Reflections on the Israeli Holidays
Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, was set in the calendar by the State of Israel on the 27th day of Nisan each year. This day was not arbitrarily set; the 14th day of Nisan was the start of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Hopeless as it was for the weakened inmates to make any significant stand against the Nazis, this group displayed heroism and their uprising demonstrated that the spirit of the Jews had not been totally crushed. It was a gesture of resistance, of defiance, of human dignity and perseverance which was greatly symbolic. The State of Israel dedicated Yom Hashoah in 1953 and called it Yom Hazikaron LaShoah VeLagvura, Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and for Strength. Although the actual start of the uprising was two weeks earlier, the 14th of Nisan was not very practical for the commemoration since it is erev Pesach.
The Holocaust was and remains a very emotional and traumatic piece of our history. It becomes even more difficult to digest as the years pass and more data about the camps and the Nazi murder machine is exposed. It is deeply troubling from a human and sociological perspective and it remains a theological mystery as well. It is altogether fitting that as a nation we stand together and overlook our differences in commemoration and respect of this day.
And yet, there are segments of Jewish society who refuse to accord this day any special significance. Religious Jews have always observed a day marking the greatest tragedies that have fallen upon the nation of Israel. The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av commemorates the greatest and most calamitous tragedies of the last 3000 years. It is a day of fasting and lamenting, acknowledging that all difficulties in Jewish life are a reflection of being in exile and are the result of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the dispersion of the people of Israel from the Holy Land.
Furthermore, the dedication of Yom Hashoah specifically in the month of Nisan, a month celebrating Passover and redemption and freedom, blatantly disregarded the religious significance of that time of year and was an affront to the religious community. Halacha does not permit public mourning and eulogies during this month and the State of Israel at the time paid no heed to the voices pushing for a different date.
Nonetheless, Yom Hashoah is now a fate accompli and should be respected by all, if for nothing else for the sake of unity and societal harmony. It is important, at the same time, that we all understand the history and complications surrounding the date of Yom Hashoah so that we will not be hasty in judging others as being callous and indifferent to the fate of millions of our relatives and Jewish brethren.
Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers who died in their service defending their country and people, and which includes the victims of terror who were targeted simply for being Jewish, is less fraught with controversy. It is set in the month of Iyar and comes the day before the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. There are differences of opinion regarding the manner in which Yom Hazikaron is best observed. Religious Jews have always turned to prayer and spiritual endeavors when remembering the fallen, while the State, being secular, chooses to commemorate it through ceremonies of respect and remembrance, while incorporating the Kaddish and memorial prayer into the event, more as a cultural inclusion.
Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, is beset with varied positions concerning its celebration. In broad terms: Secular Zionists celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut as a national holiday. Religious Zionists celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut as a national holiday as well but they see it also as a religious holiday. Most other Jews, having no strong Zionist sentiment, celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut as supporters of the State of Israel as they would celebrate the Independence Day of any country one resides in or supports. Some Jews are generally apathetic to Yom Ha’atzmaut and there are groups who are fundamentally anti-Zionist and who don’t celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut at all.
Religious anti-Zionists reject the notion that there exists any religious significance to the State of Israel (although there is great religious significance to the Land of Israel). Such groups in fact perceive the establishment of the State in Israel as a transgression of the Divine plan. We were exiled, and return from exile can only happen in a messianic context, with the Lord bringing us back home and restoring the supremacy of Torah guidance to Jewish life. These camps also have difficulty endorsing the legitimacy of the State of Israel as the ‘Jewish’ homeland, having been brought about by secular Jews, many of whom were virulently anti-religious.
Some religious camps, however, while not overtly Zionist, perceive the hand of God in both the establishment of the State and its continued survival. The Rav of Ponivezh, Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, ascribed the miraculous establishment of the State of Israel to God’s kindness to us after the terrible trauma of the Holocaust. A parent has greater sympathy toward a child who has just suffered excruciating pain, even if it came from the hand of the parent as discipline. A parent will be softer and more liberal with gifts in the aftermath of the child’s suffering. God presented us with a gift following our national trauma of the Holocaust as well. In this view, Yom Ha’atzmaut is a national holiday of a secular nature and does not carry religious undertones. The establishment of the State, in this view, is not the beginning of the process of redemption as seen by religious Zionists, and it is not the heralding of the Messianic era.