Author Archives: Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving Greenberg

About Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg was the president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and founding president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He also is the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (2004, Jewish Publication Society).

Yitzhak Rabin & The Ethic of Jewish Power

Excerpted with permission of the author from “Yitzhak Rabin and the Ethic of Jewish Power” (National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, 1995).

The first tears are for Yitzhak Rabin. At an age when most people–their work done–retire and enjoy their waning years, he was totally engaged in doubling his life’s contribution to the Jewish people. Having been credited with the greatest war victory in Jewish history, which included the liberation of Old Jerusalem; he sought peace and pursued it. The collapse of Communism, the weakening of the PLO , and the softening of the Arab position created an opportunity. He reached for the risky ambiguous, fraught-with-frustration chance to bring shalom to the land of Israel. 

The second tears are for the loss of innocence in Israel; a devout Jew murdered a Jewish Prime Minister. In shock and despair, many ask: how could political murder terminate the head of government in Israel? That happens in totalitarian states where the sovereign rules by force or in neighboring Arab countries and other nations where leaders lack political legitimacy! After 47 years of national unity, building and defending the State against a sea of enemies, how could an eruption of internal hatred occur that would legiti­mate the assassination of a would-be peacemaker, a national hero?

It Can Happen Here

The answer is: It can happen here. No de­mocracy is exempt from the perils of violent rage in a time of heightened tension. Of the seven American Presidents elected in the 20 year inter­vals from 1860 to 1980, six were shot by assassins; four died. It is fallacious to assume that Jews are constitutionally programmed to be moral always. It is covertly racist or chauvinist to believe that a Jew is genetically incapable of such vile, violent behav­ior. The classic Jewish tradition unflinchingly portrays the Jews in history, flawed and acting much like other people.

It should not come as a surprise, either, that Jews are not immune to the ills of the body politic. The continuous exercise of political power in history makes it inevitable that corruption will occur and that violence will break out, even in a Jewish democracy. The only hope of avoidance lay in creating prevention systems–political and religious dialogue on the emerging ethic of Jewish power, a strong leadership forum cooperating across party lines on ethical issues, and cracking down on the perpetrators of the early moral breaches (such as Emil Grunzweig’s killing, the 80s underground, Baruch Goldstein’s support network). But this was not done.

Jewish-Christian Dialogue: The Next Stage

In the following opinion piece, the author instructs Christians and Jews on ways in which they should change their thinking and behavior if they are to engage in a productive dialogue. His opinions are likely to be controversial among some Christians and Jews alike. Reprinted with permission from For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: the New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (Jewish Publication Society).

What Christians Must Do

There can be no Judaism without Jews. Therefore, Christians must stop attempting to grow by spreading among Jews. Beyond merely ending proselytizing activi­ties among Jews, Christians need to go after the anti-Semitism that is the residue of their own teachings. Anti-Semitism is the most ubiquitous, world­wide, permanent moral infection of human history. Sometimes one despairs of overcoming it.

It has now spread in its more virulent form into the Arab world. It is being spread worldwide, even in countries where there are no, or hardly any, Jews, such as in Japan; all this by propaganda emanating from European racists, some left-wing universalists, terrorist Muslims, and some Arab countries as well as from marginal fundamentalist Christians.Jewish Christian Diaglogue

It is not enough to stop teaching about Jews as “killers of Christ.” The deeper challenge is to go back and uproot the very sources of the contagion that continue to pour this virulent infection into humanity’s bloodstream. Christians must make sure that the Christian breakthroughs in understanding Judaism are transmitted and taught on the mass level. The morally and theologically remarkable work done by Christians in the dialogue of the last 20 years has one serious weakness. It remains basically the possession of a minority of inspired people. It is not yet understood properly at the mass level and not yet dominant at the upper decision-making levels.

Christians need to learn to take worldly holiness and liberation seriously without slipping into romanticizing the Third World. Usually, that way ends up with the Christians viewing Israel and American Jews negatively. Such a “romantic” Christian worldview is a real possibility in Christian thought today. Christians are used to seeing Jews as the oppressed and as paradigms of powerlessness. Jews have traditionally played such a role in the Christian imagination, as for example in the “wandering Jew” motif in Western litera­ture.

