Celebrating Jerusalem: Why Hallel is not enough

How much longer can we wait to begin incorporating the watershed political and religious events of our time into our calendar?

IDF soldiers celebrate at the Western Wall in 1967_370 (photo credit: Courtesy Werner Braun/Jerusalem Post Archives)
IDF soldiers celebrate at the Western Wall in 1967_370
(photo credit: Courtesy Werner Braun/Jerusalem Post Archives)
Almost 50 years have passed since Israel liberated and unified Jerusalem. The victories of the Six Day War, in certain ways, are more integral to Jewish life and thought than Israel’s establishment in battle against invading Arab armies in 1948. The events of the summer of 1967 proved that the Jewish state was not an aberration but a reality that was here to stay. If there were a will, Jews would elevate the celebration of Jerusalem’s reunification into a fullfledged holiday. There are Jews who chant the Hallel prayer on Jerusalem Day. But is that really enough? Is the Hebrew calendar so set in stone that we cannot chant a special Torah reading and Haftarah for an event so central to our lives as Jews and people of faith?
In his guide to Jewish observance, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin states that the nature of the observance of Jerusalem Day “is yet to evolve.” Rabbi Donin wrote these words in a study published in 1972. We are now living in 2014. I see no evolution regarding the religious response to the Six Day War. At the rate things are going, we will never see any change in the way we celebrate this day.
We are told to wait. We are told that we should wait till the messiah arrives and rebuilds the Temple in Jerusalem. How much longer can we wait to begin incorporating the watershed political and religious events of our time into our calendar – and into our worldview and our minds? What we have is a tremendous failure of will and a lack of confidence.
Should we wait for the Sanhedrin to be reconstituted before we dare to make a move to elevate the events of our time into our liturgy? More immediately, should we wait for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to act boldly and defy the anti-Zionists and the non-Zionists who see no religious significance in the events of almost half a century ago? We will wait till the end of time. There are those of us who are tired of waiting. We will it – it will be a reality.
In his study of the Jewish holidays, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg asks of the Six Day War: “Was this merely a respite, a short-term upturn from an unchanged long-term trend of oppressive sorrow, or was this the beginning of a major reversal of historic proportions from sorrow to joy?” Rabbi Greenberg answers this question resoundingly: “This event was recognized as the confirmation of a turn in Jewish history.”
Have the Jews caught up with their history and confirmed this statement? We are a heroic – and timid – people. Some of us see the victory of 1967 as a practical way to produce a “bargaining chip” in negotiations of “land for peace.” This is not only a suicidal delusion but would lead to a Judenrein Arab capital of an Islamic theocracy. Whether the events of almost 50 years ago were miraculous or not – we must acknowledge that they have forever changed and transformed the Jewish people. We said to the Christian world: We no longer wander the earth as killers of Christ. We told the Muslim world: We are not a “dependent people” but an “independent people.” We told Jews who yearn for a return from Exile: We are home. We wait for the “evolution” of Jerusalem Day? How much longer?
Is there not one rabbi in Israel or the Diaspora who can find an appropriate Torah reading and Haftarah chanting for one of the most important days in the Hebrew calendar? Obviously, not every Jew will accept the elevation of Jerusalem’s reunification to an event of religious and halachic import. That is all the more reason to be bold. Yes, it is wonderful to marry or have your hair cut on this day. Yes, it is wonderful to recite the full Hallel and chant the Psalms in the morning service usually chanted on Shabbat and Yom Tov. But that is not enough. It was difficult enough to find a bold and relevant religious response to celebrate Israel’s independence. We do not need to invoke messianic redemption to understand the importance of our own history. We must act. Where there are no men, let us stand up as men – and women – of faith.
Go to the Western Wall on the evening of the Ninth of Av. The Kotel plaza is bathed in bright light. There are large numbers of Jews, engaged in conversation and even argument – others are sitting on the ground and chanting from the Book of Lamentations. It is a fast day and a sad day – but it is also joyous. Jews no longer have to yearn for a return to Jerusalem from behind barbed wire. This is the paradox and reality of the Ninth of Av in the shadow of both Auschwitz and Tel Aviv. We continue to mourn due to an imperfect Jerusalem and a corrupt world – as we should. But we cry and lament in victory. We see no Assyrians, Babylonians, Hellenists, Romans – they are gone and we are still here. No feasting on the Ninth of Av – only fasting. But should there not be some recognition that Jews have become the masters of their own fate? And is there not some great religious and transcendent truth in this political reality? I think so.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.