Calendars & Memory, God & History
In spring 2008 I traveled to Kibbutz Shefayim on the coast of Israel between Herzeliya and Netanya, to attend a Jewish agency conference aimed at training hundreds of Israelis who will work in Jewish summer camps all over the world, including Camp Ramah in California where I am the Executive Director. On Yom Hashoah, some camp directors and a few young adult Israelis and I gathered for a quick Shaharit service before breakfast. I led the morning prayers and, as part of the repetition of the Amidah, I included a special paragraph marking Yom Hashoah composed by the Masorti (Conservative) movement. Such an inclusion in the fixed prayer is a liturgically important statement that gives the day religious significance. Since the First Temple period, few holidays—amongst them Purim, Hannukah, the minor fasts and Tisha B’Av—have been incorporated into the liturgical calendar. To add mention of Yom Hashoah to the official liturgy says that our community officially recognizes this day as a day to remember, before God, a terrible tragedy in Jewish history when we experienced God’s absence in the world. (The paradox of talking to God about God’s absence, all the while ignoring the possibility of God’s continued absence would be funny were it not so terrifying.) Such an addition to the liturgy might go unnoticed in an American Jewish community unless the rabbi called attention to it, but in Israel, where everyone understands the words of the prayers as they are said, nobody missed the change.
After the special repetition of the Amidah, I turned around to the small minyan gathered early in the morning and asked: “Do we do Tahanun?”
“No,” someone called out, “It’s Nisan.”
To the uninformed observer, the irony of the exchange would be lost. My question was a fairly minute question of the laws of Jewish prayer: should I include the Tahanun prayers, prayers of confession that typically follow the Amidah? On one level, it was a silly question. The Tahanun prayers are canceled on a variety of days—Shabbat, Festivals, even Friday afternoons because Shabbat is at hand—the common reason seemingly because they are happy occasions. Tahanun —otherwise known as “falling on one’s face”—is omitted because it is a prayer that focuses us on our weakness and sin and ultimate dependence upon God for salvation in this world. Because the holiday of Passover takes place during the month of Nisan, Tahanun is canceled during the entire month of Nisan because of the joy associated with the festival. The answer to my question was fairly straightforward: it is the month of Nisan and we are joyous during Nisan, so we do not include the Tahanun prayers.
But at another level, the response I received was absurd. We omit Tahanun because of the remnant of the joy of Pesah. that stays with us all month, yet, during that same month, we commemorate the Shoah and call to mind the senseless murder of six million Jews. Are we supposed to feel joy or sadness? Are we supposed to celebrate God’s saving power or contemplate God’s devastating absence from modern Jewish history?
What was exposed in an otherwise unremarkable liturgical moment were two competing narratives that, fleshed out more fully, are pulling at the soul of the Jewish people. On the one hand, we celebrate 60 years of the State of Israel and, on the other hand, the Jewish people continue to mourn and struggle with the significance of the Shoah and the structure of our faith in its wake. The month of Nisan and the holiday of Pesah. celebrate God’s saving power in history. The Shoah represents the ultimate moment in Jewish history when God did not save His people. To which myth do we owe allegiance? Do we pray to God to save us or take responsibility for ourselves, even if it means leaving God behind? Do we remember our suffering and God’s salvation? Or do we remember God’s absence (impotence?) and the need for our own heroism?
The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate decided in 1949 that the Shoah should be commemorated on the 10th of Tevet, a minor fast day already established in the Jewish calendar. In 1951, the Knesset ignored the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to incorporate commemoration of the Shoah into the existing calendar of traditional Jewish days of mourning. The first Knesset proposal was to hold Yom Hashoah on the 16th of Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (April 19, 1943) but it was rejected because the 14th of Nisan is the day immediately before Pesach. While one might imagine that the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto drew inspiration from the Passover story in selecting the night before Pesah. as the date for their rebellion, in reality, they selected April 19th because the Germans entered the ghetto and were determined to deport the remaining Jews of Warsaw as a gift to Hitler (y’mach sh’mo) whose birthday was April 20th. Nonetheless, the Knesset established Yom Hashoah on the 27th of Nisan, eight days prior to Yom Ha’atzma’ut, a day that runs dafka—in the face—of the traditional Jewish calendar’s association of joy in the month of Nisan, and the Chief Rabbinate’s decision for the 10th of Tevet two years prior. Choosing to commemorate Yom Hashoah during the month of Nisan reflected a desire to choose a different narrative than the one that forms the basis of 2000 years of Jewish history.
