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Machzor Blog: Unetaneh Tokef

IMG_3635I was asked to serve on the core editorial for the new Reform Machzor in November of 2009.  Our first actual meeting was in January, 2010.  I was flying early Monday morning from Miami to NYC.  Because of terribly high winds in New York the plane could not land and we finally arrived in D.C. instead.  At first I was miffed that I had not been able to make the first meeting on time.  Then I understood that the very essence of the Days of Awe was reflected in my experience.  As Unetaneh Tokef reminds us, “you just never know”.    Fortunately the matter involved a plane landing elsewhere, as opposed to a plane not landing at all!

Unetaneh Tokef is one of those aspects of the machzor that are frustrating.  On the one hand, scholarship proves that the declaration was composed somewhat like a jazz variation, a “one-off” used to introduce the Kedushah at a particular service.  Somehow it became Keva instead of Kavanah.  And then of course there is the troublesome theology.  It is very tempting to avoid Unetaneh Tokef in the machzor, but then how can we say it is reflective of the High Holy Days?

I believe a better approach is to include it – along with some alternative readings that stress a less Deuteronomic view of God – because the theological “elephant” in the room should not be ignored.  We humans have a tendency to combat uncertainty by offering difficult theology.  All the wishing away of such a human response will not rewire our make up.  I know that the words of Unetaneh Tokef can be hurtful.  But then again, so is life.

One of the most powerful things we have done in my synagogue for the last couple of years, thanks to drop down screens, is to present Leonard Cohen’s Who By Fire.  The screens mean that the actual words are right there for everyone to see and sing.  Not only does Cohen’s version attract a certain subset of hipper congregants; the power of his words capture the emotional intensity of our uncertain future in a way that transcends the ancient words.

And who by fire, who by water,

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,

Who in your merry merry month of may,

Who by very slow decay,

And who shall I say is calling?


And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,

Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,

And who by avalanche, who by powder,

Who for his greed, who for his hunger,

And who shall I say is calling?


And who by brave assent, who by accident,

Who in solitude, who in this mirror,

Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,

Who in mortal chains, who in power,

And who shall I say is calling?


Were I to write a High Holy Day prayer book reflective of only my personal theology, I would leave out Unetaneh Tokef.  Nevertheless, I am glad that we are including the traditional version in our new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, and I would hope that it, along with other resources, will be the beginning of the conversation, and not the end.

After all, at its heart the High Holy Days are about questions as well as answers.

And who shall we say is calling?

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg is a member of the Machzor Editorial Team.  He is the senior rabbi of Temple Judea in Coral Gables, FL, and will become the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom in Chicago, IL, this summer.  

Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor.  For more information about participating in piloting, email

3 replies on “Machzor Blog: Unetaneh Tokef”

It is my firm belief that the massive drop-off in High Holyday attendance and congregational affiliation is because amcha increasingly cannot stomach such mediaeval theology. We have highly educated and sophisticated congregants who do not want to waste their time mouthing such patently unbelievable thoughts. We spend so much time defending this prayer, explaining it away, modernizing it, apologizing for it – and then we present it in its oriiginal form with the imprimateur of the CCAR. People feel that they must believe it to be good Reform Jews, and therefore leave us. Why not be honest rather than trying to be pseudo-Orthodox by including it?

We are not the Discard Movement, nor the Orthodox Movement, but the Reform Movement – how is Unetaneh Tokef reformed in the New Mahzor? Those who dislike its ‘theology’, which alternative theology are we to express regarding life and death, and sickness?
Jews are debating these issues, and thinking in intelligent ways about them – just not in our liturgies…

I’m wrestling with this topic in a new – to me – way this year, because I lost my mom a few months ago and am still immersed in saying Kaddish for her. Rosh Hashanah morning davening (from Gates of Awe, with Unetaneh Tokef) absolutely shredded me. I cried uncontrollably pretty much all the way to Shofarot. I understand that none of us makes it out of this life alive; I understand that life’s not fair and that bad things happen to good people. But having my religion’s holy text tell me, at this most spiritually significant moment of the year, that G-d had decreed that she would meet her end at that time AND in that exact way because she’d somehow failed to measure up on the inscrutable cosmic scale – which is precisely what it says, no matter how you parse it or try to dance around it – made me feel alienated, abandoned, and furious. I normally find the High Holydays meaningful and enriching, and I’m sad and angry to have that taken from me and to be left wondering if I’ll ever have that again.

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