Unetane Tokef after Roe
Tonight starts Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. I’ll also remind folks that the Rosh Hashana Torah readings include the stories of Hagar and Ishmael, which we discussed here and here, and the Binding of Isaac, which we discussed here, if you’d like to reconnect with my takes on those stories. Shana tova u’mituka, y’all.
The Unetane Tokef is a liturgical poem that is, in many ways, the centerpiece of the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liturgy. It’s often especially difficult for the modern listener until one realizes that it’s written in the first-person plural—not “I”, but “we.” Here is the full text of the traditional prayer. Here is my reading of the prayer, generally. It feels different to me this year, somehow, though. Here is where I am.
Who will live and who will die
Who by fire and who by water
Who by ectopic pregnancy and who by infection after her water broke
Who pushed into poverty and who denied the chance to escape poverty
Who now trapped in an abusive relationship and who now murdered by her abuser
Who disabled by a pregnancy they didn’t want, who disabled by birth they didn’t want
Who irreparably harmed by being forced to stay pregnant without regard for her disabled body.
Who forced into dysphoria, and who forced into ICE detention
Who by systemic racism, who by incarceration
Who stripped of dignity
Who stripped of agency
Who stripped of autonomy
Who by trauma
Who by trauma
Who by death
And who by trauma
Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah cannot save them all.
Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah cannot save us all.
But it can lessen the severity of the decree.
People did this. Not God.
Teshuvah: When we face the harm of this decision and take steps to reverse course—when we pass legislation to protect and expand access–we can can chart a new future. Activism and advocacy must get us there.
Tefillah: When we connect to the source of our humanity, our empathy, our understanding, we remember that we must always show up for one another–that we are not any of us free while injustice rages outside our door. We must not get numb to suffering. We must not scroll by. We must keep our hearts open.
Tzedekah: And we must share resources as we can, funding travel across state lines, funding abortion care, supporting the people on the front lines doing what they can to support all who need, who deserve, abortion care.
We can take action this year to inscribe more people for safety, for dignity, for wholeness, for the chance to write their own lives.
So much still hangs in the balance.
We use the passive voice: On Rosh Hashana it is written. On Yom Kippur it is sealed. The implication is that God writes, God seals.
That God alone is in charge of our fates.
The Unetane Tokef is said to have been written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany in the 11th century. As the story goes, the Archbishop of Mainz tried to convert him to Christianity repeatedly, only to be rebuffed. Finally, the Archbishop gave him three days to consider conversion, and when Rabbi Amnon left the Archbishop’s palace, he immediately regretted even appearing to waiver in his Judaism. When he didn’t show up on the appointed day, he was escorted to the palace by guards. Though he asked that his tongue be cut out for appearing to doubt Judaism, the Archbishop preferred to have his hands and feet cut off instead. Rav Amnon asked to be taken to the synagogue, where Rosh Hashana services were happening, recited the Unetane Tokef, and died. (Then, as the story goes, he appeared to Rabbi Kalonymus in a dream and asked that his composition be recited annually.)
So the context for the original Unetane Tokef was one of Jewish oppression, fear, the capriciousness of those who had power over our bodies and our lives. The Jews were expelled from Mainz for a short time in 1012, and over 1000 Jews were murdered when Crusaders rolled through town during the First Crusade in 1096. The Rabbi Amnon story, to whatever degree its veracity, would probably have taken place between these two events. Jews weren’t safe.
“Who will live, who will die?” wasn’t theoretical for them, either.
For the Jews of Mainz, too: people did this, not God.
And yet, and even so. This year I have the heretical feeling that I don’t want to wait for things to be written, to be sealed. I don’t want the great liturgical pageant to discover who will be written in the Book of Life, I want to wrest the pen from God Godself, or from the hand of Samuel Alito, and write the story myself.
I want to hand the pen to every single person who is or could get pregnant this year, to every single person at risk of losing gender-affirming care this year, and let them write their own stories. Of their own bodies. Of their own safety. Of their own futures.
I know that even with the guarantee of access to abortion care, or to gender affirming healthcare, so much cannot be known, that this is some of the great boundless Mystery and the temporality of which this haunting poem speaks—
“We come from dust, and return to dust. We labour by our lives for bread, we are like broken shards, like dry grass, and like a withered flower; like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that passes, like dust that scatters, like a fleeting dream”—
but dammit, the denial of absolutely safe healthcare to people who need it nonetheless heaps needless harms upon harms upon harms.
The Unetane Tokef reads very different from the perspective of a dying man considering the big picture of his mortality than to a population of people who are, too, living under oppression, fear, the capriciousness of those who have power over our bodies and our lives—and who know that this is not how it must be, who know that there is more than waiting for the writing to be inked.
Who know that the pursuit of teshuvah, tefillah, tzedekah are the main event, are everything.
And that God must be our partner in this struggle. Must give us strength and resilience in the fight. Help us find new meaning and hope and the will to move forward when everything seems most broken.
Remind us that we are here to care for one another.
And that there is so much we cannot know from here.
So we must pray for the strength to make it through.
To do, as individuals and a collective, what must be done to inscribe as many of us as possible in the Book of Autonomy
and the Book of Dignity,
in the Book of Hope
and in the Book of Safety
and the Book of Freedom
and in the Book of Tomorrow.
And in the Book of Liberation may it be written, always:
We showed up when it mattered.
Comprehensive site for finding abortion care by geography and other criteria.
Medication abortion pills can be obtained through the mail and taken at home, generally up to 11 weeks of pregnancy.
All funding goes directly to support those in need of abortion care, including for travel and abortion care costs.