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A modern take on Unetaneh Tokef, Leonard Cohen's 'Who By Fire' continues great midrashic tradition

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question everything Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Sep-20-09 12:05 AM
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A modern take on Unetaneh Tokef, Leonard Cohen's 'Who By Fire' continues great midrashic tradition

September 18, 12:13 PM Philadelphia Judaism Examiner Joysa Winter

Who by fire
who by water,
Who in the sunshine,
who in the night time

Who by avalanche,
who by powder,
Who for his greed,
who for his hunger

It is a long litany, this list, of all the different ways we might die in the coming year. Sobering? Perhaps. Thought-provolking? Most certainly. If you recognize this list, my inner-rabbi approves. It means you've been here before and you've even been paying attention. What you may not realize, however, is that this list, is actually not from the famous Unetaneh Tokef prayer, the pinnacle of liturgy on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These are not the words of a 7th-century liturgist. These are the words of the 20th-century singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen, in his 1974 hit song Who By Fire?


The traditional Unetaneh Tokef prayer is one that strives to inspire both fear and hope.

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,

To the author of Unetaneh Tokef, Rosh Hashanah is one of the most solemn days of the year, for it is the day humanity is judged. Hope hinges on prayer, charity and repentance, which might temper God's decree. "Awesome" and "terrible." Those are about the only words that really capture the tenor of the Unetaneh Tokef, which reflect the traditional rabbinic interpretation of the season.

In Leonard Cohen's hands, however, the nature of God, and the prayer's underlying struggle with mortality, take on a completely different and distinctly post-modernist meaning. In his version, he gives a modern-day list of all the various ways a person can die (a vengeful lover, and depression, for example, replace the traditional 'wild beast' and 'stoning'). But then Cohen adds a refrain to his song, a remark, almost tossed over his shoulder, casually, in God's general direction: "And who," he says, "shall I say is calling?"


If you ever feeling like taking a Jewish spiritual journey and you dont feel like going to shul I suggest you play some of his music. Who By Fire? isn't his only song to wrestle with his faith.

In his song Story of Isaac from 1969, Cohen tells the story of the Akeidah from the perspective of Isaac, recast into the Vietnam War. The song becomes a rabbinic-style tale on the ethics of one generation sacrificing the lives of the next. His song Hallelujah, from 1984, invokes images of King David composing his own Hallelujah, at the same time he is being tempted by Bathsheba. (It has been recorded by more than 200 other artists.) In his song Anthem, Cohen makes a not-so-veiled reference to the Jewish mystical idea that the world is made up of shattered pieces of the divine, for which it is our charge to gather them up again. Forget your perfect offering, he sings, There is a crack in everything / Thats how the light gets in.


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