January 21, 2019

Charedi Reticence on Yom HaZikaron

We have just concluded what is commonly referred to as the “Israeli High Holidays.” Beginning with Passover and extending to Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), the onslaught envelops us 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 probably should be known as the “Israeli Jewish Zionist High Holidays.” That said, the fact that many of of Israel’s Jewish citizens ignore the nation’s day of remembrance for Israel’s fallen military personnel 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 that 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 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 would all mourn together.

As such, it is so hurtful that Israel’s Charedi (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 Charedim repeatedly are seen continuing on their way, as if they hear nothing. In private, most Charedi 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 military 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 Charedim who attend these events are the exception rather than the rule, so much so that when Charedim 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 writes in “Hilchot Teshuva” [Laws of Repentance]: “A person who separates himself from the community even though he has not transgressed any sins, 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 grieving 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 such as Tisha b’Av, opportunities to model our uniquely Jewish compassion by throwing our lots in with our brethren in turmoil.

Throughout Israel’s Charedi neighborhoods, Yom HaZikaron was treated like just any other day of the year.

While the “Zionist state” is not something that the Charedi population endorsed, and it is certainly not the “return to the land” that they had dreamed of, it is excruciating to see their lack of external solidarity to Jewish grieving.

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 Yom HaZikaron. 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. Although complex at times, our diversity is a great source of strength, and every group has the right to live a life of integrity that falls in line with their ethics, standards and worldview.

As such, there is nothing wrong with the Charedi population creating communities that reflect its particular values. I also wholeheartedly support public government funding of the private Charedi school system, as everyone has a right to receive an education in their own way. I take issue only with the invisibility of communal pain in the private lives of Charedi citizens and their institutions. In my religious worldview, this is a sin.

Unfortunately, this year played out like every year before it. Throughout Israel’s Charedi neighborhoods, Yom HaZikaron was treated like just any other 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 Charedi high school teacher conducting a memorial ceremony of his own making with his class, this year’s top viral video for Yom HaZikaron) will become the norm, so much so that the local and international news outlets no longer see a need to report about Charedi participation. Indeed, Israelis are starving for this kind of recognition.

And we must have faith that there will be a communal recognition of the tremendous sacrifices made by our fallen soldiers and a true structuring of empathy, a decision regarding how the Charedi community will mark the day in their own heartfelt and visceral way. That, after all, is the Jewish way.

Seeing as we begin the springtime holiday period with Passover asking, “How is this night different from all other nights?” I wish the Charedi community would ask a similar question toward the end of the period for Yom HaZikaron: “How is this day different from all other days?” and extend Passover’s central directive to Yom HaZikaron as well: “And you shall tell your children …”

Tova Hartman is a scholar and author. She currently serves as the dean of humanities at Ono Academic College, the fastest growing institute of higher education in Israel.