Ceremonizing Hell

April 15, 2007

Israelis are never good with ceremonies. Even the military and their funny felt beres never make anything look really professional, like, say, Arlington. The respect that the chief rabbi and his onion hat commands is a bit less than a parish priest in Zimbabwe. So I always thought the problem with yom hashoah was that the ceremonies were off, not fast enought, not terse and concise, and too many political speeches to boot.

Now I don’t think that: I’ve moved on from ceremony to ritual. Ceremonies are what armies and countries do – ritual is about what people do. Jews are good at ritual, and a proper one for the Holocaust has to be devised. Something profound – and ispiring – and impressive – that anyone can and must do at home during a certain time frame. All Jews. everywhere.

What would this ritual look like?

Ritual has underpinnings. the first is that it has to be the same every time it comes around, and when it’s not, that everyone knows it. To take a worn out example, when you meet someone you shake their hand. if you do not, they will ask why, and you’d better have some sort of answer. The second is that it is better (in a religious context, anyhow), if the ritual has a significance in the greater ritual system (i.e. the eucharist is the transfiguration of the bread and wine to the body and blood of christ).

So, with that in mind, we can look at what various religious movements do to commemorate the Jewish Holocaust.

1. The Orthodox – nothing religious.

some will go for secular ceremonies, others will ignore and prefer to use an alternative date, others will ignore like the rest of Jewish history since Titus.

2. Conservative – something religious.

there is a funny-sounding megilla by Avigdor Shinan, and people sit on the floor to hear it. Some in the movement fast (which is funny for the people who brought you half-a-day tisha b’av).

3. Reform (and see the next post for the biqoret on the first and worst yet reform experience in my life) – make the secular Israeli ceremony into ritual.

there are some merits to this, I guess. Everybody knows the ritual, if the reform rabbis ever get around to becoming creative they will know if it’s been changed, but the Israeli ceremony  is so terrible.

Ritual should also be:

1. devoid of Zionism. Zionism has nothing to do with the Holocuast. Really. It would have been terrible and awful and horrendous with or without a bunch of Jews in Palestine. They weren’t עמוד האש for diaspora Jewry like the song claims before, and they were only too happy when it happened – listen to Altermann:

יום יום אתפלל שתכלי כמו נר

אני הנכרי, אני הגר.

2. devoid of remorse. The Holocaust shifted the classical Jewish paradigm of “God is generally Just” to “its a jungle out there”. I understand how teshuva can contain tisha b’av etc. but for the Holocaust it’s just not good enough. That’s why I suggest the model of aveilut. Could we all be mourners on Holocaust day?


4 Responses to “Ceremonizing Hell”

  1. Adam said

    Perhaps the idea that a ritual could respond to the tragedy adequately is a little condescending, in that it implicitly minimises the extent of the theological problem, as if things can just carry on as normal…which they can’t and haven’t. Then again, if ritual and religion are about people and their needs rather than theology, then a ritual is a sine qua non.

  2. biqoret said

    I guess its a bit of both: I find ritual and religion to be a bulwark of sanity when crisis strikes (so I’m using it for my own needs. so sue me), but the “theological problem” is also a bit of a non-issue. If you grant that the theological problem doesn’t apply to anything else religious, then why remember it once a year – the Holocause, after all, was God’s work for not one day but five long years.

  3. Rabbi Avi Weiss supposedly leads a meaningful “Holocaust Seder” on Yom ha-Shoah, complete with a liturgy and yes, even some ritual acts. I’m not sure if this is related, but I found a “Holocaust Haggadah” here – http://www.hagshama.org.il/en/resources/view.asp?id=1672.

  4. biqoret said

    After reading it, it looks like there’s no remorse, but way too much zionism. What will happen to the ritual when the Jews go into exile again (apocalyptic scenarios aside for the moment)?

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