Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Should Jews Commemorate Yom HaShoah?

The Holocaust took the lives of over 6 million Jews, as well as 5 million non-Jews. The Holocaust not only wiped out a third of the Jewish population, but it has left its mark on the psyche of the Jewish people. The way we approach theology simply isn't the same anymore. "Where was G-d when this tragedy struck? How could an all-loving, all-just G-d allow for this to happen in the first place?" Since there are still Holocaust survivors out there, the wounds are still fresh. Also, if we consider the upward trend of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, and genocides that have taken place post-Holocaust, it seems like humanity could use a day to remember the Holocaust because a sizable portion of the world population has most decidedly not learned its lesson on how to treat others like human beings. That being the case, why do I even bother asking the question "Should we commemorate Yom HaShoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day]?" Rather than get swept up in some fervor, I would like to address my apprehensions, as well as get a better sense of what Yom HaShoah is ultimately supposed to engender.

One of my issues is when Yom HaShoah is observed. Originally, it was supposed to fall on the same day as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but that never happened because that would have meant observing Yom HaShoah on Passover. Instead, Yom HaShoah falls on 27 Nissan. Not only does the selection of this date come off as arbitrary, but in some ways, it's un-Jewish. For one, the month of Nissan is considered to be one of redemption and joy (at least International Holocaust Remembrance Day falls on January 27, which is the liberation of Auschwitz), which is why there is traditionally no established period of mourning. On the other hand, many Jews have mourned during the month of Nissan, so who am I to ignore the tradition of ignoring a tradition?

A better date that could have been chosen to line up liturgically with the Jewish calendar would have been Tisha B'Av, a time that mourns all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. Conversely, one could argue that the Holocaust was so traumatic that it deserves its own day of commemoration. Plus, since Tisha B'Av traditionally implies a nationalistic level of sin and repentance, it's hardly palatable to suggest that the European Jews at the time were so spiritually devoid that they were responsible for their suffering during the Holocaust. On the other hand, there have always existed people that have tried to wipe out the Jews. Until we address genocidal proclivities and Jew-hatred, the chant "Never again" becomes as hollow as an egg shell.

I am also worried about what the current commemoration of Yom HaShoah conveys not only to the Jewish people, but the entirety of humanity. Take a look at the 2013 Pew Center survey on American Jews. When asked what is essential to being Jewish, you want to know what the number one answer was? It wasn't observing Jewish law, believing in G-d, or being a part of a Jewish community. What was the answer? Remembering the Holocaust. I take issue with the notion that the single most important factor in Jewish identity for American Jews is wallowing in victimhood. What kind of message does that send about the Jewish people? What sort of message does that send about Judaism? Judaism is not and should not be about persecution and oppression. In spite of what happens in life, Judaism has ultimately had a message of hope and redemption, a message that is obfuscated by the mythicization of the Holocaust.

Maybe my issue isn't so much with whether we should commemorate those who senselessly lost their lives during the Holocaust, but how that is being commemorated, and this doesn't necessarily even refer to the lack of consensus on rituals or traditions for Yom HaShoah. If this past Passover were a reminder of anything for me, it is that the past is something we should not forget, but by the same token, we shouldn't revel in it. If certain individuals feel they need to mourn, that's fine. King Solomon teaches us in Ecclesiastes (3:4) that there is a time to dance and a time to mourn. Jewish law provides us with the time to go through the mourning process, but we don't remain in the stasis of mourning for the remainder of our lives.

As I brought up a few years ago, the best way to honor the memory of those lost in the Holocaust, at least for Jews, is to live even more Jewish lives than before. Give tzedakah. Observe Shabbat. Study some Torah. Find more ways to love your neighbor like you love yourself. For those who are not Jewish (and even for those who are Jewish), live a life of tolerance, understanding, and love towards your fellow human being. Foster a sense of community and society that prevents another Holocaust from happening. That is the real way that their memory will forever be a blessing.

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