Yizkor prayer for fallen soldiers a 'theocratic' move?

Radical secularists fumed last week at the decision to recite the traditional ‘Yizkor’ over fallen soldiers as opposed to the modified Israeli version. But calling the decision “theocratic” is as far-fetched as it is misguided; as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Israel must keep its bonds with Jewish tradition intact.

Yizkor tekes 311 (photo credit: ITRAVELJERUSALEM TEAM)
Yizkor tekes 311
Jewish peoplehood racked up a small victory last week, when IDF Chief of Gen. Staff Benny Gantz ruled that the memorial prayer for fallen soldiers recited at Israel’s official memorial ceremonies will be the traditional Yizkor prayer recited in synagogues worldwide for millennia, rather than a modified Israeli version written in the last century.
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The decision, unsurprisingly, has radical secularists up in arms, because while the Israeli version begins “May the people of Israel remember” (Yizkor Am Yisrael), the traditional version reads “May God remember” (Yizkor Elokim). The left-wing newspaper Haaretz, for instance, thundered in an editorial that this is part and parcel of Israel’s transformation “from a secular country into a theocracy.” Haaretz columnist Nehemia Shtrasler similarly bemoaned it as reflecting “the deep change the state has undergone in its 63 years,” from “a secular state” to “a state where the rabbis rule."
This, clearly, is ridiculous. Yizkor Elokim is simply the traditional Jewish memorial prayer, the one even secular Jews recite in memory of their loved ones if, for instance, they attend synagogue on Yom Kippur. They do so not because they believe in God, but because they see themselves as part of the Jewish people, and Yizkor is the traditional way for Jews to remember their dead. That is also why most secular Jews recite the Kaddish prayer – whose opening line is “Magnified and sanctified be His [God’s] great name” – at a relative’s funeral: not because they believe in God and want to sanctify His name, but because they are Jews, and this is part of the traditional Jewish burial ceremony.
Indeed, if you accept the logic that any state appropriation of Jewish tradition amounts to theocracy, you would have to decree, for instance, that Jewish festivals such as Passover and Sukkot should no longer be national holidays and Saturday should cease to be Israel’s weekly day of rest. After all, the only reason these particular days became part of Jewish tradition is because God so commanded the Jewish people in the Torah. Yet Israel’s secular founding fathers clearly did not view adoption of these holidays as tantamount to acknowledging God’s existence and the validity of His commandments; they merely viewed it as a way to root the new state in Jewish history and to create the emotional ties with Diaspora Jewry mandated by their view of Israel as the Jewish people’s national home. Adopting the traditional Jewish memorial prayer as the state’s own is no different.
But opponents also have what at first glance seems a more serious argument. As the Haaretz editorial put it, “Most of the young people who fell in battle did not go to war in the name of God; many of them don't even believe in God. They went to war to defend their homeland, their nation and their families, not because of religious conviction, and they want the nation of Israel - not God - to remember them.” Indeed, the whole point of the state memorial ceremony is that Israel’s citizens should remember those who gave their lives in Israel’s defense. So isn’t the formulation Yizkor Am Yisrael actually more appropriate?
This is where the issue of peoplehood comes in. For if you view Israel as a state that belongs exclusively to its own citizens, one with no special ties to the broader Jewish people, then there’s no reason for it not to have a unique memorial prayer aimed exclusively at those citizens, instead of the one recited in every Jewish synagogue of every denomination the world over. But if you see it as the nation-state of the Jewish people, a country that retains vibrant ties with world Jewry in addition to serving its own citizens, then Israel cannot sever itself from Jewish tradition in this fashion – for it is precisely Jewish tradition that maintains these ties.
It is only the fact that Israelis and Diaspora Jews observe the same holidays, maintain the same life-cycle traditions (circumcision, bar-mitzvah, etc.), bury their dead in the same way and, yes, recite the same prayers at those moments where prayer is called for that enables Diaspora Jews to look at Israel and say, “even when I disagree with its policies, I have a connection to this country that I lack with any other country.” You could satisfy every Diaspora Jewish policy wish tomorrow – sign a peace treaty with every Arab country, create a model welfare state – and still not create such a link, because none of that would make Israel unique in the eyes of Diaspora Jews.  After all, most Western countries also have peace with their neighbors and generous welfare states. It is only our common bond as Jews that can possibly maintain this link – and our shared Jewish traditions are the tangible expression of this bond.
Thus adopting the traditional formulation of Yizkor is not a way of imposing God on those who don’t believe in Him, but of restoring Israel to its rightful place as part of the broader Jewish people. Because of this bond, there are synagogues worldwide, of every denomination, that recite a special Yizkor prayer for Israeli soldiers at every service where memorial prayers are said. Now, at last, that prayer will be the same as the one recited at official Israeli ceremonies. And if we are indeed all one people, that is how it should be.        The writer is a journalist and commentator.