Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Their Holiday and Ours

One thing many Gentiles and non-Orthodox Jews don't seem to get is the lack of flexibility in many aspects of Jewish practice.  Every so often I'm asked if I can cover someone for work on Shabbos or one of the main holidays.  When I explain to them that I am never available on such days, I sometimes get the response "Oh can't you make an exception this time?"
I understand why, I really do.  For most people there are always exceptions that can be made.  Like the supervisor I had in medical school who insisted that Shabbos dinners were an inviolable part of his family's weekly schedule - except for this week because his favourite band was in concert that Friday night, most people attach strong values to certain events in their lives but always seem to be able to figure out a way to get around the scheduling those values involve.
Where this disconnect seems to cause so much strife is in the interaction between observant and non-observant Jews.  When confronted with an Orthodox Jew who refuses to cooperate with a certain effort by other elements of the Jewish community because doing so would violate halacha in some way the non-Orthodox Jew may often huff "Well I'm Jewish too and I don't have a problem with it."  Many frum doctors will often tell you, for example, that requests to avoid being on call over Shabbos, even when accompanied by offers to work more Sundays and civic holidays, is usually supported by the non-Jewish members of the team but then torpedoed by the non-religious Jew who says "I have no problem coming in on Saturday and I'm just as good a Jew as you!"  It happened to me a few times during medical school and bewildered the non-Jews on the team, especially the devout Muslims who understood the concept of non-negotiable religious holidays and were amazed that another Jew would strive to torpedo my efforts.
Another time this causes trouble is on Yom HaShoah.  Now, off the top I want to make clear that my remarks regarding Yom HaShoah are restricted to observances of the holiday outside Israel.  Inside the State the holiday is of a completely different nature and this discussion is not relevant to it.
The big problem with Yom HaShoah within the religious community is that it seems to be have been invented by people who sincerely wanted to create a meaningful day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust but then did so with a  complete ignorance of Jewish calender periods and history.
The day chosen was during the Sefirah period which already is dominated by a mourning theme of its own, one quite applicable to the Jewish people today.  Yes, one could argue that Yom haAtzma'ut is also during Sefirah but in contrast to Yom HaShoah, Yom Ha'atzma'ut had its day chosen by historical events, not some committee of Jews wondering where in the calender to put it.
Then there is the way Yom HaShoah is observed.  Traditionally, when Jews have set aside days for mourning they have done just that: set aside the entire day.  Tisha B'Av isn't about an evening program with bagels and lox after an inspiring reading of Eichah.  The 20th of Sivan was set aside for various massacres of European Jewry, most recently the Chmeilnitsky massacres of 1648-49.  The entire day takes on a theme and atmosphere.
For Yom HaShoah none of this takes place.  Instead communities hold "meaningful" ceremonies that follow a specific pattern: the local secular Jewish leadership makes speeches about "Never again" and "Never forget", then civic leaders make declarations of support for the Jewish community and statements of sympathy for the victims, a children's choir or two is trotted out to sing either "Ani Ma'amin" or "Mir Zeinen Du" and finally someone plays a violin or cello as token survivors light an electric menorah with six branches.  After that everyone goes homes.  Yom HaShoah is over.
Beyond that there is the emphasis secular observances of Yom HaShoah place in the events.  God is, as best, offered a token mention but nothing more.  The senselessness of events, the idea that a survivor endured the horror of the Holocaust only by accident, the place Yom HaShoah has in Jewish history, all these are ignored.  Only the slogans "Never forget" and "Never again" and nothing more.
The religious approach to Yom HaShoah is far deeper.  We recall that just as 1 in 3 Jews died in the Holocaust, so did 1 on 3 Jews die during the Churban of the Second Temple (may it speedily be rebuilt) and even higher proportions at the first Churban.  We recall that 1/3 of Europe's Jews were killed by marauding Cossacks in 1648-49.  We ask God why we must suffer so, we confess our sins and seek to improve ourselves as Jews, we fast to show our sense of affliction and we recognize that until our Moshiah arrives we must endure such tragedies as history has heaped upon on.  There really is very little comparison between how religious and non-religious Jews recall the Shoah.  How could there be when our worldviews are so radically different?
But what I find most frustrating is the intolerance some in the non-religious community show over Orthodox non-participation in Yom HaShoah ceremonies.  Some understand, to be sure, but most are bewildered as to why we don't join in the observance of the holiday they created.  Religious Zionists understand quite well why Chareidim don't say Hallel on Yom Ha'atzma'ut but Jewish Federation officials are flummoxed as to why we don't join with the program on Yom HaShoah.
To be fair, there is much guilt on the religious side of things.  Many Chareidim are notoriously insensitive to the feelings of the non-religious on Yom HaShoah.  Just because I don't recognize the holiday in my set of yearly observances doesn't mean I should shove that in someone else's face.  At the very least the religious, when confronted by the "Why don't you participate?" crowd should demure politely and simply state "We have a different way of remembering the kedoshim."  But such sensitivity should go both ways and often the people who demand have the least for others.
In many ways, it comes back to how this post started.  We don't listen to music during Sefirah.  You pull out a cello.  We don't listen to women singing.  Inevitably one does.  Some of us don't like to sit in mixed seating even at non-prayer ceremonies.  You allow free seating.  Without intending to, the non-religious have created a holiday that the Orthodox cannot participate fully in and, when we don't, they condemn that lack of participation.  We hold by halacha and are called bad Jews for doing so?
When we point out that on Tisha B'Av they are expected to fast in commemoration of the destruction of the Temples, we are told that such ancient historical events are irrelevant.  Point out that Tisha B'Av also recalls the Crusades, the Inquisition and Gezeras Tach v'Tat and we get a look of bewilderment.  Centuries ago, who cares?  But the Holocaust just happened!
Please tell me someone what the expiry date on remembering a tragic event is.  Clearly it's less than 1900 years.  It's also less than 350 years.  At what point do we start ignoring the Holocaust and forget about what happened?  In 2245?  In 2145?  Because by ignoring Tisha B'Av that is the message the non-religious population is sending us: only recent tragedies matter.  There is an expiry date on grief.
It always comes down to the same frustrating point: the same people who don't have a clue about the rest of the Jewish year and have no trouble eating and drinking on Tisha B'Av are the most outraged when they read about Chareidim ignoring Yom HoShoah.  Their viewpoints, their sensitivities have to be respected but not religious ones.  What does that say about non-religious Jewish tolerance?
Is this the real fate of Yom HaShoah, to become the example of how both sides of the Jewish community, observant and non-observant, really don't care at all about one another?  Is that what the kedoshimi would have wanted?


