Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Inscribed and Monitored

So, at Rosh Hashanah services this morning at Congregation Adas Emuno, I was particularly taken with the prayer called unetanah tokef (which means, "we shall ascribe holiness to this day," the first line of the prayer) . This is a religious poem that is only recited on the Jewish New Year and on Yom Kippur, and its origins are appropriately apocryphal--legend has it that it was composed in the 11th century by Rabbi Amon of Mainz, Germany (where four centuries later Johann Gutenberg would invent the printing press with movable type), although it probably was the product of Byzantine Jewish culture in the 8th or 9th century. The legend has it that Rabbi Amon was asked to renounce his faith, tortured, and before he died, was taken to his synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, whereupon he interrupted the regularly scheduled service, recited this poem, and died. He later appeared to one of his disciples in a dream, and asked that this prayer be recited each year.

The legend matches the apocalyptic theme of the prayer-poem--it's judgment day, after all, but in Jewish tradition that's an annual event, not something that comes just at the end of time. But it does share themes and motifs with Christian apocalyptic prayers, notably the Dies irae prayer of the requiem mass.

But that's not why I'm bringing it up here. What struck me about the prayer, today, was the way in which it described God as a writer, a scribe who painstakingly records all that occurs, and also as an accountant--it has been established for sometime now by archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat that the first writing system was developed by accountants in the ancient Sumerian palaces of Mesopotamia, and that numerals were among the first written characters (in systems such as cuneiform and hieroglyphics, as well as Chinese ideographic writing, each character stands for an entire words, in contrast to the alphabet).

I whispered the point about God being a scribe to a fellow member of the Adas Emuno Board of Trustees, Virginia Gitter, and she added, noting the references to seals, that God also seems to be a notary public. A joke of course, but a seal is the traditional means by which a written document would be validated, substituting for the author's actual presence (if he or she were there, you would know where the words came from for sure, or at least could ask). The signature became the more widely used and democratic substitute for the seal, a sign that seems to be becoming less and less significant now that we have moved from the print era (where handwriting represented the previous era) to an electronic era (where print represents the most recently passed period).

I think it altogether extraordinary to consider this concept of the divine, not as an animistic spirit or as Zeus hurling lightning down from the heavens, but as God the scribe, the author, creation being written, a work in progress that continues to this day. So, anyway, here's a translation of this prayer-poem that I got from MyJewishLearning.com that seems pretty good, although it's not exactly the same as the one we used in our prayerbook. I'll put in boldface all the writing metaphors I can identify, and related references to acoustic and mnemonic terms:

We shall ascribe holiness to this day.

For it is awesome and terrible.

Your kingship is exalted upon it.

Your throne is established in mercy.

You are enthroned upon it in truth.

In truth You are the judge,

The exhorter, the all‑knowing, the witness,

He who inscribes and seals,

Remembering all that is forgotten.

You open the book of remembrance

Which proclaims itself,

And the seal of each person is there.

The great shofar is sounded,

A still small voice is heard.

The angels are dismayed,

They are seized by fear and trembling

As they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment!

For all the hosts of heaven are brought for judgment.

They shall not be guiltless in Your eyes

And all creatures shall parade before You as a troop.

As a shepherd herds his flock,

Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff,

So do You cause to pass, count, and record,

Visiting the souls of all living,

Decreeing the length of their days,

Inscribing their judgment.

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,

Who by famine and who by thirst,

Who by earthquake and who by plague,

Who by strangulation and who by stoning,

Who shall have rest and who shall wander,

Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,

Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,

Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,

Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

By the way, the line about the "still small voice" is very evocative, as it refers to an inner voice, the conscience, perhaps thought itself as a still, clear voice, small but nonetheless heard, if we choose to listen.

The beauty of this prayer was obviously not lost on the Jewish-Canadian musician and poet Leonard Cohen, who based his song "Who By Fire" on it. There are several compelling versions available on YouTube, and here's one that only makes use of still images, but features a particularly lovely musical arrangement from a live performance:

And here are Cohen's lyrics:
And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?

So, returning to the original unetanah tokef prayer, what also strikes me about it is the very clear assertion that God is not only watching everything we do, but writing it all down. The parallel between this concept and the modern notion of surveillance, the panopticon, and Orwell's Big Brother, all functions of the secular State is quite interesting. But whereas the modern notion was of a loss and invasion of privacy, this medieval view comes without any real sense of privacy to begin with, privacy itself being a modern phenomenon. From a media ecology perspective, privacy develops within print culture as a consequence of widespread literacy, because reading and writing move us into an increasingly more isolated position, whereas speaking and listening are communal acts.

So, looking at it in media ecological terms, in oral cultures individuals would consider themselves to be always under observation, because all of nature is alive and imbued with spirit. Any given deity may or may not be paying attention at any given time, but it's a good bet that something supernatural has its eye on you. As we move from oral polytheism to literate monotheism, we have the one all-seeing God not only watching, but also recording everything you do. Then, in print culture we start to develop deistic notions of a God who sets things in motion and then walks away and doesn't pay much attention to what we do, coinciding with the advent of privacy. And as noted, the modern State moves in to fill the gap, or as they said on the classic British TV series The Prisoner, Be Seeing You!

And now we find ourselves moving into a time of widespread narcissism and exhibitionism, where we are training the video cameras on ourselves, revealing all in our blogs (yes I know, not all of us, but more and more we're moving that way, and more so with each generation). As the late Tony Schwartz put it, media have become the second god, and especially the internet, if the definition of a god might be something that is always watching you. And it may well be that privacy was the great anomaly, and we are by nature a species that craves attention, that wants to believe that someone is always fascinated with our every action, word uttered, and every thought that pops into our heads.

Well, ok, so much for philosphizing for tonight. So, how about I end with something for the kids? Here you go! This video was sent to me by my MySpace friend Ami:

And finally, may you all be inscribed and monitored in the Book of Life for another year, signed, sealed and delivered!

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