Shoah shame: No liturgy, no fast
by Shammai Engelmayer
ITEM: In June 1648, in the Polish-held Ukraine, a Cossack army led by Bogdan Chmielnicki slaughtered perhaps as many as 100,000 Jews over the course of several months. Some accounts suggest the number of dead may have been as high as 3,000. Two years later, the Polish rabbinate declared a fast to be held annually on the 20th of Sivan. They also issued special prayers to be recited on that day.
Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, begins at sundown Monday. In Jewish communities throughout the world, there will be gatherings in which speeches will be made and candles will be lit, but only prayers that are traditional for all dead will be offered for these dead.
That is because, with only minor exceptions, no unique liturgy exists for the Shoah. To create one, it is argued, is halachically unacceptable.
The first exception is a Reform attempt at a liturgy, Six Days of Destruction, a “megillah” that never caught on, despite being co-authored by Elie Wiesel and a preface by (among others) the then Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, Lord Immanuel Jakobovits.
Another attempt is Megillat Ha’Shoah, The Scroll of the Shoah, unveiled in 2002 by Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) Movement. Unfortunately, it has not yet caught on generally among Conservative communities.
On the Orthodox side, Rabbi Avi Weiss has written a “haggada” to be recited at a special “seder” on Yom Ha’Shoah, but this is yet another virtual non-starter.
Why is creating a Shoah liturgy so controversial? How the Masorti megillah came to be is instructive. In 1995, a Toronto resident and Polish Holocaust survivor, Alex Eisen, approached another survivor of the Shoah, Israel’s then Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, currently the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, about creating a Shoah scroll along the lines of Megilat Eichah, the Scroll of Lamentations, which we recite on Tisha B’Av.
Lau politely turned down the request because, as one news report put it, “such a text could not be written within an Orthodox religious framework.”
No other liturgy was forthcoming, either, even though the chief rabbinate did create liturgies for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Unification of Jerusalem Day). Although admittedly these also are highly controversial, they do point to the ability to create special liturgies, making this rejection even more curious.
Eisen eventually approached the Masorti movement’s Rabbi David Golinkin. With the backing of the Rabbinical Assembly and the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, Golinkin soon assembled a committee of scholars to work on the project. The result was Megillat Ha’Shoah.
Also missing from Yom Ha’Shoah observance is its being declared an official fast day. This is something Golinkin has been urging for two decades and a small group of teachers and students at the Schechter Institute do fast on that day, but otherwise no stream of Judaism has officially declared such a fast.
And yet, Jewish history has seen many such fasts, such as the Fast of the 20th of Sivan.
Surely, the Shoah deserves no less. And yet, apparently, for now it must settle for less.
One suggestion to change that was put forth several years ago by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the outgoing chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He proposed that Tisha B’Av be designated as a fast day for the Shoah. A number of right-of-center Orthodox rabbis also considered this and even created special lamentations to be included as part of the general Tisha B’Av liturgy.
Israel’s chief rabbinate offered a solution of its own in 1948, when it declared the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet to be the official day of mourning.
There was precedent for both. The Fast of the Tenth of Tevet marked the beginning of the events that would lead to the seemingly endless series of tragedies that mark the course of Jewish history over the next two-and-half millennia. It was the one day that truly symbolized all of the calamities to come. Nothing else comes close.
Because Asarah b'Tevet, as it is known in Hebrew, is so all-encompassing, tradition gave it a second name and a second meaning: Yom HaKaddish HaK'lali, loosely translated as "the day of the general kaddish." On it, the Mourner's Kaddish is recited for all those people for whom the date of their deaths are not known.
It is that aspect of the day that moved the chief rabbinate to ascribe yet another meaning to the day -- the ritual observance of the Shoah. To this day, though, even that decision is considered controversial among many within Orthodoxy and without.
Tisha B’Av, meanwhile, is a day marked by so many tragedies over the millennia, arguably including the Shoah, because it was on Tisha B’Av that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, setting off a chain that led from World War I to the rise of Nazism to the Shoah.
There has never been an event in Jewish history that even approaches the Shoah, however. Beyond a doubt, our enslavement in Egypt was a major catastrophe. So were the destruction of both Temples and our being cast into exile. So was the end of the Bar Kochba revolt or expulsion from Spain. There is simply no way, however, that these events can be made equal to the deaths of 1.5 million children and 4.5 million adults in ways sometimes too gruesome to be described.
If we fast to memorialize other events, surely we should fast for this one. If we have special liturgies for those events, surely we should have a special liturgy for this one.
Such will never happen on a broad scale until representatives of all streams come together to declare a fast and permit the liturgies. The Shoah is unique; it requires a unique observance. There can be no more unique observance than one that, even for a moment, brings together all of Judaism’s streams to declare it valid.
ITEM: We are in the midst of a period of mourning for the death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students nearly 2,000 years ago. We do not shave or take haircuts; we do not have weddings or b’nai mitzvah parties. Why did these 24,000 students die? States the Babylonian Talmud Yevamot (62b), “because they did not treat each other with respect.”