The Apocalypse of Unetaneh Tokef

Richard Lederman
August 7, 2014
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edge of the abyss

Much of what is written and said about the unetaneh tokef prayer revolves around the discomfort felt by many contemporary, presumably enlightened Jews. The notion of a divine royal judge sitting on a throne, reading from a book and deciding who should live and who should die through the unspeakable tortures that this text expresses is simply not an image that resonates with Jews weaned on Darwin, Freud and the Big Bang Theory (no, not the TV sitcom).

Flipping through Google in preparation for composing this piece, I noted how readily non-Orthodox Jews finesse the grisly brutality of this prayer by turning it into a psychological treatise: a confrontation with one’s own mortality; a recognition that our lives are, to some degree, beyond our control; the horrible tortures as ciphers for various emotional states. “Who shall be happy and who shall be miserable,” reads the Conservative Movement’s Mahzor Lev Shalem in its side-bar alternative to the traditional text.

Ironically, inspiration came from an unlike source: an article on the Website of the Beit-El Yeshiva Center, an offshoot of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. This is the heart and soul of the West Bank settler movement, not a group to which I am normally attracted. Titled ‘The Story of the ‘Unetaneh Tokef’ Prayer” by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the article attributed the prayer to an 11th century Rabbi Amnon from Mainz. Refusing to obey the order of the Bishop-Governor of Mainz to renounce his faith, Rabbi Amnon underwent the severe torture of having all 10 fingers and all 10 toes amputated one by one. Shortly thereafter, Rosh Hashana arrived. Despite what had to be excruciating pain, Rabbi Amnon asked to be brought to the synagogue and pleaded to be allowed to recite a prayer before the kedusha, the proclamation of God’s sanctity. “Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayyom,” the pain-wracked Rabbi Amnon cried. “We proclaim the awesome sanctity of this day.”

It struck me that there is something downright apocalyptic about the yamim nora’im, the Days of Awe. It’s not simply that we face the wages of sin, mortality or spiritual and psychological malaise. Like Rabbi Amnon, we often find ourselves facing a world that is dreadfully chaotic. We’re confused, filled with fear, facing physical and/or emotional torment, destruction and devastation. It seems that this sense of crisis is somehow built into our psyches, what Carl Jung might have called an archetype. Consider all of the novels, movies and TV dramas that we imbibe. There has to be a crisis, if for no other reason than we can experience the resolution of the crisis. If there’s no crisis, there’s no resolution, and we feel cheated.

The unetaneh tokef prayer brings us to the edge of an abyss. But at the end of that most awesome day, Yom Kippur, we shout “ha-shem hu ha-elokim,” “Ha-shem is our God.” The crisis is resolved. Order is restored, and we begin to build our Sukkot, symbols of a world re-created, renewed, restored, filled with God’s natural bounty.

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Richard Lederman holds a BA in Religion from Miami University (Ohio) and a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literature from the Annenberg Research Institute, now the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylania. After nearly 30 years as a Jewish communal professional, most recently as Director of Public Policy and Social Action for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Lederman now teaches courses in Bible, Religion and Comparative Mythology at Georgetown University and Montgomery College, Maryland, as well as online Bible courses for Gratz College in Philadelphia. He blogs at www.thereligioushumanist.com.

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