Approximately 1,800 years ago, the Jewish world experienced a massive tragedy when 24,000 students in the academy of Rabbi Akiva died in a very short period of time. In response, the halachic world made several edicts to mourn the loss.
Every year during the period immediately after Pesach, there is a prohibition against holding weddings, we refrain from haircuts and shaving, and overall happy events with dancing and music are avoided.
Flash forward some 17 centuries and 75 years ago the Jewish world experienced a tragedy of unfathomable proportions. Six million of our brothers and sisters were put to death at the hands of an enemy sworn on our complete annihilation.
What was the response of the halachic world? Pretty much nothing.
There were a few prayers written that are included by some in the service on Tisha B’Av, and many recite kaddish on the fast of Asara B’Tevet in memory of the Holocaust victims.
But that’s pretty much it when it comes to halachic recognition of a massive genocide committed against our people.
These two different responses is nothing short of shocking.
I would argue that the real test of halachic and rabbinic leadership should be in how we respond to pressing demands like these.
Over history, we know that rabbinic leaders have instituted fasts in response to droughts as well as even established holidays in response to salvation over enemies (as in Hanukkah). Are we really to believe that some comparable action can’t be achieved when more than one-third of our nation was murdered?
From a halachic analysis, the tools are there to make this possible. Following the 1648 Khmelnytsky Massacre and pogroms halachic responsum were issued.
A halachic response would require the relevant leadership to get together and translate this obvious need into a practical ruling. The fact that this has not yet occurred has three possible explanations.
First, some would argue that our tradition is already “overflowing” with fasts and acts of mourning. The argument is that people are already lax in observing such commandments so can we really ask to add more to the calendar?
In broad terms this argument is valid, particularly when we are forced to admit that many people don’t observe these days of mourning because they feel completely detached from the events that they were designed to commemorate.
But perhaps when it comes to Holocaust memory, because we are so linked to those horrific events both in time and consciousness, we have no such excuse. Our very existence as a people requires that we remain cognizant of our nation’s suffering and indeed our very identity cannot be detached from that historical pain.
The second argument against halachic remembrance of the Shoah is that there is no valid rabbinic leadership that has the authority to establish such a halachic precedent.
Here too I would say that this is a weak argument. As we know, several times in relatively modern periods of history, rabbinical authorities have created such precedents. I know full well that there are those who suggest – as has also been suggested numerous times over the centuries- that doing so risks creating a situation where rabbis might take too much control and try to create a Sanhedrin to fully revolutionize halachic practice. I don’t believe there is merit to this concern as the Torah world is strong and centralized enough to resist such attempts.
The final argument, and that which perhaps has the greatest practical merit, is that reaching any consensus on how to halachically respond to such a massive tragedy would be extremely difficult. There will be differing proposals from differing schools of thought and reaching any agreement would prove challenging.
While I firmly believe that none of the arguments laid out above are sufficient to address this glaring failure in our halachic world, I must also humbly point out that I don’t know the specific formula to overcome it.
But the scope of the disaster and the extent of evil that was wrought upon our people demand that we come together to find a solution. Doing so is certainly among the greatest halachic challenges and opportunities of our generation. Yet, only if we succeed can we best ensure that these messages are never lost and the memories of the six million can be preserved as an eternal part of our halachic and national traditions.