? Do we approach it with terror and trepidation, awe and trembling? How can our faith carry us though our heartfelt repentance, our prayers, and our acts of righteousness?

These and other themes evoked by the High Holy Days are sensitively addressed in Who by Fire, Who by Water, a compilation edited by Rabbi Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman that examines the text of Un’taneh Tokef. Forty rabbis, scholars, and lay people explore the prayer’s historic, theological, halakhic, and personal meaning. Essays range from analysis of the authorship of Un’taneh Tokef to the translation of key lines, to the overall theological meaning of the piyyut. Hoffman references the 12th-century book Sefer Z’chirah, which describes the martydom of Rabbi Amnon, who is traditionally viewed as the author of the prayer. He is called Rabbi “Faithful” because he’emin (he had faith in the living God) draws on the Hebrew pun for “faithful, neeman”; when the Hebrew letters are rearranged, they spell Amnon.

While some of the pieces seem to repeat themes and analyses, the wide range of theological approaches makes for fascinating reading. Many of the liberal contributors grapple with their personal struggles to accept the view of God as Judge sitting on high, determining our fate for the coming year. For example, Rabbi Sharon Brous writes that although life can appear at times as though it is being lived on the edge of an abyss, what we do can bring radical meaning into the uncertainty of our lives.

In analyzing the recurring line about prayer, repentance, and charity, the volume utilizes Dr. Joel Hoffman’s translation, “But Prayer, Repentance, and Charity help the hardship of the decree to pass,” as a meaningful way to understand the heart of Un’taneh Tokef.

Rabbi Reuven Kimelman explores the talmudic antecedents to the wording of the prayer, noting that the text of Un’taneh Tokef we recite lists teshuvah first, and changes the wording so that the harshness or misfortune that result from a decree can be mitigated. Prayer, repentance, and tzedakah do not cancel the decree but rather avert the severity of it. Kimmelman explains that mitigation happens through these acts either because they can lead to a reconsideration of the original judgment of Rosh Hashanah or because they provide the resilience to bear the ups and downs of life.

As Rabbi Margeret Moers Wenig and other contributors note, though we may not always be in control of our destiny, we do have the power to control our responses: “How we play the hand we have been dealt is up to us.” Rabbi Asher Lopatin, quoting the Rema, says that in the face of death, we can’t say, “Oy what can we do?” We can do so much. And as to our destiny? Rabbi Avi Weiss shares with us the rabbinic view that the mazel we are born with is elastic. Quoting Rabbi Yosef Dov Solveitchik, who teaches us to distinguish between goral, fate, and yi’ud, destiny, our mission in this world is to turn fate into destiny, from an existence that is passive to one that is active and influential.

Dr. Louis E. Newman’s book Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah is a unique mix of the scholarly and the personal, not only a well researched book but — referencing his own twelve-step recovery process — a moving account of the spiritual dimension of Jewishly transforming ourselves. It is a special blend of “how to do repentance” — that is, how to acknowledge our shortcomings, hold ourselves accountable, and truly turn from our ways. His explanations of soul reckoning, cheshbon hanefesh, of how our larger society confronts moral failings and of how Jewish tradition does teshuvah, are the keys to spiritual rehabilitation and reconciliation. Even long after we have committed a wrong, he shows us — through rabbinic and theological sources —how Jewish tradition teaches us ways to process and retrieve our sense of direction.

Among the many dimensions he explores are seven distinct steps to teshuvah: culpability, remorse, confession, apology, restitution, soul reckoning — a spiritual accounting — and transformation. If confronted with the same situation again, we would not behave the same way. His use of three words panah, sur, and shuv to describe turning is very evocative. Panah is related to the word face and suggests turning our gaze in a certain direction. Sur evokes turning aside; a person moving in a certain direction wavers or strays off course. Sur, he says, is neutral while panah has a negative connotation. Shuv refers to returning — back to our origins or to our proper natural place, to righteousness. This book is a spiritual GPS that reminds us where we might have made a wrong turn and how we can recalculate and get back on the right path — returning to our home.

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Dr. Adena K. Berkowitz is the co-author of Shaarei Simcha (Gates of Joy), a mini-siddur and the first liturgical work written in the modern era by Orthodox women. Adena is a founder and co-director of Kol HaNeshamah: the Center for Jewish Life and Enrichment, which sponsors free High Holiday services and is dedicated to re-energizing the spiritual life of both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews. A visiting lecturer at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, she lives in New York with her husband and five children.

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