The Unetane Tokef: A Jewish Model for Collective Responsibility
September 29, 2008
Today's post is from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author of Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion. Ruttenberg has been published in a wide variety of books and periodicals, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and Bitchfest, and she is on the editorial board of (and blogs at) Jewschool.com. Ruttenberg received her rabbinic ordination from the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. Her personal website is danyaruttenberg.net.
On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be
Who shall live and who shall die
Who shall attain the measure of his and who shall not
Who shall perish by fire and who by water
Who by sword and who by beast
Who by hunger and who by thirst
Who by earthquake and who by plague
Who by strangling and who by stoning
Who shall be secure and who shall be driven
Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled
Who shall be poor and who shall be rich
Who shall be humbled and who exalted
But teshuvah, tefillah and tzedekah cause to pass over the evil of the decree.
The theology of the Unetane Tokef–which appears in both the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy–has always troubled me–how can we accept that tefillah (prayer) and teshuvah (repentance) and tzedekah (acts of righteousness, usually translated as "charity") are going to save us from earthquakes, car accidents, persecution? We know that lots of very good people suffer every day, and that many people who do horrible things prosper. One could write off the prayer as reflective of an era in which people found solace in trying to control their fate, but I think that's unfair and dismissive of the liturgy.
I wonder if, instead, we should regard it as a collective imperative. The prayer is written more or less in the third person, with some second-person address to God. And when it's written in the first person, it's in the plural, as is much Jewish liturgy. Not I. We.
What if it weren't about my individual repentance as it affects my individual fate? What if our repentance as a society (which demands that each individual do his or her part) is the thing that affects our collective fate? What if the reason a person gets cancer is not because he or she personally has done something wrong, but because we as a nation and a globe have poisoned our air, our water, and our food with toxic chemicals and negligence? Are the growing numbers of devastating hurricanes and tsunamis of the last few years a sign that entire sections of the world are filled with sinners, or a tragic by-product of global warming? Do people die in war because they don't adhere to religious law or because we are reckless in our decisions to go to war and put innocent people in harm's way? Are the women killed by stoning–yes, today–in honor killings around the world guilty of insufficient prayer, or should we assign responsibility to everyone who perpetuates a culture in which this is considered acceptable? Are the war refugees (like those fleeing the genocide in Darfur or the Lost Boys of Sudan) who sometimes fall to wild beasts personally responsible for their situation, their fate? Of course not.
I'm not sure that I believe that, were we a perfect world of perfect souls, nobody would ever die young or suffer for any reason. That's naïve, and, in any case, I personally don't conceive of God as a guy up in the sky with a roll of dice (or a "good" and "bad" list, like Santa Claus). But I do think that the Unetane Tokef prayer points at the ways in which we are–as a collective–responsible for our own suffering or for preventing it, for impacting the degree to which evil besets us. We can't change the decree itself, but perhaps we can avert its severity.
We need teshuvah–literally, "returning", to return to God–to face the reality of who we are, how far we have strayed from where we need to be in relationship both to God and other people. We need tefillah (prayer) to align our wills with the Divine will, to remember that we are on this Earth to serve, not to please ourselves. We need tzedekah (charity, righteousness) to enact, in part, this service–by caring for others we care for God.
It's not necessarily about saving our individual selves. We're not in control of that, really. The liturgy continues:
The human's origin is dust and his end is dust, at the risk of his life he earns his bread, he is like a broken vessel of clay, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a drifting cloud, a fleeting breath, scattering dust, a transient dream….
Which isn't to say that there is not individual responsibility. The Talmud (Shabbat 54b) teaches that "Whoever can forbid his household [to commit a sin] but does not, is considered liable for [the sins of] his household; [if he can forbid] his fellow citizens, he is considered liable for [the sins of] his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is considered liable for [the sins of] the whole world." It's not enough simply not to sin. We must take active steps in preventing others from causing harm–else, their transgression becomes our own.
What will do you do help avert the evil sure to be present in the coming year?
You may also be interested in Danya Ruttenberg's previous Beacon Broadside post about David Grossman's The Myth of Samson, this profile of her in the Forward, and her liveblog of a Rabbinic conference call with Barack Obama.