Posted by: Steve Coplan | September 30, 2006

The Severe Decree

The religious poem above from the David bar Pesach machzor is a central element in services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The excellent Davar Acher blog has this post on the story behind the poem and a more inspired translation than most machzorim. As it happens, more recent literary analysis suggests that the generally accepted account of the poem’s origin is largely fictitious, and some even question whether eleventh century Rabbi Amnon — the martyr who composed the poem after having his limbs cut off by the Bishop of Mainz because he refused to convert — actually existed at all. Instead, scholars believe that the poem was composed hundreds of years before, and had absolutely no connection with any martyrdom at all. It is something of a rude awakening to discover that if I am going to be honest with myself that I have to discard the backstory. (In any event, I did find the idea of the poem being dictated to Kalomynos ben Meshullam in a dream a bit of a stretch).

Douglas Rushkoff asks the question in Something Sacred (which is highly recommended) whether it’s actually relevant whether the history of a festival or piece of liturgy has been remolded, as in the case of Netaneh Tokef to provide some source of succour for communities in the Rhineland deeply affected by the Crusades, or should we let its theological content stand for itself? The Crusaders did a few dry runs in the Jewish communities along the Rhine before heading out to the Holy Land to extirpate the Infidel. The poem (which appears to have been composed in the sixth century), as Rushkoff points out, draws on the Book of Esther (which does not include a mention of Hashem’s name and Kohelet (Eccelesiastes), which opens with the uplifting line that all is vanity. (Although others see clear echoes with the “Hymn of Romanus upon Christ’s Reappearance”). The poem, therefore, hints at the absence of God in human matters, or as articulated in the Book of Job, the inaccessibility of the true nature of fate to humanity’s limited comprehension. But if we cannot alter our fates, what’s the point of following an ethical life? The prayer’s closing lines that repentance, prayer and charity can alter the severity of the decree give us a hint. Our fate is our fate but we can smudge the edges by acting fairly and ethically and avoid some of the more gruesome ends depicted in the poem – which fittingly Leonard Cohen adopted for his song “Who by Fire”.

I’d like to add my own wrinkle to the interpretation. Why is that those three activities have the power to modify our fates? Of the three, only charity has some broader social repercussions, and even then, writing a check doesn’t make anyone a better person or bring about fundamental change. The sequence, however, suggests a more profound interpretation. At their core, the holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana revolve around change. Human beings for the most part resist change and refuse to accept their mortality — know any smokers, for instance? — and have to actively learn that autonomous behavior is socially disruptive (which as a father of a toddler I can attest to). So how do we come to accept change? Repentance relates to personal moral conduct and accepting responsibility for our actions, prayer relates to our willingness to accept the notion of accountability, and tzedekah (for which charity is only an approximate translation) relates to our societal values. The highest form of charity is a completely anonymous donation, both because the receiver does not the source of their donation and the giver doesn’t gain any ancillary benefit. This illustrates the principle underlying tzedekah (essentially the feminine form of tzedek ‘justice’) — that material wealth represents a responsibility to ensure a just and equitable society where misfortune or accident of birth do not serve as a inescapable predicament.

Rushkoff’s book largely deals with the failure of Jewish institutions to move beyond a strategy of conservatism and a proposes an ‘open source’ Judaism that would revitalize the core principles of the religion. Yom Kippur is usually the one day a year that most Jews will make it to services. I remember wandering around the shul parking lot with a few friends when I was seven or eight, trying to find the most expensive car we could find. We generally stopped after the second or third Rolls (as in Rolls Royce). This was at a time when there was a 100% tax on imported cars, and millions were systematically denied economic opportunities. On the other hand, I remember looking out from the women’s gallery onto a sea of white with all the men dressed in talitim during Kol Nidrei night and having my first inkling of what holy means. I think Rushkoff is onto something.



  1. get to know nice post

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