Watch the Torah Slam in this video from our friends at the Jewish Television Network
"Cheat on your rabbi" was the winning ad slogan that attracted an overflow crowd of 500 to what was billed as Los Angeles's first-annual cross-denominational public Torah study.
In preparation for the High Holy Days, "Torah Slam" featured six Los Angeles rabbis invited by The Journal to represent a spectrum of Jewish thought, including the Orthodox, Lubavitch, Conservative, post-denominational, Reform and Sephardic movements.
The group came to the Skirball Cultural Center on the evening of Sept. 16 to discuss and debate the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, better known as the "Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die" prayer, which serves as the centerpiece of High Holy Day liturgy.
The speakers were Rabbi Elazar Muskin of the Orthodox shul Young Israel of Century City; Rabbi Ed Feinstein of the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom; Rabbi Mordecai Finley of the Reform/Chasidic Ohr HaTorah; Rabbi Haim Ovadia of the Sephardic Magen David of Beverly Hills; and Rabbi Naomi Levy, the Conservative-ordained, post-denominational leader of Nashuva.
After the rabbis spoke, moderator and Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa introduced a "surprise guest," Chabad Rabbi Reuven Wolf. Each presented an interpretation of the prayer, after which they challenged one another.
The Skirball auditorium was filled to capacity with 350 people and another 150 had to be turned away. In an effort to quell the tension before the program began, Feinstein encouraged the audience to join him in singing "Oseh Shalom" and "Hinei Ma Tov."
"I just want to thank Rabbi Feinstein for bringing us back to camp," said Rabbi Muskin, the first to take the podium.
The mood quickly shifted with the discussion of the prayer. Written on his deathbed by an 11th-century rabbi who had been pressured by the local German bishop to convert to Christianity, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer-poem, or piyyut, can be seen as ominous or beautiful, depending upon the prism of the interpreter. Levy, in particular, pointed out that the prayer was written by one man and should not be seen as a divine writ.
"Are we pawns in God's hands?" Muskin asked, before explaining his belief that we all have the power to write our own fate. Emphasizing the idea of free will over judgment, he added, "Our signatures are upon it. You want a beautiful life? You write it."
Finley promptly disagreed: "Our fate is not decided by how we live." For him the prayer represents "a theater of liturgy," and he focused on its psychological subtext. If a person is not living life fully, those thoughts often get pressed into the unconscious, he said.
"You can all live lives of higher decency," Finley said. "If you live a life of superficial ego consciousness, you will lack intimacy."
Feinstein offered a vision of the prayer as the painful reality of the human condition and not an edict of divine judgment. "Read [the prayer] in the first person," he suggested. "These are all things I'll experience in my life. This is what we call the human condition, and it's risky and vulnerable and painful and difficult."
During the High Holy Days, we confront the horrifying truth of our mortality, he said. The prayer reminds us of three things we can do to assign meaning to life and make its realities less painful and difficult: repentance, prayer, tzedakah.
Levy explicated the prayer's various God images, while warning against over-emphasizing its power.
"This prayer is not equal to Judaism or even equal to the theology of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur," she said. "It is one man's understanding of what these days are about." She depicted a world of two alternate universes, one in which we act and another in which our soul is being judged.
"The prayer is meant to be frightening," she explained. "Wake up! Get the message: We're all dying; not just the patient with terminal cancer -- for every single one of us, the prognosis is the same."
Levy asserted the importance of the hopeful ending: "You have the power to change something very fundamental about your life."
Offering an entirely different perspective, Ovadia explained that the Sephardic tradition does not include the prayer in its High Holy Day liturgy and that he finds meaning only in the commission to perform repentance, prayer and tzedakah. He told of his own journey to Los Angeles and his confrontation with human vulnerability during the terrorist attacks in New York of Sept. 11.
In an emotional outpouring, Wolf used the prayer as an affirmation of life, citing that the only way to serve God is to live and "sanctify the mundane."
The various interpretations by the rabbis, who at the end of the evening also responded to audience questions, did not so much reflect the differences among the denominations as much as the distinct approaches of each individual. The collegiality among them as they shared the stage gave a rare insight into the Los Angeles rabbinic community, as they made a point of saying: "We are friends."
The statement of community and of respect in what sometimes seems a divided Jewish world was perhaps the sweetest New Year surprise of all.