On the way to Rosh Hashana services today, I asked my 11 year old son how his prayers (with his father) the day before had gone. He said he was getting bored, so he started to read the stories below the prayers. He read about the one where the rabbi had his limbs amputated.
I didn’t know what he was referring to, so he opened up the machzor (prayer book) as we walked to synagogue and began to read to me. There’s a troubling prayer Unsaneh Tokef that lists all the ways you could die, and it ends seemingly saying that “repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil decree.” (It’s troubling because it seems to say that we can prevent catastrophes in this world, if we just repent, pray and give charity, but we know the world doesn’t operate in such simplistic ways.)
My son read the origin story of the prayer (which is likely apocryphal but based on actual stories that did occur throughout Jewish history). According to what my son read, the prayer was composed by 11th-century sage Rabbi Amnon of Mainz – a friend of the Archbishop of Mainz. He was pressured to convert to Christianity. As a delaying tactic, he requested three days to consider the offer. Immediately, he regretted giving the idea that he could accept another religion.
After spending three days in prayer, he refused to come to the archbishop as promised, and, when he was dragged to the archbishop’s palace, he begged that his tongue be cut out to atone for his sin.
Instead, the archbishop ordered his hands and legs amputated — joint by joint — as punishment for not obeying his word to return after three days and for refusing to convert. At each amputation, Rabbi Amnon was again given the opportunity to convert, which he refused.
He was sent home, with his severed extremities. This event occurred shortly before Rosh Hashanah. On that holiday, as he lay dying, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried into the synagogue, where he recited the original composition of Unetanneh Tokef with his last breath. I told my son the origin story of a prayer we have theologically struggled with – seems to disagree with the simple meaning of the prayer. The rabbi prayed and repented but died anyway. Maybe this prayer is not meant to be understood literally.
I also told my son how thankful we should be that Jews are so safe in the world today and as I said that, we arrived at shul and my son noticed the cop car parked out front, as he reminded us both that Jews are still not safe.
I thought about how my son had to find a gruesome story from the past innocently perusing a Jewish prayer book and beefed up security trying to go to a synagogue in our present day and how vicious the lie of Jewish privilege is. My children are deeply proud to be Jews, but our history is laced with tremendous pain and our present feels increasingly precarious.
Having such a blood soaked past and uncertain present is scary enough. Being gaslit that this is not the Jewish reality makes it even worse.
May it be a year of peace, revealed blessings, and finally the end to this violent and painful exile.