A familiar holiday season verse exhorts us:
He’s making a list and checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
And the next line rolls right off the tip of the tongue
And on Yom Kippur will be sealed.
It is not my intention to equate the majestic poetry of Un’taneh Tokef with that bit of Christmas doggerel. One grates on my sensibilities every November and December and threatens to drive me mad with its inanity. But for the past 13 Yamim Noraim the other, despite its artistic superiority, has grated on my soul and driven me mad with the falseness of its seductive message.
Un’taneh Tokef was inserted into the Musaf Kedushah for the high holidays around the end of the first millennium C.E. By legend, it was the dying prayer of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, who was martyred in 1096. While modern scholarship indicates that this piyyut is actually much older than that, and that Rabbi Amnon left no record other than his association with Un’taneh Tokef, the legend of Rabbi Amnon is what we are taught and react to emotionally, as I shall here.
Rabbi Amnon, by this legend a well-regarded teacher of Torah, was offered a high ministerial post by the bishop of Mainz if he would convert to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon refused this offer repeatedly, yet the bishop persisted. Finally, Rabbi Amnon tries to buy himself three days of peace – “enough with the nagging already, give me three days to think it over. I’ll be in touch.”
This brought Rabbi Amnon no peace, only torment. Barely were the words out of his mouth before he regretted them. He spent his three days deep in prayer for God’s forgiveness for even considering such an odious offer. He rebuffed the bishop’s messengers, until finally he was retrieved by force to give his response, which was “My tongue should be cut out for not having refused you immediately.”
The bishop was not at all sympathetic, and had the rabbi’s hands and feet cut off, and sent him home in that condition to prepare for the coming New Year, and his impending death. On Rosh Hashanah, as he lay dying, he asked his disciples to carry him to the synagogue so that he could recite the Kedushah one last time. With his last burst of living energy, Rabbi Amnon painted a vivid picture of the Day of Judgment – the contrast of the Shofar Gadol and the still small voice – the trembling of angels in fear and anticipation of the moment when every living soul would be called to account for how they had spent the previous year. Rewards and punishments would be handed out, life or death, prosperity or poverty, happiness or misery, with each verdict inscribed and sealed by the supreme judge:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed
and on Yom Kippur will be sealed
how many will pass from the earth
and how many will be created;
who will live and who will die;
who will die at his predestined time and who before his time;
who by water and who by fire,
who by sword, who by beast..
and by extension to modern situations:
who by automobile, who by terror
Even in this vision, hope is not withheld, for we are told
But REPENTANCE, PRAYER, AND CHARITY can reduce the severity of the decree
So this is the seductive simplicity with which Rabbi Amnon leaves us. At first glance this could be very satisfying. God is the master of life and death, but we have the ability, through the exercise of our free will, to control how God uses that power. The problem is that life isn’t so simple; some evil people live long lives and die peacefully. Other people with impeccable records of good deeds die before their appointed time. One of the thorniest questions in Jewish theology is “why do bad things happen to good people?” To that question, Rabbi Amnon gives the simple answer “Because they had it coming!”
Sorry, but I can’t believe that. To do so, I would have to believe that in the fall of 2000, God licked an anthropomorphic finger, turned a page, picked up a quill, dipped it in ink and wrote “Shira Palmer-Sherman – automobile.” And we’d have to believe that God followed that up by sentencing thousands more to die by terrorism. We would have to believe that this was a true and honest judgment, and accept the fact that something in their past sealed their fate.
That’s nonsense. As a father, I know well that my daughter Shira was far from perfect, but among her friends she was legendary as one of the kindest and most giving people any of them had known. Thousands of people died on 9/11 for the sin of having made it in to work on time. Hundreds more died as their reward for rushing into danger to rescue others. I steadfastly refuse to accept the notion that this was the handiwork of a true judge. Baruch dayan haemet? Yeah, right.
Since Shira’s death, my family has a new High Holiday ritual. My wife leaves the sanctuary at the start of Un’tana Tokef. My daughter Miriam and I stand mute in protest, refusing to say the words that are for us so false. For the past few years I’ve taken to removing my tallit at the beginning of the piyyut, to indicate my disapproval. Sometimes I make a rude comment at the end; other times I just stomp out of the sanctuary in a rage.
A few years ago I had a conversation with one of our rabbis at a reception around the holidays. I mentioned that I did not recite Un’taneh Tokef. He said “so you struggle with it.” I replied that I didn’t struggle with it at all, that I utterly rejected it as false theology (my actual words were a bit stronger), but that I felt compelled to stand as Shira’s witness to its falseness.
So where does this leave us? Rabbi Amnon dealt with his fate and his guilt feelings by linking them. That’s great for him, but it’s left us with some of the best poetry and worst theology stuck in the middle of the High Holiday liturgy. For me the resolution came in a letter from my friend (and Shira’s boyfriend) Jesse on my fiftieth birthday. Illustrating his birthday praise with a pasuk he quoted Pirke Avot 4:15:
Rabbi Yannai said: It is not in our hands to explain either the serenity of the wicked or the sufferings of the righteous. Rabbi Matyah ben Harash said: Be the first to greet every man…
As Jesse pointed out, these two statements are not logically connected; one states a universal truth while the other is a moral guide. Perhaps, however, this is what Rabbi Amnon should have taught us. Rabbi Yanai tells us that, contrary to Einstein’s belief, God does indeed play dice with the universe. Bad things happen to good people, and you can’t change that, so accept it. But Rabbi Matyah teaches us not just to accept our fate, but to engage in goodness.
Rabbi Amnon would have us engage in goodness as a way of controlling our fate, whereas Rabbis Yannai and Matyah would have us engage in goodness precisely because we can’t. That works much better for me.
(In loving memory of Shira Palmer-Sherman z’l.)