It was said to me recently that including the Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” as part of the Unataneh Tokef was too honest. It was too graphic in its wording. My response was a bit of confusion. Cohen speaks about death and life, and yes, he does it in a remarkably honest manner. Using contemporary language. The liturgy for Unataneh Tokef in the Machzor is also rich and honest and doesn’t hide a thing. It talks about who will live and who will die – nothing is hidden, all is transparent. Yet, the hair pricks up on the back of our necks as we read Cohen’s piece. To me, it is more real, more immediate for us today. Perhaps we have become complacent with the traditional words – are we too used to them? The Unateneh Tokef is meant to force us to the reality that life is fragile and death is certain, and we know not when things will change at an instant. I believe the Cohen piece is more relevant at times, and can speak more to us in the 21st Century than our liturgy. But, we must not lose the tradition of the original words, which I’m sure were quite candid, straightforward and awakening for the times. The words were written in language of the day to be meaningful. They are still meaningful for us today, but Cohen’s words, too ring loud and clear. Let us hear the message, whether through traditional words or through contemporary language. Who will live and who will die? We know not, but we are spiritually commanded to take advantage of its message and to live life with honesty, integrity and with uprightness.
-- Rabbi Kim Ettlinger, Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Victoria