A peculiar aspect of High Holy Day liturgy is the medieval poetry
that expands the number of prayerbook pages with lessons and
imagery that most modern worshipers find baffling. At the top of
this list is Un'taneh Tokef, a warning that at every New Year, God
establishes, in advance, "who will live and who will die ... who by
fire and who by water"not to mention by such deaths as
"strangulation and warfare." To be sure, "repentance, prayer and
charity" can help, but how? With actual relief from dire fate? That
hardly rings true to people who lost loved ones in tragic events
such as 9/11, for example; or to cancer at a tragically young age.
How then can we even say this most famous of New Year prayers?
Who By Fire, Who By Water examines the prayer's theology,
authorship, and poetry through a set of lively essays, all written
in accessible language by over thirty contributors who span three
continents and all major Jewish denominations. They are men and
women; scholars and rabbis, arti
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