Not the Jewish way

Haredi reticence on Remembrance Day

A SOLDIER stands in front of a monument engraved with names of fallen soldiers, ahead of a ceremony marking Remembrance Day, in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
A SOLDIER stands in front of a monument engraved with names of fallen soldiers, ahead of a ceremony marking Remembrance Day, in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
W e have just concluded what is commonly referred to as the “Israeli High Holidays.” Beginning with Passover and extending to Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, and Independence Day, we are enveloped in a bewildering mix of extreme emotions: excitement, solemn reflection, grief and jubilation, to name only a few.
However, being cognizant of the many voices and narratives that make up Israeli society, I realize that this time of year is not celebrated or venerated equally by all Israeli citizens and should probably be known as the “Israeli Jewish Zionist High Holidays.” That said, the fact that many of our Jewish citizens ignore our day of remembrance for Israel’s fallen soldiers causes me great pain. In fact, I am taken aback by the extent to which it continues to be so hurtful to me and so many others.
Perhaps it is because this communal blindness is something I refuse to accept, and I hold out hope that the coming year will be different than years past, only to be disappointed over and over when so little seems to change. To be more specific, my pain is rooted in a deep belief that Jews are responsible for one another, that when the nation of Israel is crying, it is only natural that we all mourn together.
As such, it is so hurtful that Israel’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population would refuse to acknowledge our public sorrow year after year. I had hoped that, as religious Jews, they would elevate the torment of a fellow Jew above all else, even their own feelings of alienation.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
When sirens blare across the country to honor Israel’s 23,645 fallen soldiers, traffic stops on all major roadways and Israelis of all backgrounds stand at attention. Inevitably, amid this public display of mourning, some haredim are always seen continuing on their way, pretending that they hear nothing. In private, most haredi yeshivot continue their learning unabated, delving into the same subject matter as the day before, as though nothing was happening outside. (I wonder what Torah they are studying if it makes them incapable of noticing what is going on outside?) At our military cemeteries, parents, widows and orphans pour their hearts out to the loved ones they lost, surrounded by hundreds of Israelis, who offer words of consolation for their great loss and gratitude for their tremendous sacrifice. At army bases, community centers, schools and synagogues across the country, thousands of Israelis of all ages participate in beautifully orchestrated ceremonies that delve deep into the personalities of the brave men and women who gave their lives to protect the Jewish state, internalizing the pain as though these heroes were members of their own families. Unfortunately, the haredim who attend these events are the exception rather than the rule, so much so that when haredim are spotted it is reported widely by local and international news outlets.
This distresses me so profoundly because it is simply not the Jewish way.
As the Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva (“Laws of Repentance”) explains: “A person who separates himself from the community even though he has not transgressed, does not take part in their hardships or join in their communal fasts... he does not have a portion in the World to Come.”
It is important to note that the Rambam, who is rather exacting with his word selection, chose to insert the word “hardships.” It’s clear to me that this addition was intended to highlight future times of grief that were not already on the calendar. In his wisdom, the Rambam knew to warn us that there would be times for empathy beyond preordained times like Tisha Be’av, opportunities to model our uniquely Jewish compassion by throwing our lots in with our brethren in turmoil.
While the “Zionist state” is not something that the haredi population endorses, and is certainly not the “return to the land” that they dream of, it is excruciating to see their lack of external solidarity with grieving Jews.
Of course, the way in which they go about showing such solidarity is up to them. Perhaps they could leverage their own traditional methods to acknowledge the torment being experienced by thousands of Jews across the country on Remembrance Day. They can learn Torah in memory of the soldiers who gave their lives to keep the country safe, or recite Psalms and pray for the relief of the families who are in such immense pain. The key is making it clear that Jewish pain and loss are not invisible.
While there are very few actual guidelines for building a synagogue, the Talmud in Tractate Berachot (34b) teaches that a synagogue’s sanctuary must be built with windows. The reasoning, of course, is that it is impossible to be a truly pious servant of God if you are disinterested in what is going on “outside,” in the lives of your fellow Jews, and there is no prayer if you never look beyond your own four walls to see the other. In this case, the Talmud isn’t teaching us about structural integrity and fire safety, it is providing us with the cornerstone for religious living, national integrity and communal safety.
As the dean of humanities at Ono Academic College, an institution that facilitates diversity and inclusion in higher education, I attest every day to Israel’s beauty in its “manyness” and messiness. Though complex at times, our diversity is a great source of strength, and every group has the right live a life of integrity that falls in line with their ethics, standards and world view.
As such, there is nothing wrong with the haredi population creating communities that reflect their own particular values. I also whole-heartedly support public government funding of the private haredi school system, as everyone has a right to receive an education in their own way. I only take issue with the invisibility of communal pain in the private lives of haredi citizens and their institutions. In my religious world view, this is a sin.
Unfortunately, this year played out like every year before it. Throughout Israel’s haredi neighborhoods, Remembrance Day was treated like just another day of the year. No mourning, no gratitude, no change. In the “halachic world,” this errant behavior cannot stand.
We can only hope that by next year, individual acts of kindness (like the video of the haredi high school teacher conducting a memorial ceremony of his own making together with his class, this year’s top viral video for Remembrance Day) will become the norm, so much so that the local and international news outlets no longer see a need to report about haredi participation. Indeed, Israelis are starving for this kind of recognition.
And we must have faith that there will be both a communal recognition of the tremendous sacrifices made by our fallen soldiers and a true structuring of empathy, a decision regarding how the haredi community will mark the day in their own heartfelt and visceral way. That, after all, is the Jewish way.
Seeing as we begin the spring holiday period with Passover, asking, “How is this night different from all other nights?,” I wish the haredi community would ask a similar question toward the end of the period, for Remembrance Day: “How is this day different from all other days?” and extend Passover’s central directive to Remembrance Day as well: “And you shall tell your children....”
The author is a scholar, author and social entrepreneur. She currently serves as the dean of humanities at Ono Academic College, a model of multi-cultural graduate and undergraduate programming and education-based social reform, as well as the fastest-growing institute of higher education in Israel.