Yom Ha’atzmaut: How do you do it?

I have often commented on how fractious, argumentative, divided and contrary we Jews are. Today, no event brings out these differences more that Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

For all the Biblical miracles, I cannot think of one that compares in magnitude and impact. After 2,000 years of exile and oppression to be able to reconstruct a Jewish independent state strikes me as the greatest fact of Jewish history that defies logic and nature. And I celebrate it. I cannot understand why any Jew would not.

In the Diaspora, the vast majority are simply unaware of when Yom HaAtzmaut is. Most of American Jews have never been to Israel. Feel no interest or loyalty and often are antagonistic to the State of Israel (as opposed to parties and politicians they disagree with). But then the same can be said for quite a few Israeli Jews. On one level I support freedom of expression, free choice and autonomy. But I do find it sad that to so many Jews history either means nothing or it is something they want to escape from.

I am a part of a very small people; some 15 million. I am part of a very small part of those 15 million who declare themselves to be religious Jews. And I am a small part of that small part that believes we should thank and praise the Lord for the miracle of Israel’s existence.

But as with anything to do with Jews it is complicated. The Old Yishuv, Jews who settled in Israel during the sixteenth, seventeenth eighteenth centuries sacrificed a lot to live in the Holy Land. But did not get involved in politics or agitate for self-rule. They thought that the Messiah would sort things out and in the meantime they had to accept the facts of exile, subjugation and second class status with its humiliations and penalties

Nineteenth century Zionism strove to actively liberate Jews and provide them with a safe haven. Secular, idealistic pioneers came to settle the land, drain swamps and find a place to live in peace. The Old Yishuv intensely disliked them, for their secularism, politicism and “loose morals.” But in those days the Old Yishuv was a small bunch of religious dreamers and their successors are simply not interested in a Jewish State. God will take care of everything.

What we might call modern or centrist or inclusive Orthodoxy has always been very supportive of Israel and celebrated independence religiously as well as nationally. They were the dominant religious force in the early years of the State and used the tools of Statehood to give a religious dimension to a civil occasion.  Once moderate and pro Zionist orthodoxy was the norm for pragmatic, religious life in Israel. Nowadays religious moderates have almost all turned right. And they exercise power beyond their numbers in Israel, the army and its institutions in league with secular Right Wing Parties.

Meanwhile since the rise of the State, the ultra-Orthodox Charedi world has grown exponentially. It is split three ways. Some participate in the activities of the State, its politics and institutions. Others reject the State and Zionism ideologically but still participate. Finally, a fringe group refuse to have anything to do with the State or to cooperate and actively try to undermine it. There were a lot of Charedi men who served in the army in the early days of the State and they celebrate it privately. Chabad Chassidim who do not consider themselves Zionists as such, celebrate the day because of their strong support for the State and commitment to Jewish life in Israel. But most “Black Hatters” just ignore it. And some really weird ones treat it as a day of mourning. The late great Sephardi Rav Ovadia Yosef said we should celebrate Yom Hatzmaut by studying Torah.

So how do we all celebrate it? The Day Before is Memorial Day to honor those who were killed defending the country from its enemies. A moment of silence. Speeches and solemn gatherings. Interestingly although the Charedi community as a rule does not celebrate Independence Day, more and more do take Memorial Day seriously and recognize the sacrifices that so many made for them as well.

On Yom Haatzmaut itself, the country rejoices in many ways. Marches, parades, displays festivities and a day off work. The vast majority of Israelis participate. But bearing in mind that about half of Israelis are not religious, does it have any religious significance?

Both in Israel and beyond, each one of the groups I mention above have different religious responses to the day, that really do illustrate how crazy we are.  And please bear with me over the arcane details I am going to describe. To many they will sound petty and of little consequence. The faithful take them very seriously. To the point of fisticuffs. But they illustrate the problems of a religion with no central authority and no universally recognized authority.

According to Jewish Law, whenever there is religious holiday we recite a prayer called Hallel which is simply a collection of Joyful Psalms. On Festivals, we read from the Torah and on the major ones recite a Haftara, a section of the Bible from the Prophets. In addition, there is a special blessing called “Shehecheyanu” thanking god “Who has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this this (special) time.”

There are daily penitential prayers called Tachanun or Nefilat Apayim that one does not say on festive occasions or other happy events. Amongst Hassidim there is a tradition not to say these on happy occasions including the anniversary of the death of a great Rabbi. This too is regarded as a happy event, the soul returning to its source. They drink a toast Lechayim, to life, physical and eternal. Most Hassidim have managed to find so many anniversaries that they have all but eliminated the prayer throughout the year. Now, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, should one say Tachanun or not?

What’s more, Yom Ha’atzmaut also falls within the traditional period of mourning in the days from Pesach to Shavuot when weddings and public celebrations with music are not allowed in memory of a series of historical tragedies. There are sufficient sources to support an exception to the rule. There’s the obligation on an individual to rejoice and recite a blessing when a miraculous event happens to one. And there are precedents for the community to declare special days of rejoicing as well as fasting. Whereas once a powerful authority could and would make decisions. Nowadays rabbis run scared and fear humiliation. Hence, we are left with chaos.

Each religious sector of Orthodoxy celebrates the day differently liturgically. Some follow the whole special service once ordained by the Chief Rabbinate with Hallel prayers, Torah and Haftarah and Shehecheyanu. They treat it as the equivalent of Chanukah and Purim. Some only say Hallel. Some only say Shehecheyanu. Some say Tachanun others don’t.

There’s a joke that someone asked the very secular Ben Gurion what he said on Yom Haatzmaut and he replied that he said neither Tachanun , nor Shehecheyanu ( nor anything else of a religious nature).

I think it is a shame that the Charedi world does not share in Yom Ha’atzmaut.I agree they were right to turn inwards and focus entirely on survival and rebuilding religious life after the depredations of the Second World War. And they have been remarkably successful in ensuring that we will survive religiously. In this their Great Rabbis of the time compensated for those blinkered of their number who insisted on staying behind in Europe rather than escape to Israel or the USA when they could.

But now they are wrong to extend this to refusing to recognize the miracle of Yom Haatzmaut or to allow young men to serve a country that has protected them, supported them and enabled them to flourish. Now that their numbers have increased so much their rigid opposition is a measure of the failure of their moral vision and proof that just because a person is right in one issue that does not mean they are or will be always right on any other. Thank goodness more and more of their number are making up their own minds. It’s a shame if the tail wags the dog. But if the head is paralyzed at least the tail offers hope.

This confusion over Yom Hatzmaut is indicative of our morally compromised state of affairs. It illustrates our capacity for pettiness and moral paralysis. Thank goodness there are still enough of us prepared to act on our own initiatives and recognize a miracle when we see one.

About the Author
Jeremy Rosen is an English born Orthodox rabbi, graduate of Mir Yeshivah and Cambridge University. He was a lecturer at WUJS Arad, and former headmaster of Carmel College, Professor and Chairman of the faculty for Comparative Religion in Antwerp and Rabbi in Scotland London and now in New York. His weekly blog is at jeremyrosen.blogspot.com
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