Jennifer in MamaLand said...

During Yizkor, our shul (and the Artscroll siddur, incidentally) have a special Yizkor and Keil Moleh for victims of the Nazis. It drives me batty after years of my mother asking why there isn't one for the Inquisition, Chmielnitzki, and every other mess we've been embroiled in since Day 1. (of course, they also said "Germanim yemach shemam" instead of "Nazim yemach shemam" which is another kind of batty-making)

As for the Shoah - Didn't you blog about this last year? Or was it Tisha b'Av? Or the siren for Yom HaZikaron? - for the religious Zionist, one could argue that it was the dawn of the dawn of "reishit tzmichat geulateinu", that without the Shoah, medinat Yisrael could not exist. So it's moderately touching that it's linked closely with Y'mei HaZikaron and Atzmaut.

I do believe we are allowed to add observances without violating bal tosif. There are (surely) other examples where stuff was not just tacked onto Tisha b'Av. There are other examples where we do something in the evening but not necessarily all day. (??? - examples that will come to me in 10 minutes when I'm trying to fall asleep)

It sounds like you're just looking for a "bipartisan" organizing committee to break down these barriers.

If there's no cello and no woman singing, would you go along then ? You may have to cave on the mixed seating - just like many frum folks do at our Aish HaTorah shul.

To me, Yom HaShoah feels like a "mass yahrzeit" for those whose deaths went undated during that era. It is my understanding that that is how it's treated in many survivors' families. I don't observe it, not out of animosity but because all of my relatives, b"h, were here.

By the way, and I think I've said this before, I was living in a small town when Rabin was shot, and there was a gathering called that night for the entire Jewish community and believe me, everybody came.

The Chabad shaliach said we should, lest everybody would point fingers and say that all the frummies approved of his death.

A woman probably sang; the seating was definitely mixed. It was held in either the Reform or Conservative synagogue. We all went and sat and listened... period. Because what a chillul Hashem if we hadn't.

Nuff said from one tired brain.

(p.s. I clicked over here looking to comment on the "Is it badly done on purpose" post but couldn't find it... weird.)

Bob Miller said...

When new observances for Jews are orchestrated by the halachically uniformed, problems are inevitable. Also I think the original intent of Yom HaShoah was to highlight physical acts of heroic resistance as in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising---linking these to the "new Jewish attitude" in the State of Israel. It did not focus on or really take into account the widespread spiritual heroism of Orthodox Jews during the Shoah. The Orthodox were mostly left out of both the concept and the format of Yom HaShoah, and certainly its timing, as Garnel noted. Often, the general, largely secular, Jewish community thinks it can push or shame the Orthodox into compliance with its program. Lately, we're not so pushable!

Anonymous said...

I'll give you another view, entirely secular, slightly related. I am not dead in love with commemorations of 9/11. I am not a fan of most tragedy remembrances. And the sheer number of days we would have to hallow would trivialize all of them.

DrJ said...

I agree that there can be misunderstanding and intolerance from both sides. However you should be aware that the so-called mourning practices during the sefira, have nothing to do with the mitzvah of sefira and having nothing to do with the talmudic story of rabbi Akiva's students. Rather, the customs began sometime during the early middle ages in response to some terrible massacres of Jews, that apparently nobody except historians know about.

So in essence we have this phony mourning practice that relates to a plague that may or may not have happened over 2000 years ago or some massacre 1000 years ago that nobody even knows about. This, in contrast to Yom Hashoa, which commemorates victims some of which who are still living, or their immediate descendants.

So I have a hard time with the heredi response, and I think they have well-earned ridicule on this matter.