This week the Jewish world commemorated the 10th of Tevet, one of the many sad dates that form the Jewish calendar. The day commemorates the beginning of the siege and eventual destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. It is one of the four biblical fast days that were ordered by the rabbis and prophets of Israel and accepted by all of the Jewish people and observed for many centuries.
After the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust, the Jewish people and the State of Israel searched for a proper date and method to give expression to their grief and just memory to the innocent victims of that terrible unprecedented slaughter. The State of Israel set a date at the end of Nisan as Holocaust Remembrance Day. This observance includes the sounding of a siren, a moment of silence, special memorial programs and somber music and serious programming on the radio and television. The Holocaust has been memorialized in films, museums, books, lectures and almost all other means. However, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel sought to commemorate the tragedy in a different, more traditional manner. It set aside the 10th of Tevet as the day of memorial and of universal recitation of Kaddish in memory of the six million victims.
In Jewish history all tragedies were marked and remembered by fasting. Since the 10th of Tevet is a fast day in any event, the rabbinate attached the universal Kaddish day for the Holocaust to it. Aside from the four usual fast days - 10th of Tevet, third of Tishrei, 17th of Tamuz and the ninth of Av - there were additional fast days such as the 20th of Sivan that Eastern European Jews observed. These fast days commemorated the pogroms and expulsions that Ashkenazi Jewry experienced over the centuries from the Crusades through Chmielinicki and later. Whenever possible the commemorations such as that for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain were attached to the ninth of Av or other fast days. That was always the pattern in Jewish life.
One of the great difficulties of modern Jewry is how to commemorate the enormous events that have occurred to us in the last century. How is the establishment of the State of Israel to be commemorated? How is the memory of the victims of the Holocaust to be sanctified? In Jewish tradition all great events were commemorated within a religious context. However, in our time, when a great section of the Jewish people and its substantial leadership no longer saw themselves bound by traditional religious norms, the questions of commemoration have produced very controversial results.
Religious Jewry has attempted to install a religious tone into these otherwise secular commemorations. The success of doing so has been only partial and therefore a great deal of ambivalence regarding these commemorations remains. The universal Kaddish recital of the 10th of Tevet is the religious attempt to have a unified memorial service in a manner that is dignified, traditional and acceptable to all Jews. My personal impression is that this commemoration has gained some momentum over the past few years. Whether it will ever be able to gain the universal acceptance that the rabbinate hoped that it would achieve remains yet to be seen.
As the generation of the Holocaust falls to the attrition of time, the difficulty of commemorating the Holocaust in a meaningful fashion to new generations of Jews increases. A universal Kaddish day, such as on the 10th of Tevet, is dependent on some sort of Jewish feeling and emotion. To create such a feeling or emotion without recourse to Jewish tradition, faith and ritual becomes a very difficult task. And thus the 10th of Tevet and its universal Kaddish day message reveals the deep problem of Jewish identity and the place of tradition and some sort of religious ritual in our society and lives.
The Jewish world in its historical memory forgets little if anything. Thus the commemoration of events, both tragic and triumphant, in Jewish history remains somehow embedded in Jewish life. The form that remembrance of the events of Jewish history takes may vary from time to time and generation to generation. But we can be certain that Jewish memory and eternity will prevail. Therefore the universal Kaddish day on the 10th of Tevet takes on greater importance than just being a day of fasting and commemoration. It is a day of national rededication to the values, history and mission of the Jewish people.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator. www.rabbiwein.com