Jewish Pluralism & Peoplehood

The author, a theologian who has written widely on the Holocaust and on Jewish-Christian relations, has long been an advocate for dialogue between Jews and Christians. As he notes, his views are often controversial and opposed by many, especially Orthodox Jews. In the following piece, he calls for a rethinking of the Jewish-Christian relationship and offers his thoughts on how to start. Reprinted with permission from For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: the New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (Jewish Publication Society).

For both Judaism and Christianity, this is a time to reinterpret their relationships to one another.

This new analysis must include an understanding of God’s pluralism–that no religion has a monopoly on God’s love. The Noahide covenant [between God and all humanity] lives; both faiths articulate and extend its mandate, but, in so doing, they do not have an exclusive divine mission that renders other religions irrelevant. On the contrary, they need the help of other religions to accomplish tikkun olam [repairing the world], and they can instrct and enrich the others along the way.

Role Models

Judaism and Christianity are the two ancient faiths that have most experienced the freedom and power–and most internalized the reconceptualization of human understanding–that is the outcome of modernity. These are also the two religions that have seen close up the failures and experienced directly the pathologies of modernity.

Both have much to digest and much to teach other faiths and cultures by analysis and role-modeling. The modeling must start with the two erstwhile antagonists, who built their religious claims on the invalidity of the other, affirming each other’s independent dignity as ongoing, legitimate covenantal faiths. Yet, at the same time, this mutual affirmation does not negate the ongoing areas of disagreement, theological and otherwise.

But mere achievement of pluralism will not do justice to the uniqueness of the Jewish-Christian connection. Even if the two faiths enrich pluralism–by developing language and teaching models of deepened self-commitment combined with mutual affirmation–they will still only scratch the surface. The two self-described peoples of Israel must come to grips with the fact that they are both the children of Abraham–albeit they attain this status in different ways.

Abraham & Sarah

The patriarch [Abraham] and Sarah were both promised that they would become the ancestors of many nations and that this development would be a blessing to the world (see Genesis 17:4-7 and 17:15-16). Theologians of several traditions have argued that the promise to Abraham is fulfilled in Ishmael and in the Muslim umma [nation], which identifies Hagar’s son as its eponymous hero. However, taking Sarah’s blessing seriously implies that yet another nation will grow out of–or join as a branch of–her descendants, Isaac and/or Jacob/Israel.

Jewish tradition has long recognized that one need not be a genetic descendant of Abraham to become one of his children. Since the family is on a mission to teach, exemplify, and realize the covenant of redemption, one who accepts this calling can be born into the people of Israel through conversion. Once this joining takes place, all future descendants who carry on this line of the covenant are part of the people Israel.

Given this fact, Judaism should factor in some understanding of the billions of gentiles who joined in the covenantal mission en masse even if they joined through a different narrative and lived as another (separate) part of the family. True, that part of the family once denied the legitimacy of this part; but when they acknowledge their error and stop the false denial, their conscious membership in Abraham’s family should be integrated in some way.

Arguments & Counter-Arguments

Many Jews will respond to this proposal: Absolutely not! The gentiles who joined the Abrahamic covenant (as they understood it) did not meet any of Judaism’s conversion standards; they did not embrace the life and practices of the Jewish people. Therefore, their intentions carry no religious weight in Judaism, and their commitments represent no ethical claim for recognition. Some would reject this proposal even more sharply. "Would you murder and take possession?" (1 Kings 21:19).

After 2,000 years of Christianity demeaning Judaism as well as persecuting and killing Jews while trying to seize the name Israel by force, will Jews now voluntarily surrender the crown of a good name to Christianity’s believers? Just because some Christians are sorry for what they did and some others want reconciliation?

To this argument, the counter-response is: Do Christians not also merit recognition under Isaiah’s thrice repeated rubric, "so you [the people of Israel] are My witnesses, declares the Lord–and I am God" (Isaiah 43:12; see also 43:10, 44:8)? Are there not hundreds of millions of human beings who had never heard of the God of Creation until Christians sought them out and testified to them about the God of Israel, who is the God of Creation, who loves them and wants them to be redeemed?

Even if Christians spoke to gentiles about Jesus as Lord, did they not, in the end, bring these people to the God of Israel, whom Jesus worshiped as Lord? These untold millions would never have known of the God of Israel but for Christians’ repeated witness to them, until the people were convinced; and when they heard that the Lord had taken note of them and that God had seen their plight, then they bowed low in homage.

And what about Isaiah’s vision that some day "My house will be a house of prayer for all the nations" (Isaiah 56:7)? Will this prophesy be fulfilled only by complete world conversion to Judaism? Is there no credit to Christianity for bringing billions to pray to the God of Israel? Is there no recognition that those Christians overwhelmingly acknowledge Jerusalem as a holy city and the Land of Israel as a special place of Divine Presence?

Is it so that our Father in heaven has only one blessing for one child and none for all the other children of God–even those who, in good faith, consciously intended to join Abraham’s family covenant? Is there not a precedent for reconciliation and sharing the blessing that after many years of distance and alienation, Isaac and Ishmael came together to honor their common father, Abraham (see Genesis 25:9; see also verses 10-18)?

The children of the two sons remained distinct families, pursuing their own histories; yet at the same time, in honoring their common father, did the brothers not recognize themselves as branches of one family? Can this account in Genesis not serve as model and precedent for linking Jews and Christians today in a bond of family?

A Post-Script

The author adds the following as a footnote:

Even as I write, I acknowledge that the sweeping nature of the proposals for transforming the relationship between Jews and Christians will be difficult for traditional Jews to consider. In my Own Orthodox community, in particular, the question will be raised: By what authority are these suggestions made?

The primary validation, I believe, is derived from the overriding moral and theological necessity to respond to the Holocaust and the recognition that the Shoah is a revelational event. This response is driven by and directly connected to the recognition of the image of God in Christians (and others).

I have followed the logic of these responses and I take the responsibility upon myself. Nevertheless, for those for whom some great tree is needed to hang such ideas on, I call attention to [the 14th-century sage] Menachem HaMeiri’s broad-scale views declaring that Christians (and Muslims) are a "people bound by religion, which removes their religion from the category of idolatry and places them fully within the universe of moral obligation of Jews."…

Meiri’s willingness to apply the halakhic–Jewish law–guidelines to behavior by bringing Christians inside the mutual obligation universe is based on his philosophical analysis of the various religions’ status; this aspect of his approach is particularly important as a precedent.)

Liberating Life

Reprinted with permission from
The Jewish Way

Judaism’s general response to the fact of death is to fight back. Life is given the highest priority. All but three laws of the Torah are over­ruled to save a life from death. The physician is commanded to heal. Even partial triumphs–a sickness cured, some months of life snatched from the domain of death–constitute a fulfillment of the command.

When someone dies, the mourner steps forward and, through recitation of the Kaddish, testifies that this family has not yielded to the crushing defeat. In effect, the survivors pledge to carry on, for the deceased as well as for themselves in the army of the Lord, among the soldiers of life. In essence, the Kaddish prayer affirms that God’s kingdom of total perfection and total life will be brought speedily into being, preferably in this very lifetime.

The one notable exception to the arm’s-length treatment of death is the period of the High Holy Days. During this cluster of days, this tradition deliberately concentrates the individual’s attention on death.natural beauty

Daily Gift of Life

Human beings cannot be mature until they encompass a sense of their own mortality. To recognize the brevity of human existence gives urgency and significance to the totality of life. To confront death without being overwhelmed, driven to evasions, or dulling the senses is to be given life again as a daily gift. People generally experience this gift through a trauma: an accident or a critical illness or the death of someone close. Too often the encounter fades as the presence of death recedes and the round of normal life becomes routine reality. In the Jewish calendar, the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) structure the imaginative encounter with death into an annual experience in the hope that the experience will recur to liberate life continually….

Confronting Death

In the period of the High Holy Days, tradition guides the individual to take up the challenge of death on three levels. One is to deal with the constant gradual, partial encroachment of death in one’s own life. Life is also a process of dying. Routine and stagnation are forms of death in life. People often stop growing long before they are recog­nized as dead. Such a “dead” person cannot be an agent of redemp­tion. The tradition holds that the key to vital living is perpetual renewal of life; it seeks to attain that renewal by generating a continual process of examining life and constant rebirth. The awareness of being judged for life and death is a stimulus to stop living routinely.

Confronting Death, Finding Renewal

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Way (Touchstone).

The intense focus on death during the holiday period runs the risk of turning morbid. Since encounter with death evokes guilt, there is a risk that the High Holy Days will turn into a guilt trip; however, the goal of the Days of Awe is not merely repentance but renewal. It is a move toward an examined life, not masochistic self-flagellation.

It is not only physical death that threatens the humanness of life but a kind of death in life, a psychic numbing. Routinization, loss of re­sponsiveness, and habituation deaden perception and concern. When we stop examining our lives, we lose the ability to give appropriate responses to the variety of experiences that life presents to us.

The Fullness of Life

One definition of life is the capacity to respond. The direction of life’s growth in the eyes of Jewish tradition is toward ever-greater re­sponsiveness. Inorganic matter does not respond. The higher up the evolutionary scale, the greater the movement from biological necessity to psychic freedom. The goal of the human in God’s image is the full­ness of life: to become more and more like God, Who responds out of the infinity of life, not in a pre-programmed fashion without necessity or determinism but uniquely and appropriately to each person and situation. The normal processes of routinization and numbing are the enemies of this growth.

Ordinary consciousness selects and filters from reality to construct a "stable" reality and consciousness. Human sensory systems have evolved to tune out everyday patterns and to respond primarily to changes in the environment. As people learn, the skills they acquire often become automatic; many personal movements no longer enter consciousness. People learn to numb responses and conscience in the face of cruelty, injustice, and death because these are traumatic, psychic-overload experiences that cause pain. Thus, in the daily normal process of living, the psyche begins to die. Even intense positive experiences–such as love relationships–eventually become routine and familiar. How, then, can individuals stay alive, intensely alive, psychically alive?

Sukkot and the 3 Challenges to Religious Integrity

When is Sukkot 2015? Click here to find out.  

Reprinted with the author’s permission from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays (Touchstone ).

Despite its good spirit and feasting, Sukkot remains among the most neglected holidays. Perhaps it is because contemporary society has robbed us of the capacity to hear symbolic language. Sukkot has equipped Jewry to deal with certain recurring dilemmas encountered on its millennial Exodus journey, but the language must be translated so the methods can be grasped.

What, then, are the questions posed by the long years of journeying? How can a people persist on an endless march toward a state of universal exodus without its treasury of idealism being nickeled or dimed away at every stop? What is the proper relationship between daily living and eternal calling? Given the enormous gap between the end goal and the present moment, is it proper to enjoy life? Given the widespread suffering of humanity, do ease and affluence not constitute self-indulgence and insensitivity to the plight of others?

These questions boil down to three major challenges to religious integrity and faithfulness. Beyond honoring and reenacting the journey in the desert, the holiday of Sukkot offers living strategies to deal with these universal challenges.

modern sukkah

How to Improve the World

The first challenge is to develop a working method of improving the world. In its present condition, the world cannot sustain the full dignity of human life. This leads some to surrender to passivity. By contrast, a commitment to perfection generates an activist stance toward nature, a determination to transform the world so that it will support a higher standard of human living. But management and technology too easily slip into abuse and degradation of the environment and loss of proper human relationship to nature. How can one navigate successfully between the Scylla of fatalism and the Charybdis of soulless manipulation of natural order?

Complacency vs. Rootlessness

Second, there is a powerful tendency to become rooted in a specific land and a particular community and culture. Such rootedness is in itself a major source of freedom and dignity for the individual. Yet rootedness leads to total acceptance of the local norms of behavior and value. Many people idolize their land and will stop at nothing to preserve their stake. People who measure themselves by prevailing standards end up absolutizing those norms, thereby betraying the Exodus goal. Yet rootlessness is no answer. Taken to its extreme, rootlessness leads to social pathology and vulnerability. Where is the resolution?

The Temple & its Destruction

Reprinted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

On the ninth and 10th of the month of Av in the year 70, the Roman legions in Jerusalem smashed through the fortress tower of Antonia into the Holy Temple and set it afire. In the blackened remains of the sanctuary lay more than the ruins of the great Jewish revolt for political independence. To many Jews, it appeared that Judaism itself was shattered beyond repair.Model of the Second Temple

Out of approximately four to five million Jews in the world, over a million died in that abortive war for independence. Many died of starvation, others by fire and crucifixion. So many Jews were sold into slavery and given over to the gladiatorial arenas and circuses that the price of slaves dropped precipitously, fulfilling the ancient curse: “There you will be offered for sale as slaves, and there will be no one willing to buy” (Deuteronomy 28:68). The destruction was preceded by events so devastating that they read like scenes out of the Holocaust.

