Kosher Siren

With Pesach behind us, we again enter the period of national mourning and remembrance limned by Yom HaShoah and Yom ha-Zikkaron. Amidst the somber and painful recollections of both the darkest period in our history, and our grief over the price we have paid to be a free people in our ancestral homeland, there is one discordant note that is always played: the refusal of some to stand silent when the air raid sirens sound. Their justification is that the practice is prohibited by the Torah, as it constitutes ‘walking in the ways of the gentiles’ (Lev. 18, 3).

Now, the Torah does prohibit the imitation of non-Jewish practices (especially those that are religious in origin and/or intent), but the type of actions that are proscribed are clearly laid down in the Talmud and subsequent halakhic literature. According to the dominant view (codified in Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah sec. 178 par. 1), two types of behavior are forbidden: a) cultic or religious customs b) immodest or licentious modes of behavior. Actions which are rational, reasonable and proper are totally permitted, even if they are obviously adopted from surrounding cultures.

A second view, more restrictive view, was endorsed by the Vilna Gaon (ibid). He maintained that even actions that are reasonable are forbidden, unless they are ‘written in the Torah.’ This enigmatic phrase, which is mentioned in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 54b), could mean one of two things. Either the practice in question is explicitly mentioned in the Torah, or that it can be shown to be indigenous to Judaism. In either case, it could be argued that the idea of standing silent in memory of a disaster is, indeed, mentioned in the Torah.

The Torah portion we read yesterday, describes the deaths of Aaron’s elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, who offered a ‘strange fire’ before God. ‘Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it what God has said: Through those that are near Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent’ (Lev. 10, 3). Apparently, standing mute in the face of overwhelming grief is written in the Torah.

In truth, however, there is no need for careful legal analysis. What all of these consideration have in common is that the practice in question must be derived from (or actively practiced) in non-Jewish society. [And, according to most, the practice must be adopted in order to assimilate into the broader culture, and not as a uniquely Jewish action.] There is no other country on earth, certainly none in Israel’s cultural context, that mandates a siren for a nation-wide moment of silence. This simple fact is always highlighted by the foreign press when it reports on Yom Ha-Shoah and Yom ha-Zikkaron. So, the question, really, never gets off of the ground.

Israel is a democracy. People are free to act as they wish. They are free to memorialize the Shoah as they wish. However, I wish they those who refuse to stand silent as the siren wails would stop cloaking their choices in the mantle of Judaism. One less use of the Torah as a political football with dignify and sanctify the memory of our six million dead, our fallen heroes and our beloved ones murdered by over a century of Arab terror.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.