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Unetaneh Tokef and Rabbi Amnon of Mainz- an Anti-Martyrdom Rant

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

As we turn now to the powerful words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, we contemplate this question- What is the elusive, awful charisma of martyrdom?  Tragically, in our own generation, we have seen a resurgence of the notion that there is great glory in dying for one’s religious beliefs.  The story of the Akedah which we read last week, warns us against human sacrifice in God’s service.  Ten times we read variations of the word “son” in the story of the binding of Isaac.  “Kach na et bincha- take your son.”   “He took Isaac- his son.”   “His son.  My son. Your son”  The text is designed to keep the relationship between Abraham and Isaac in the forefront of our consciousness.  We cannot forget for a single moment that it is his son that Abraham is prepared to sacrifice as a martyr to his own religious convictions.  Finally, in verse 12, a different voice emerges, a voice that resounds through the rest of history- the Holy One does NOT want human sacrifice, does NOT require martyrdom as testimony to our faith.

Yet the legend of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, purported author of Unetaneh Tokef, seduces us towards romanticizing martyrdom.  How so?

According to legend, Rabbi Amnon of Mainz was famous for his righteousness, so much so that the bishop of Mainz heard of the rabbi and wanted to befriend him, on condition that the Rabbi abandon his Jewish faith.  The rabbi refused and was ultimately killed, martyred, for his disobedience.  The words of this prayer, which have inspired and haunted generations with their profound expression of the transience of our lives, were his dying utterance.

         I love the Unetaneh Tokef prayer almost as much as I am disturbed by the legend of its origin.  As we chant these haunting words, “Who in their time?  Who before their time?”, I invite us all to reflect, not on the example of martyrdom, but on the profound teaching of the Torah, “Choose life, that you and your children may live.”  However tempting it might be to demonstrate our faith in one grand gesture, evidencing our willingness to die for our religious beliefs, the greater, the greatest challenge is to translate those beliefs into our daily practice.

In Hebrew, we say that those who died as martyrs gave their lives “al kidushat HaShem.”  They died, that is, to sanctify God’s name.  Kiddush HaShem is also the term we use for living exemplary lives, lives of holiness.  When we do good, we bring glory to God’s name- we are a Kiddush HaShem.

In this foundational prayer of our High Holiday davvening, Unetaneh Tokef, we remind ourselves of the precious and precarious nature of our existence in order to renew our commitment to embrace each and every day of life and to bring holiness, kidushat HaShem, to our actions in the world.

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