Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman's Who By Fire, Who By Water -- Un’taneh Tokef

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The recitation of Un’taneh Tokef —one of the most beloved, prominent and controversial pieces in the Ashkenazi High Holy Day liturgy—defies easy understanding for many people. To be fully engaged when reciting this awesome and fearful prayer, you must first understand the meaning behind it and how it came to be. A true understanding of its moral challenge, fatalistic theology, call to human responsibility and prescription for redemption can enlighten and enrich the High Holy Day experience.

“If it is the High Holy Days, we are to leave with the conviction that we are indeed mortal beings; that we do balance good and evil sometimes giving in to the latter at the expense of the former; that there is indeed a divine presence before whom we stand; and that we can, with proper repentance and resolve, wipe the slate clean and begin anew with all the promise of a world re-created, a child reborn, a mind reformed, and a conscience reawakened,”  writes Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, in Who By Fire, Who By Water—Un’taneh Tokef (Jewish Lights / May 2010 / Hardcover / $24.99). “This series aims at such a liturgical reawakening.”

Over forty contributors who span three continents and all major Jewish denominations examine Un’taneh Tokef’s theology, authorship and poetry through a set of lively commentaries. Men and women, scholars and rabbis, artists and poets trace the history of Un’taneh Tokef and connect the prayer to its biblical and rabbinic roots. They wrestle with the personal and community impact of its deeply moving imagery, probe its haunting message of human mortality, and reflect on its call for sanctity, transformation and renewal.

Who By Fire, Who By Water—Un’taneh Tokef is the first volume in the Prayers of Awe series that will explore High Holy Day liturgy. It is designed to enrich the praying experience for everyone—whether experienced worshipers or guests who encounter Jewish prayer for the very first time.

Contributors: Merri Lovinger Arian • Rabbi Tony Bayfield, DD • Rabbi Sharon Brous • Dr. Marc Brettler • Dr. Erica Brown • Rabbi Ruth Durchslag, PsyD • Rabbi Edward Feinstein • Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman • Rabbi Andrew Goldstein, PhD • Dr. Joel M. Hoffman • Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur • Rabbi Elie Kaunfer • Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar • Dr. Reuven Kimelman • Rabbi Lawrence Kushner • Rabbi Noa Kushner • Rabbi Daniel Landes • Rabbi Ruth Langer, PhD • Liz Lerman • Rabbi Asher Lopatin • Catherine Madsen • Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, PhD • Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD • Ruth Messinger • Rabbi Charles H. Middleburgh, PhD • Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum • Rabbi Aaron Panken, PhD • Rabbi Or N. Rose • Rabbi Marc Saperstein, PhD • Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso • Rabbi Jonathan P. Slater, DMin • Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek • Rabbi David Stern • Rabbi David A. Teutsch, PhD • Rabbi Gordon Tucker, PhD • Dr. Ellen M. Umansky • Rabbi Avraham Weiss • Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, DD • Dr. Ron Wolfson • Rabbi David J. Wolpe • Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel • Dr. Wendy Zierler

About the Editor:

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, has served for more than three decades as professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He is a world-renowned liturgist and holder of the Stephen and Barbara Friedman Chair in Liturgy, Worship and Ritual. His work combines research in Jewish ritual, worship and spirituality with a passion for the spiritual renewal of contemporary Judaism.

He has written and edited many books, including My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries, winner of the National Jewish Book Award; and he is coeditor of My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries (all Jewish Lights), a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.

Rabbi Hoffman is a developer of Synagogue 3000, a transdenominational project designed to envision and implement the ideal synagogue of the spirit for the twenty-first century.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu