Thursday, May 01, 2008

Taking the Show out of Yom haShoah

Yom haShoah is empty. What starts with a siren across Israel so quickly fades to whimper; the wailing call to mourn is silenced by the day's true epitome: an utter lack of sincere emotion.

Be honest: have you ever experienced a meaningful Yom haShoah? Who are we kidding - can you even describe such a thing?

Granted, plenty of communities run eloquent and even informative ceremonies, but they lend a flavor akin to May Day: institutional, secular, with much external fanfare and little internal fervor. The Holocaust - perhaps the twentieth century's most religiously significant event - is remembered without sincere spiritual effect.

I can point to two aspects inherent in the typical Yom haShoah which, although seemingly opposite, together symbolize this vacuum of meaning. Firstly, unlike traditional, fasting days of commemoration, Yom haShoah leaves us without that all-important sense of involvement. How does one “participate” on Yom haShoah, with what of the day is he involved? Yom haShoah lacks a traditional set of rite and activity, leaving us worse than baffled: simply unaffected. At the same time, despite the aforementioned passivity of the day, our Yom haShoah experience is typified by the lingering taint of over-involvement: man-made moments of ersatz Avodah, a newfangled blot on a ageless calendar. We chose the day and we determine how to mark it - in fact, we decide whether to recognize Yom haShoah at all. Thus, even when we opt to observe, we find a mourning day which offers too little personal participation for meaning . . . and far too much for comfort.

These impressions leave us not only uninspired, but insecure. Thus on, say, Tzom Gedalia, we ask ourselves “what are we really supposed to do today?” knowing full well that the answer isn’t essential. A fast day is a satisfactory Jewish experience in and of itself, whether or not we successfully climb the inner spiritual heights of heshbon hanefesh, self-elimination, remembrance, etc. Few seriously question if they were yotzei. However, on Yom Shoah we plead “Really- what are we supposed to do today” knowing full well that no one has a definite answer.

Of course, this is a broader theme, our inability to express national or religious emotions without the shepherding construct of ritual. What is Tisha b’Av but poor-quality seating and a sefer Kinos? What else is teshuva but hitting the high-pitched refrain of “vaya'avor Hashem al panav, vayiiiikra”? What should be mere catalysts to internal, emotional activity have become the essence of the day itself, and conversely, the essential spiritual experience is now impossible without them. The very term “fast day” tells us all: a day of tefilla, tshuva, and tzeddaka nonetheless called by a legal, external, ritual norm.

For we lack self-confidence in our spirituality. We are nervous of innovation and absolutely petrified of personal religious expression. They seem outside the reassuring walls of frum Yiddishkeit and reflect of streams hippy-ish, modernish, and unsophisticated. Yom haShoah cruelly leaves us to our own emo-spiritual resources, and it is no surprise that we feel helpless. Should I shout during Tehillim, or will my havrusa think I am strange? Should I shy away from worldly pleasures, or is that the opposite of what the Six Million want? Should I insert a creative tefilla, or does Hashem find that repugnant? Without Halakhic and social direction most of us simply stand at awkward attention. With our eyes turned to our shoes, waiting for the siren to die down, wondering what we’re supposed to wonder about.

Sigh. I like my last line and it makes such a lovely place to end, but unfortunately, I have some positive words to add. As much as I dismissed our reliance on rite, it may in fact save the day. A healthy dose of ritual can resuscitate Yom haShoah and transform it into a day that is comfortable, legitimate, and - therefore - rewarding. After all, Yom haShoah doesn’t represent anything new or evolutionary in Jewish history- it is a particularly tragic retelling of a thousands’ year old theme, and it should be commemorated as such, with the laining, the fast, the slikhot, and the respect of our “normal,” traditional, thousands’ year old rites. May there be a day when our recognition of Yom haShoah feels so rote – so dripping with blind rites and meaningless fasts – that we actually consider the day meaningful.