With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

Poetic Vision

19 September 2020
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
Sermon Rosh Hashanah

What an incredible rendition of Leonard Cohen’s interpretation or version of a section of Unetaneh Tokef, that Liberal Jews exclude from our prayers. I have heard commentators hyperbolically speak of Cohen as a ‘prophet!’ I cannot accept that but there is no doubting that a number of his songs are influenced by Jewish prayers. Join me for the Yom Kippur ‘Space’ service for two further examples.

Let us remind ourselves what Unetaneh Tokef is, you can find it on page 141 of Machzor Ruach Chadashah, minus the section “Who By Fire.”

The opening words literally mean, “We shall ascribe to this day…” what is to be ascribed is yirat ha’yom. I would contemporaneously translate/interpret it as, ‘the awe of the day.’ However, its original intent utilises the alternate translation of yirat as ‘fear.’

Fear of the context in which the piyyut – liturgical poem – was composed?

Although a medieval legend of its origin fits in the annals of martyrdom, modern scholarship suggests its authorship in the Byzantine Period and a version dated to the eighth century C.E. was found in the Cairo Geniza. Did the methods by which God would bring death as listed in the “Who By Fire” section, reflect the fearsome reality of the author’s time?

Or fear reflected in the Talmudic theology (bRosh Hashanah 16b):

On Rosh Hashanah, three books are opened [in Heaven] – one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for those in-between. The thoroughly righteous are immediately inscribed clearly in the Book of Life. The thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed clearly in the Book of Death. The fate of those in-between is postponed from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, at which time those who are deserving are then inscribed in the Book of Life, those who are undeserving are then inscribed in the Book of Death.

Either fear or both, the idea of the Mishnaic (200CE), ‘Day of Judgement,’ (interestingly paralleled in the Christian Dies irae (day of wrath) – found in the requiem mass) was deeply problematic for early Liberal Jews. Still, Israel Mattuck, the first Rabbi to serve a UK Liberal Congregation included an allusion to Unetaneh Tokef in his prayerbook.

Unetaneh Tokef was overtly (re)introduced into Liberal Judaism’s liturgy with Service of the Heart in 1973 yet without ‘Who By Fire,’ because, in the words of Rabbi John Rayner (zichrono livrachah), “Much of [Unetaneh Tokef] has a strongly fatalistic ring, especially in portions omitted by us.” The theology of the whole is troubling but, in my father’s, (Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein) words, “Such a poetic vision can surely help us open our own book of records, to try harder to recall the errors we made in the year past and seek to make restitution.”

To make use of the tools of teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah.

But not ‘Who By Fire,’ as Dad writes, “I just cannot believe in a God who decides who will live and who will die, and I do not find it acceptable to ask the congregation to make such assertions at the most sacred services of the Jewish year.”

Yet working to reduce the liturgy to a manageable length for this year’s screen-based congregation, we decided to include both Leonard Cohen’s version and, in a few moments, the complete Unetanah Tokef.

Not for the reason that Rabbi Chaim Stern, co-editor with John Rayner of ‘Gates of Repentance’ gave to my father, when he enquired why Chaim had reintroduced the full version into the American Reform liturgy. He said, “Because it has a nice tune and people like to hear it sung.” I do hope that you liked Sam and Aron’s rendition and the Lewandowski music we sing parts of Unetanah Tokef to are foundational to our Rosh Hashanah experience; but this is not why we included it.

Sometimes it is enough to reflect on the challenging nature of a prayer by acknowledging its existence. How do we gain that opportunity if we are unaware of its presence at all! Many will have known the Leonard Cohen song without knowing its source of inspiration. For this, pedagogic reason alone it may be worthwhile to include once in a while.

Even more compelling is the connection through one word representing one of the methods by which God would bring death, mageifah. Most translations render it as ‘plague,’ but it is also the word in Ivrit – modern Hebrew – that means ‘pandemic.’

This year seemed like the right moment to talk about the fact of death as part of life. All of us will have considered our mortality more than usual this year.

