Heed the Power

By Yehudah Mirsky
Friday, September 17, 2010

A centerpiece of the Yom Kippur liturgy, as of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy before it, is an ancient, unnerving poem known by its opening words: U'netaneh tokef. In a day of high drama designed to rouse a no less dramatic inner journey of introspection and atonement, this prayer, chanted by the hazzan before the open ark, has for centuries exercised a unique power, at once terrifying and shriving, over the hearts and minds of all who hear it.

The prayer is less a plea lofted above than a charge to those below to confront the painful frailty of our lives—and the immensity of the judgment that stands over us. Invoking God the judge, redeemer, all-knower, and witness, the One Who counts and classifies and remembers all that is forgotten, Who opens the book of memory in which every human deed is recorded, it conjures up a scale of judgment so encompassing as to leave the angels themselves quivering in fear.

What is it that is decided on this day when each individual's fate will be sealed for the coming year? Nothing less than who shall live and who shall die, who by fire, water, earthquake, or plague, who shall enjoy rest and who left to wander, who will be crushed and who rise. For, we are reminded, "man is founded in dust and returns to dust . . . is like a shard of pottery, a withering shoot, a vanishing cloud, a dream in flight." God alone abides.   

And then, having brought us to this stark and nearly paralyzing point, the hymn offers a lifeline from the Talmud: "And repentance, prayer, and tzedakah deflect the worst of the decree."

Tradition has ascribed the hymn to Amnon of Mainz, an otherwise unknown medieval sage. According to a thirteenth-century account, Amnon, after suffering a gruesome martyrdom in the First Crusade of 1096, visited a fellow rabbi in a dream and dictated the text to him. Recent scholarship has shown that the hymn is in fact much older, having been found in a manuscript dating to the 8th century. According to one theory, the author was none other than the great liturgist Yannai, who flourished in the land of Israel in the sixth century. The story of Amnon may itself have been a Jewish reworking of Christian legend—though the agonies endured by the Jews of the Rhineland during the Crusades were all too unbearably real.

The theology enunciated in U'netaneh tokef, in which divine punishment and reward are meted out in clear proportion to human sin and goodness, has firm anchorage in much of the Bible and Talmud. It has a much less firm hold on contemporary sensibilities. For many, the revolutions of modern science and the moral catastrophes of modern times, above all the Holocaust, have rendered the God of U'netaneh tokef at best untenable, at worst a God in Whom one would not want to believe. As for the effort in modern Jewish thought to emphasize the God Who is a vibrant source of ethics and care, it too could not be farther from the often-caricatured picture of a "zealous Old Testament" divinity Who seems to figure forth, un-retouched, in this prayer.

Some of today's readers have found theological complexities within the text itself. Thus, one scholar has noted that the prayer's climactic line subtly re-words the original talmudic passage according to which prayer, repentance, and tzedakah—charity or, more broadly, righteous acts—annul the evil decree. Our text, with the word m'vatlin replaced by ma'avirin, literally "traverse" or "transform," can thus be read as less impossibly absolute in its terms and more accommodating of imperfect human effort. In the end, it suggests, prayer, repentance, and good deeds may not suffice to ward off illness, natural disaster, or historical calamity altogether, but we can at least render them endurable, enabling us to emerge with our souls intact.

A more cutting approach to the hymn's apparent theological certitudes may be hinted at in its opening word. "U'netaneh" is regularly translated as "let us declare," or "affirm," the mighty holiness of the day. But netaneh can be read more poignantly as "let us bewail." The same verb appears in the Book of Judges, where it describes the annual lament chanted by Israelite women over the slain daughter of Jephthah, sacrificed by her own father in his ignorance of the means for undoing a rash vow. That cry of protest and horror, resonant with humanity's inability to understand the meaning of God's law, may impart an additional note, of suppressed, dread-filled rage, to this potent hymn.

In the end, there is no denying the elemental awesomeness of U'netaneh tokef, its gripping evocation of the terrors of the human condition—and its summoning of the recognition that all of us, in one way or another, are to be judged. Artists seemingly distanced from tradition have sought to explore these darker regions of experience by working with, or reworking, the prayer, but none can be said to have equaled or surpassed its primal ability to capture what Saul Bellow, in Mr. Sammler's Planet, unforgettably refers to as the terms of our earthly contract. Whoever may be judging us, this prayer reminds us, we all know what those terms are, and that there is no escaping them. "For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know."  

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