Trans Spirituality: Unetane Tokef

| Sep 21, 2020
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Each year during the High Holy Days, Jews recite the classical prayer Unetane Tokef. It contains a litany of ways that people will die during the coming year, at the hands of the Heavenly Court. This is Theodicy at its finest. God is killing people for not doing their best. And many Jews reject this theology wholeheartedly, believing that God does not directly intervene in our lives in the modern era. Yet this prayer remains in our liturgy. It is certainly a reminder of horrors our people have experienced in the past millennia. And it concludes with a triplet that reminds us of how we can be saved:

“But Repentance and Prayer and Righteous Deeds can reduce the severity of the decree”

We are told the secret: If we do these things, including Tzedakah, which is an obligatory, righteous form of donations, not “charity”, we can perhaps be saved. But if we do not believe in Theodicy, how do these acts come into play? And what are our sins in the first place?

When we consider the litanies of the confessions that we recite in the liturgy, we always acknowledge that this is a formula that represents any possibility for ourselves, and for all of our community. We try to make expiation for everyone in the community, because nobody could have committed all those sins.

This year I think it takes on a much more haunting view however. This year has been an absolutely horrid year. For us trans folx, it has been a year of record murders of trans people, particularly Black trans women. And if we reject Theodicy, what then? What caused all of this? I have written before, in my Midrash on the Sh’ma, (The Fundamental Jewish Biblical Prayer) that I firmly believe that human hands are at play for many of societal ills. This has never been more true. So when we consider the year we are closing, let’s consider a new litany for the Unetane Tokef. Rather than blaming God, let’s look inward. How have people been dying?

COVID-19, Police murders

Transphobic murders, Wild fires

Hurricanes, tornadoes, derechos, other weather events

Smoke and other air pollutants, Indifference

Government corruption, Government inaction

Refusal to mask, Refusal to social distance

Food insecurity, Lack of housing

Lack of healthcare, Lack of employment

Anti-Semitic murders, Islamophobic murders

Anti-Asian attacks, Endless wars in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere

Unresolved refugee crises in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas

Government caused opiate crisis, exacerbated by street level Fentanyl

And the list goes on.

The list is too horrid to complete, and I am sure that every one of us, were we to sit down, would come up with a different list, because of differing priorities and concerns, that when collated, would amount to endless pages. But we all get the idea. Human failings and hubris are far more powerful than Theodicy EVER was at ending life.

But, we can reduce the severity of the decree.

With repentance, and prayer and righteous acts. Because if we turn away from all these selfish ways and become more selfLESS we can literally save lives. And lest people need reminding, we are OBLIGATED to save lives.

I bless all of us that NEW YEAR should be a sweeter year, with less pain, more happiness and peace. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a Sweet, Happy New Year.

Peace out,


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Category: Transgender Body & Soul


About the Author ()

Rabbah Rona Matlow (ze/hir) is an AMAB NB trans woman. Ze is a retired navy nuclear power officer, permanently disabled veteran and ordained rabbi. Ze is the author of the upcoming book “We are God’s Children Too”, part autobiography and part text which debunks the myths that conservative clergy have been teaching about trans and queer people for millennia. Ze is a communal activist, pastoral counselor and educator. Hir websites are and

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