I am sure that we will all have been touched by accounts of COVID tragedies, those who died of the virus itself or of other causes. Chief among those are the deaths of critical workers from cleaners to consultants, doctors to drivers, who died in service, aiming to support the society they worked for. However, as painful as they were for the relatives who did die, the vast majority died having lived many years or whose life was already tenuous with other causes.

The pain may have been magnified by the pandemic, relatives being unable to be with their loved ones, but their death was part of the life we live, mortal, fragile and also beautiful. Speaking of euphemisms, ‘such as passed away’ or ‘gone to a better place,’ do not help us to appreciate life or accept death.

Some have used warlike language. I dislike it. Catherine Pepinster considered this when writing about the death of her friend and BBC presenter, Rachael Bland two years ago. When one ‘loses the battle,’ it sounds like failure. There was no failure in those who died, indeed those who die of cancer or any other illness. They died as part of life, of a virus or terminal illness, the reality of our existence on this planet. They and their families were unfortunate but not deficient.

Rachael Bland used her days living with a terminal illness to make “the lives of other cancer sufferers easier by making the illness more talked about.” As did Elliot Dallen who came to attention having written an article “terminal cancer means I won’t see the other side of lockdown.”

Just ahead of his death, aged 31, he wrote, “…everybody dies, and there will always be places and experiences missing from anyone’s life – the world has too much beauty and adventure for one person to see. I will miss marriage or children, blossoming careers and lives moving on. But I’m not alone in my life being cut short, and I think my time has been pretty good.”

Knowing the fatalistic intention of Unetanah Tokef and acknowledging the fragility of life with ‘Who By Fire,’ might limit our expectations and sense of entitlement over a long, pain-free life. Rather considering what we have to offer through our lives. There are many lists and formulae for appreciating life and accepting death. This year, I leave Elliot Dallen’s for you to ruminate upon:

The importance of gratitude
A life, if lived well, is long enough
Be vulnerable and connect with others
Do something for others
Protect the planet

Finally, this past half year has reinforced our deep need for God. A deep need for the Source of Strength, Comfort, Love, the glue that binds us together in Community as the People of Israel and in common humanity.

If, like ‘Who By Fire,’ we directly attribute life and death to God we might question our purpose. This is powerfully captured in Bea Stadtler’s poem, Questions following personal sorrow:

Oh God,
If there is a God,
How have I visualised You?

All I find is the echo in my heart
An imponderable question:

It is difficult enough a job to have an understanding of God, a life time’s work, certainly not an annual, fleeting consideration. Many are the methods of becoming closer to God, from philosophy and theology, ritual and living with God as one does one’s own family and friends.

Living with God means considering our part of the relationship, our responsibility, our purpose and role in life, a cosmic speck in the life of our world. This year more than any in my lifetime, Unetanah Tokef challenges me, what have I done in the past that I now realised bought damage to the fragile structure of the world we live in; what will I now do to ensure that I work towards repair, to renew, and to create.

The inclusion of ‘Who By Fire,’ is a one-off in this congregation just as we hope our current mageifah – pandemic is. Let us use this opportunity well. Rabbi Joseph Meszler, “…the prayer highlights that we are all mortal, and we never know when we will die. Therefore, there is urgency to doing the activities that give life meaning: teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah. They may not change whether someone lives or dies, but they do affect how you live and how it feels to be alive. We walk away from this prayer reminded of the responsibility to use our time wisely and well.”

Let us conclude with these words of hope from Rabbi Angela Graboys and Laura Rappaport:

God give us strength
To transcend setbacks and pain
To put our difficulties into perspective

May we never become callous or apathetic because
Of our own disappointments

May our personal pain never be used as
An excuse to stop heeding Your call

God give us the strength
To continually strive to do more

Let us always strive to give, even if we,
Ourselves, feel alone or impoverished

For we must always strive to reach beyond


Quotes from:
Notes of the Liberal Mahzorim, Gates of Repentance and Mahzor Ruach Chadashah
“Who By Fire, Who By Water: Un’taneh Tokef,” ed. Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman