Ask the Rabbi: The imperative to remember

Why is Holocaust Remembrance Day on enshrined on calendar of some but ignored or marginalized by others?

Holocaust generic (photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
Holocaust generic
(photo credit: Jonathan Beck)
Q Why are Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations enshrined on the calendar of some Jews but ignored or marginalized by others? - R.B., Jerusalem A In 1951, 27 Nisan was declared by the State of Israel as a day to commemorate the Shoah. Initially called Holocaust and Ghetto Uprising Day, it was meant to both memorialize Holocaust victims and commemorate the ghetto rebellions, with particular eye to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Contrary to popular belief, the uprising began on 15 Nisan, but since it is logistically impossible to have a public holiday over Pessah, 27 Nisan was chosen as a date comfortably distant enough from both the end of Pessah and Independence Day (5 Iyar). The commemorations, however, only became widespread in 1959, when the holiday, now renamed the more general Holocaust Remembrance Day, was enacted into law. The day has now ultimately become a part of a springtime series of national holidays that relate to Jewish history's triumphs and travails: Pessah, the Counting of the Omer, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day, Independence Day, Lag Ba'omer and Jerusalem Day. As this brief tale of the day's official standing indicates, Holocaust Remembrance Day has become deeply enmeshed in the religious and cultural meaning of both the Holocaust and the state. As many have documented, the founding generation struggled with commemorating the Holocaust, seeking to leave behind the downtrodden image of the exiled Jew while forging a new national identity of strength and independence. These leaders thus required that the day remember, and instill, the need for Jews to defend themselves. Others, however, believed that Holocaust-era valor exemplified itself in different ways, and therefore the more generic adjective "heroism" replaced "ghetto uprising" in the day's title. As many have noted, Holocaust Remembrance Day also represented a potentially symbolic break from traditional Jewish ways of memorializing, which include fasting, prayers, and repentance. Sacred texts and rituals, loaded with theological meaning, were abandoned for modern ceremonies, which occasionally contain explicitly secular messages or adopt antireligious implications from the Holocaust. Additionally, this calendar date was chosen despite religious protests that Halacha forbids eulogies in Nisan (OC 429:2). As Rabbi Jacob Schacter (Tradition 41:2) and Prof. Arye Edrei have documented, the religious community has also struggled with commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day and more generally, memorializing the Holocaust. One emotionally charged question, regarding the appropriate date to recite Kaddish for loved ones killed on unknown dates, was resolved in 1948 when the Israeli Chief Rabbinate established 10 Tevet, a traditional fast day, as "Yom Hakaddish Haklali." Additionally, many attempts were made to memorialize the Holocaust on Tisha Be'av, the fast commemorating Jewish tragedies throughout the centuries. This date was once again proposed in 1977 by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and prime minister Menachem Begin, but was roundly rejected. Some members of the Orthodox world have rejected a separate day to commemorate the Holocaust because they believe that Tisha Be'av commemorates all Jewish tragedies and that no new dates may be added to the calendar. This position, based on an interpretation of Tisha Be'av elegy, was first advocated in 1942 by Rabbi Yitzhak Soloveitchik, and was later endorsed by figures like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe YD 4:57) and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. The latter further opposed composing new Tisha Be'av elegies, although many communities have included Holocaust elegies in their services. For many, the insistence on a Tisha Be'av memorial date stems from the belief that the Holocaust, while unprecedented in its violence and scope, does not represent a unique theological event. Rather, it continues two millennia of affliction and chastisement that we remember on Tisha Be'av. To that end, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner (d. 1980) refused to call this tragedy by its more distinguishing terms "Holocaust" or "Shoah," instead referring to it as the "hurban" (destruction) of Eastern European Jewry. In contrast, of course, many non-Orthodox thinkers view the Holocaust as a shattering event that utterly changes their understanding of God's goodness, the covenant and Jewish history. However, other traditional thinkers, including Rabbi Yehiel Ya'acov Weinberg (d. 1966) and Rabbi Pinchas Teitz (d. 1995), however, have advocated for a special memorial date, without necessarily advocating for 27 Nisan as the wisest date (Seridei Esh 1:31). They believe that a day is essential to remember the Eastern European communities, and combining it with the traditional fast day will either short-change Tisha Be'av or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some have further noted that medieval Jews used special dates to memorialize tragedies, including 20 Sivan, which commemorated both the 1171 Edicts of Blois and later the 1648 Chmielnicki massacres (Magen Avraham OC 580:9). Given the different outlooks on the Holocaust, it remains difficult to unite for communal and national commemorations. Nonetheless, it behooves us to devise a manner in which we can come together to console survivors, commemorate what was lost and remember that we share a common destiny. The writer, on-line editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish history at the Hebrew University.