It is curious to note that the official name of Yom Hashoah is Yom Hazikaron Lashoah v’hagevurah, Remembrance Day of the Holocaust and Heroism. The second, less known, phrase of the day’s name derives from the Knesset’s decision to make the day about, “a day of commemoration of the Jews who perished and for those who showed resistance and heroism” (official Knesset website—emphasis added). What is implied in the second part of the name is an effort to re-interpret the meaning of the Shoah—an event that represents the ultimate devastation when Jews are powerless to defend themselves—into a story of both weakness and power. That the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was an act of bravery and light amidst darkness and evil is indisputable, and important. But, seen in a sea of blood and slaughter, and understood in the context of six million men, women, and children murdered, it was significant much more for its symbolic, rather than practical, value. The modern State of Israel chooses to remember this moment of Jewish heroism in the Shoah because the lesson Israel learns from the Shoah is that it is Jewish strength and heroism, not God, that will save the Jews.
In his 1979 work, The Vision of the Void, Dr. Michael Berenbaum reads Elie Wiesel’s novel, The Accident, and in particular his portrayal of a chaacter named Elisha, as a meditation on the meaning of the modern State of Israel:
[T]he literal meaning of the name Elisha, which refers to a saving God, is most relevant to Wiesel’s Elisha. If we apply these historical and literal references to Elisha’s crucial statement “I’ve killed Elisha,” additional levels of meaning appear in the statement. When Elisha and his Jewish compatriots consent to war and killing in order to form a state, we must ask ourselves whom they really have killed. Which Elisha has been killed? Does the foundation of the State of Israel by violence entail the death of Elisha the prophet who revives the dead? Does the assumption of power by the Jewish people and their own enforcement of justice by violence entail the end of Elisha the heretic who proclaimed there was no justice? Does the foundation of the State of Israel signify an act of deicide, the murder of Elisha, the saving God? It is my belief that the execution that Elisha commits primarily signifies an act of deicide. The price for the historical survival of the Jewish people involves the functional death (if not the deliberate murder) of a saving God.1
On a recent trip to Israel, I heard the sirens of Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron. I watched Israeli television filled, on both days, with stories of death and tears and sadness. The calendar creates a beginning, the utter blackness and death of the Shoah, a middle, the courage and pain and sacrifice of those who died fighting, and an end, Yom Ha’atzma’ut, the day of Jewish independence and freedom. But in the competing, traditional Jewish narrative, the story continues. Yom Ha’atzma’ut, like Yom Hashoah, runs against the grain of the traditional Jewish calendar. Yom Ha’atzma’ut is a day of celebration that occurs in the midst of a period of mourning, the first 33 days of the Omer during which traditional Jews remember 20,000 students of Torah who perished. On Lag Be-omer, the dying came to an end and, in another few weeks, we arrive to Shavuot, to the slopes of Mount Sinai, when we stood together, as one people, before God. The traditional Jewish narrative tells us that the freedom of Passover is not only freedom from slavery, but freedom with a purpose: to serve God.
Which narrative is “true?” Do we celebrate the God of history who saves us from Egypt and gave us the Torah at Sinai? Or, after the Shoah, does the story end at Yom Ha’atzma’ut, having given up on a saving God and, instead, saved ourselves? The question at the heart of these competing calendars is not academic; it is at the heart of who we are as a people. Wiesel, as Berenbaum argues, raises the question as to whether, in celebrating Israel’s Independence, we have left God behind, or even killed God along the way? As we enter the 21st century, do we find ourselves with a state of our own, a safe haven for the first time in 2,000 years, but existentially alone in the wilderness? No Jew with a modicum of knowledge of the suffering and persecution that befell Jews for thousands of years would turn away from our new found ability to defend ourselves. We have independence, for which we should be grateful, but at what cost, and for what purpose? On Yom Ha’atzma’ut I sing the Hallel prayers, another liturgical statement: we praise God for giving us a new beginning. But as I sing to Him, I am haunted by His absence 70 years ago when we needed Him the most. Does Yom Ha’atzma’ut lead to Sinai? Can Israel forgive God and find Him in history again?
1. Michael Berenbaum, The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1979), p. 27.
This article originally appeared in the journal, Conservative Judaism, Volume 61, No. 3, Spring 2009.