Hear the words of the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus:

Famine: “Famine overcomes all other passions and is destructive of modesty… Wives pulled the morsels that their husbands were eating out of their very mouths and children did the same to their fathers and so did mothers to their infants, and when those that were most dear to them were perishing in their hands, they were not ashamed to take from them the very last drops of food that might have preserved their lives…”

Carnage: On the ninth day of Av: “One would have thought that the hill itself, on which the Temple stood, was seething hot from its base, it was so full of fire on every side; and yet the blood was larger in quantity than the fire, and those that were slain were more in number than those that slew them. For the ground was nowhere visible for the dead bodies that lay on it.”

Civil war between Jews: “The shouts of those [Jews] who were fighting [one another] were incessant both by day and night, but the continual lamentations of those who mourned were even more dreadful. Nor was any regard paid by relatives for those who were still alive. Nor was any care taken for the burial of those who were dead. The reason was that everyone despaired about himself.”

Holocaust Observances

with permission of the author from
The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays

Ideally, a commemoration should reach out and bring Jews of every background together. In the Holocaust, there are no differences between religious or secular, assimilated or committed Jews. The unity of Jewish destiny should be a given in all remembrances

Any Holocaust liturgy should avoid total affirmation or resolution. This tragedy, too destructive to be overcome lightly or swiftly, poses radical questions to all humanity. Nor should the mood be one of total defeat and despair; that would not do justice either to those who remained faithful even in the moments of greatest agony or to the incredible renewal of life that survivors exhibited after the war.

Which Prayers?

In light of the inability to express the inexpressible, prayers preferably should be taken from the actual writings and testimony of those who went through the Holocaust. Similarly, most commemorations incorporate music from the camps and ghettoes. The various languages of the Jewish people also should be included. One must fight Hitler by refusing to yield cultural heritage to destruction.

A service should conclude with the traditional mourners’ prayer, the Kaddish. Traditionally, when someone dies without leaving immediate family, the nearest relative recites the Kaddish. For millions in the Holocaust, the entire family, with all its branches, was wiped out; now Jews are the nearest living relatives; the entire congregation can appropriately join in saying Kaddish.

For those who have religious or other reservations, however, the alternative is that the entire group stand together while some recite the words. Those who feel they should not recite the Kaddish should stand in silence, which, after all, may be the only authentic liturgical response to the Holocaust.


The single most widespread ritual observance is the lighting of memorial candles for the six million.  This practice is well-nigh universal.  Candles have a long history as memorial lights and as symbols of life.  In a day that started with no inherited form, how powerful is the religious spirit that instantly picked out a symbol so totally rooted in tradition yet so contemporary.

Early Proposals for Holocaust Commemoration

Excerpted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

There was a strong tradition that all great tragedies were to be incorporated into the sacred round of Judaism. The great question was: What day should be used?

From the beginning, one of the deep issues in dealing with the Holocaust has been the issue of continuity or discontinuity. Given the totality of the tragedy, was this event something unique or just another in the long list of tribulations, expulsions, disasters that mark Jewish history?

Classically, tradition tried to choose a day connected to the event, preferably an anniversary date such as Passover, Hanukkah, or Tisha B’Av. But what could be the anniversary of the Holocaust? This was no one-time affair; it went on year-round for years. Perhaps a period of the year should be set aside, but when?

A General "Day of Kaddish"

So massive was the scale of the Holocaust killing and so reckless its speed that for most of the dead there was no firm knowledge of the Yahrzeit, the actual date of death. Indeed, for many of the dead there were no survivors of the immediate family to say Kaddish. Finally, in 1948, after some earlier incidents and rulings crystallized the question, the Israeli rabbinate proposed a Yom Kaddish Klali, a general Day of Kaddish to be said for all those for whom there were relatives to say the prayer but no known date of death, and for those for whom there was no relative to say Kaddish but others would say it for them.

Given the high number of victims in the above two categories, the rabbinate also proposed that this general (or communal) Kaddish day be the day of Holocaust commemoration. The day chosen was Asarah B’Tevet, the tenth day of the tenth month of the Hebrew calendar. This is a fast day that traditionally marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem which led to the destruction of the Temple.

Why the Tenth of Tevet?

The choice of the tenth of Tevet is worth consideration. Clearly, its selection reflects the idea of incorporating the newest tragedy into the chain of tradition without introducing any halakhic innovation. This decision affirmed that the destruction of the Temple remains the paradigm and acme of Jewish tragedy. But why not incorporate this event into the ninth of Av, as most of the medieval tragedies had been?

