Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky at Ansche Chesed reminded all of us in the kahal yesterday that this Yom Kippur, 2013, was the 100th year anniversary of the legendary visit of Franz Rosenzweig to a synagogue in Berlin. It was from there that he wrote to his cousin Rudi Ehrenberg that, no, he would not convert to Christianity, but would “remain a Jew.” It’s because he found the meaning of life and death and the truth of God and sex in the synagogue. If you read his description of Yom Kippur in The Star of Redemption (1921), what stands out is the psycho-drama, the community of men, naked in their shrouds, dead in the midst of life, declaring themselves to their God, the God of mercy.
My own sense is that for Rosenzweig, the entirety of the day was collapsed into the famous unetaneh tokef, a piyyut from medieval Ashkenaz. The liturgical poem pictures the whole world of creatures are shepherded before the God’s throne of judgment, deciding who will live and who will die in the year to come. And then it determines that the power of turning (repentance), prayer, and charity (justice) averts not the decree itself, but its severity. It’s a medieval political theology, this emphasis on the absolute judgment of God’s sovereign authority. It shifts the day’s focus from the idea of ancient cult and ancient idea of atonement towards the dark bright star of more theo-cosmic-political reckonings. This glowing meta-physical medievalism is what feeds the pathos of the picture world of German Expressionism as articulated in Rosenzweig’s system of modernist Jewish philosophy.
The whole performance would have once repelled me as a young person growing up in the 1970s, overwhelmed by the first generation of institutionalized Holocaust memory. For me, the sovereignty of God paled before the memory of suffering people and the image of Auschwitz. This probably explains my more cynical eye on the modern, declarative bathos in Rosenzweig’s Jewish book.
Today, I’m more drawn to the beauty and power of the piyyut and its severe image of the world. It’s not that I don’t still dig the picture-image dramatized by Rosenzweig, even if I find it overwrought. But my own picture of Yom Kippur is by now more banal and quotidian, more bourgeois and familial. I’m late to shul and then there all day, immersed in the details of the day, tired, sleepy, slightly dazed, instropsective, and fasting. I doze and wake up and re-focus, deeply annoyed by a bored and recalcitrant nine year old boy, alert both to historical nuance in the liturgical text and to the little drama unfolding down below from the balcony from where I watch the day go by. I love sitting next to M., the tinkling of bells on the Torah finials, while thinking about what? The passage of time, “our Father in Heaven,” my mother’s cheerful sarcasm and my dad’s terrestrial memory, and my own little dramas caught up in the arc of the synagogue space, leaving shul and the first shot of orange juice followed by coffee at break-fast at my brother’s place?