Saturday, September 20, 2014

Who really wrote Unetaneh Tokef?

I like to think I'm pretty savvy about the origins of various minhagim, and I usually look at the legends behind the various customs with a skeptical eye.

But I only learned today that the Rosh Hashana prayer "Unetaneh Tokef" was found in the Cairo Geniza, in a manuscript dating to the 8th century. That is far earlier than the traditional belief in the story of R Amnon of Mainz in the 10th or 11th century, who wrote it as he lay dying because of his refusal to convert to Christianity.

I had already viewed the details of this story as suspect, because it smacked of being too perfect in its emotional impact. But until today, I still assumed that the authorship, and its time period, were relatively accurate.

It turns out that the issues with the authorship are well-known, and have been for half a century. The Geniza manuscript was known to scholars as early as the 1950's. And that is not not the only issue with the traditional story. See this Schechter Institute article for more details.

Yet the Artscroll Machzor, first published in August of 1985, still reports the traditional story faithfully, the only possible concession to reality being perhaps the words "This is the story behind it".

That leaves two options:

a) The editors at Artscroll were simply unaware of the scholarship that showed an earlier composition date. If so, that's a shame, and shows yet again that despite their beautifully typset and bound volumes, there is a willful ignorance of anything outside the Yeshiva walls that pervades the atmosphere there. Yes, I didn't know the facts either, but whenever I write or prepare a topic for public airing, the first thing I do is research it fully. They did not.

b) They know about the scholarly view, yet discount it. Now I can understand rejecting scholarly ideas about Biblical authorship - that would challenge Orthodox dogma, and I certainly don't expect Artscroll to embrace, or even acknowledge ideas that go against the foundations of their beliefs. But this is just authorship of a medieval poem! There is absolutely nothing "dangerous" in adding a couple of lines to the commentary acknowledging that the traditional story that follows isn't factual, even if some might still find it meaningful.

Either way, they choose to close their eyes and ears to anything that doesn't conform to the ever narrowing "Torah True" ideology. And that's a real shame.

As for me, the authorship doesn't matter. It was written by a Jew and is about repentance. And when we all loudly recite, in unison, the words
ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה
I will feel their power as I always have, irrespective of authorship.

Friday, September 19, 2014

American Colonies Reject Independence From Britain in Historic Vote

July 5, 1776

PHILADELPHIA — Voters in America decisively rejected independence from the British Empire in
a referendum that had threatened to break up the 150-year union, but also appeared to open the way for a looser, more federal Britain.

With results tallied by early Friday from all 13 colonies, the “no” campaign won 55.3 percent of the vote while the pro-independence side won 44.7 percent. The margin was greater than forecast by virtually all pre-election polls.

The outcome was a deep disappointment for the vocal, enthusiastic pro-independence movement led by Benjamin Franklin, who had seen an opportunity to make a decades-old nationalist dream a reality and had forced the British crown into panicked promises that they would grant substantial new power to the colonial governments.

The decision spared King George III of Britain a shattering defeat that would have raised questions about his ability to continue in office and would have diminished his nation’s standing in the world.

Mr. Franklin, while conceding defeat, insisted that the 1 million people who voted for independence showed the depth of yearning for the political powers promised to America by British political leaders to stave off disunion.

“The colonies will expect these to be honored in rapid course,” Mr. Franklin said, while promising to work to heal the divisions the referendum created.

The campaign to keep America within the Empire secured just over 1.3 million votes, providing what the king took as a mandate for broader changes affecting all components of the British Empire.

“The people of the American Colonies have spoken and it is a clear result,” King George said outside Windsor Castle in Berkshire after Mr. Franklin conceded defeat just after dawn. “They have kept our country together. As I said during the campaign, it would have broken my heart to see our union come to an end.”