A GPS for the Soul
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 re-
silience to bear the ups and downs of life.
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.