Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 1 May 2008

The Problem with Yom HaShoah

As a child of Holocaust survivors, I grew up with the idea that Yom HaShoah is a fixed holiday on the Jewish calender (athough it always seemed to come out on Sundays where I lived!). Every year we followed the same routine. For a few weeks before, our Hebrew school teachers would show us films of the Holocaust, teach us a few simple songs like "Ani Ma'amin" and tell us how important remembering was. Then the day would arrive and we would troop up in front of the assembled throng and sing our songs and say our little speeches and everyone would clap politely and nod seriously. Yes, we must remember, they all kept saying. Never again, don't grant the Nazis a posthumous victory, you've heard all the lines. There was a special sense of solemnity when we would light the six light bulbs on the ceremonial candelabra, one light bulb for each of the six million martyrs. We were remembering them and ensuring they would not be forgotten.
But all that was a long time ago. Since that time, I've had many opportunities to think about Yom HaShoah and the more I've learned about Judaism and our blood-soaked history, the less importance it has held for me.
That's not to say I'm diminishing the unspeakable tragedy that was the Shoah. God forbid I ever suggest that. What happened in Churban Europa was and is still undescribable in its magnitude and horror. Each of the Six Million is a holy martyr whose soul was sanctified in the name of Heaven, the highest honour a Jew could ever achieve and to doubt that, or to minimize in any way what happened is unacceptable. All this I strongly believe.
But the idea of a special day just for the victims of the Shoah? With that I've developed a problem with over the last few years.
The first issue is that of context. Yom HaShoah recalls the fate of our people under the Nazis from 1933-1945. It rarely deals with what came before in more than an oblique way. It rarely deals with what came after except to mention the establishment of the State of Israel. We are told over and over again about what the Germans, y"sh, did to our people but almost never about what the rest of the world did and how they either helped or were complicit in the process.
The problem with this is that the Jewish approach to history has always been one of comprehensiveness. We are all God's children carrying out His plans for history. Events of significance are not random occurences. They are almost always the culmination of other events and carry with them moral lessons for us. The Torah observant Jew approaches the Shoah from a position of fear and dread. Why did this happen? How was it part of God's plan for history? What role did we play in bringing it about? What are we to learn from it? How do we properly santify the souls which were lost and make their sacrifices meaningful? For the non-observant Jew Yom HaShoah can answer none of these questions.
And I wonder if that's the point. After all, one must always be wary of anyone, no matter how educated or observant they may be, when they start a sentence with "The Holocaust happened because..." Perhaps in a few centuries we will be able to more dispassionately analyze it like we do now with other great tragedies of our history but the Shoah is still far too close, too personal, to allow such introspection. And the secular answer to this dilemma seems to be not that we cannot yet answer these questions but rather that there are no answers.
This makes sense from a non-observant point of view. The idea that our people were picked for destruction for more than simple reasons, that some part of history was played out through their deaths, that a higher purpose may have been served and something accomplished through all the suffering is not something that has much currency outside the religious world. Just as in daily life, God plays a peripheral role, if any at all, in life, so too in the realm of history He is seen to be just as absent. The Shoah happened, it just happened, and that's about as deep as one can go looking for a meaningful answer. And that kind of thinking feels quite unfufilling.
There is the matter of the commemoration as well. In Jewish law and tradition, mourning for the dead has always been shown in specific ways, through fasting, prayer, supplications and certain public displays. Choirs singing short ditties and speeches by local public officials have never been on that list.
I'm also not a fan of slogans, especially unfulfilled ones. Never again? Tell the Cambodians, Chinese and Rwandans about that one. The need for Jews to be vigilant against resurgent anti-Semitism? Then why is the government of Israel negotiating with a terrorist leader whose PhD is in Holocaust Denial? Not to give the Nazis a posthumous victory? The Jewish population of the United States has declined by 2 million in the last two generations. The worldwide population is stagnant if not slowly dropping. The only thing concealing the real magnitude of the decrease is the increasingly liberal definitions of "Jew" being used. Were one to use the strictly halachic position, people would be even more shocked.
Then there's the next issue I have which is the timing of the day. Yes, I know it's to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but it also happens during Sefriah, a time in the Jewish year when we are supposed to limit public gatherings and avoid live music. I sometimes wonder if the people who chose the date did so saying that the need to remember on this particular day overrode the Sefirah obligations, or if they had simply never heard of it at all! but for the observant Jew trying his best to both remember our fallen kedoshim and observe halachah properly, this creates an emotional conflict.
It also leads into my greatest problem with Yom HaShoah, and this is obvious for anyone who knows the Jewish calender. There already is a day set aside for the Holocaust and it's called Tisha B'Av. That day, set in the long humid days of mid-summer when many don't think about their Jewishness (after all, God went on vacation with us when Hebrew school ended in June, didn't He?) has been in our calender for over two thousand years as a day of mourning for not only the destruction of our Temples (may the Third One be speedily built) but for all the other great destructions that have overwhelmed us in the past. The Roman persecutions, the Crusades, the slaughter of the Jews of Arabia by Muhammed, y"sh, the Inquisition, the Chielmniski uprisings, the pogroms, and all the other untold sufferings are all recalled on Tisha B'Av. For non-observant Jews, most of these are events from history without a feeling of personal connection. The though of fasting for 25 hours for a Temple one has never seen or felt a connection to must sound absurd. However, for the observant Jew mindful of God's place in our world, aware of the need to keep all our history in context and yearning for a connection in the midst of mourning with our Creator and generations gone by, including a fitting recollection of the Holocaust is a natural part of Tisha B'Av. Now the Holocaust means something other than a random event in recent history. It is part of our journey, part of our suffering since the destruction of the Second Temple. Its magnitude can be appreciated with a bit more depth.
So in the end, that makes Yom HoShoah a less sensible idea for me. Separated from the continuum of Jewish history and ingnorant of Jewish law and tradition, it ironically shows how cut off many modern Jews are from their history and the generations that came before. Not the way to best show defiance to our enemies, is it?

1 comment:

SJ said...

>> it ironically shows how cut off many modern Jews are from their history and the generations that came before. Not the way to best show defiance to our enemies, is it?

so I guess not using electricity on Shabbat is an ancient tradition from mount sinai. (sarcasm)