It must be nice to live in a world of Jewish absolutes. Denizens of the black and white Jewish world experience no discomfort. For them life is simple. Neither the extreme left nor the extreme right has any doubts. Their belief system permits no dichotomies, allows for no flexibility, and frowns on compromise. This is especially true of religion, and politics. More so when they are combined.
I am a conflicted Jew on several levels. I am committed to Orthodox practice, yet I value Western culture. I study traditional Jewish texts but I also read widely in other literatures. My heart and soul and mind bask in the glory of Jerusalem, yet I also appreciate Tel Aviv. I study Jewish history and see how great rabbinic minds responded to a multitude of new situations. Some rabbis took courageous positions while others opted not to tamper with "tradition".
Leadership is not for the faint hearted and standing up and out for your honest beliefs often carries a toll. Just ask Moses, Isaiah, Maimonides, Rabbis Goren and Soloveitchik. I am conflicted with regard to our community’s response to the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Again, those on the extreme left and right have no conflict. Either we commemorate Yom Hashoah V’HaGevurah, or mourn for the Six Million on Tisha B’Av. Either we celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut with Hallel, or ignore it completely since we cannot add new holidays anymore.
My conflict stems from my commitment to the Jewish legal process known as Halacha and the timidity of some to address these epoch making events from the prism of that process. Aside from the fact that the Shoah was sui generis in the annals of genocide, throughout Jewish history we have commemorated other tragedies such as the Crusades and the Chmielnicki pogroms with officially sanctioned fast days, liturgical poems and prayers, some of which are still recited today – and not only on Tisha B’Av.
We Jews are no strangers to tragedy. When entire communities were wiped out in the 11th-12th centuries fast days were proclaimed, even on Rosh Chodesh. Many legal authorities have written that the 33 days of mourning known as Sefira, commemorate these calamities. The Av HaRachamim prayer recited on Shabbat was written to remind us of the Crusades all year long. We mourn the destruction of the major centers of Jewish learning in the Rhineland for over a month, we grieve for the destruction of our Temples for three weeks, yet there is still a hesitancy on the part of some to proclaim one day of commemoration for the Six Million. Great centers of Torah scholarship were destroyed, brilliant scholars were cut down, children were butchered and millions of Jews were gassed and cremated. Yet somehow the need to preserve the notion that we are not able to create a new ritual or observance troubles me greatly. I am sure that the medieval rabbis also viewed themselves as inferior to the rabbis who preceded them. Yet somehow they rose to the occasion when it came to remembering. Memorbucher were created and the names of all the martyrs were read aloud in the synagogue every Yizkor. I am conflicted.
Religious Jewish anti-Zionists viewed Zionism as a false messiah. Despite the existence of several religious Zionist groups in Eastern Europe, mainstream political Zionism was a secular movement. The fact that Jews prayed daily for a return to Zion was understood to mean via Divine aid, not the agency of non-religious pioneers. After Ben Gurion read Israel’s Declaration of Independence, however, the blessing of Shehecheyanu was recited.
There are secular Zionists who are as passionate about their Yom Ha’Atzmaut BBQ as are those in the kippot serugot camp about their recitation of Hallel. Everyone is proud that Israel exists and most Jews understand the sacrifices that were made and are still being made to maintain the State. Every Jew has positive feelings about the Land of Israel-Eretz Yisrael. And yet, and yet, there is still resistance to celebrating Medinat Yisrael. Learned treatises have been written by eminent rabbis proving that a national salvation of the Jewish people resulting in self-government in their own land is worthy of celebration, nay, requires it. Even in Israel itself though, there are segments of the religious population whose leaders have determined that such a celebration is premature and inappropriate.
Yet, such celebrations are not without precedent. In many communities, when annihilation was prevented, they called it their own Purim and celebrated it annually. Jewish law prescribes a blessing when passing the site of a specific salvation from harm and many Jews have the custom of a celebratory meal on the anniversary of such salvation. In fact, one might even make the case that Chanukah began as a popular celebration that was later canonized by the Rabbis. This reluctance to make Yom Ha’Atzmaut an official holiday is very troubling, even though I understand the rationale behind it.
Sometimes I wish I lived in a black and white world.
Dr. Wallace Greene serves on the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Holocaust Memorial Committee and celebrates Yom Ha’Atzmaut.