The answer is instructive. Of the four days of mourning for the Temple, Tisha B’ Av was the strongest in terms of participation by the Jewish people. Shivah Asar B’Tammuz was far less observed. The third fast day, Tzom Gedaliah, was more neglected yet. Of all the fast days however, the tenth of Tevet was by far the weakest.

Isolated from other holy days, far removed on the calendar from the climactic destruction whose inception it commemorates, the day had dwindled to a marginal existence except in the most traditional circles. This day could benefit most from an injection of ceremony and from connection to a new constituency. In short, the choice of the tenth of Tevet for a Holocaust commemoration day was designed to shore up the dwindling fortunes of the day.

Could the Holocaust "Save" a Minor Fast Day?

In other words, far from coming to grips with the awesome emotional, historical, and theological weight of the Holocaust, the rabbinate still was operating under the sign of the destruction of the Temple. For it, that was the catastrophe of record. Far from considering that the Holocaust was a novum or at least was too massive to be subsumed within existing rubrics, far from confronting the Holocaust as a category-shattering event, the rabbinate sought to incorporate this hurban [destruction] within an existing (minor) halakhic pattern in order to strengthen that pattern.

The rabbinate’s ruling fell totally flat. There was no intrinsic connection between the Holocaust and the chosen day. The lack of fundamental thinking implicit in the decision reflected itself in the absence of any other proposed rituals. The ruling left the Labor left wing, the nonobservant Zionist, and the ghetto fighter groups totally dissatisfied. The proposal never caught on with religious Jews either. The Holocaust could not be used to save the tenth of Tevet. The choice of a memorial day that sought maximum continuity with the past was a nonstarter. That fact is a powerful statement of the theological common sense of the Jewish people.

Survivors Propose a Commemoration Date

The final and critical source of a push for commemoration came from a group of ex-ghetto fighters, partisans, members of the underground resistance to the Nazis. During the Holocaust, Zionist youth groups had been particularly active in armed resistance. A number of these fighters had come to Israel and had been absorbed into the Labor establishment.

It is ironic, of course, that this group took the lead in pressing for Holocaust commemoration. In effect, this was deemed the one group that had no apologies to make-because it had fought! These leaders had brought no "shame" on Zionist ideals; they represented no negative model that might "contaminate" Sabras [native-born Israelis].

Under this leadership, the campaign for a memorial authority soon built armed resistance centrally into the theme. The authority was to memorialize Hashoah VeHagevurah, "the Holocaust and the Heroism." For the ghetto fighters, there was only one day worthy of being a memorial anniversary for the Holocaust–April 19, the beginning day of the Warsaw ghetto revolt, the greatest revolt of them all, the uprisings that had held the Nazis at bay for a longer period than the great French army.

Wrangling over the Date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The Zionists living in Israel objected to the solar calendar date, insisting that the day be marked on the Hebrew lunar calendar. That date was totally objectionable to the Orthodox Jews: It was the fifteenth of Nissan; the Warsaw revolt had broken out on the first night of Passover. The revolt began then because the Nazis, determined to wipe out the ghetto totally, had scheduled their attack on that day.

The Nazis hoped to accomplish two additional objectives in choosing that date for the final assault: one was shattering and trampling the Jewish Passover holiday; the other was completely mopping up in one day, in time to offer the final solution of the Warsaw ghetto problem to Adolf Hitler as a present for his birthday, which was April 20.

In hindsight, one shudders to think about what would have happened had the Orthodox Jews not been opposed and the date of 15 Nissan or the immediate days of Passover following been chosen as the day of commemoration. This would have constituted a decision to permanently incorporate unspoken disdain for the vast majority of the six million dead into the official Holocaust commemoration.

All the arrogance of those outside the Holocaust–those who had never known hunger beyond endurance, terror beyond imagination, family obligations under conditions of grave peril–would have been crystallized in this statement. The Western macho tradition would have won out over some sense of the heroism of mother love, of the courage of educating children in the shadow of death, of the humaneness of thousands of self-help tenant committees, of the quiet dignity of people who (as a Sonderkommando survivor testified) even when standing before the gas chambers never crawled begging for their lives.

As it turned out, the Orthodox Jews would have none of it. Yom Hashoah would necessarily be a day of mourning, sadness and destruction. Passover was a happy day, full of food, family, and assurance of faith. To impose Yom Hashoah on such a day or the festival days following, would utterly negate its character; it would cripple the holiday that was the very heart of Judaism. The Orthodox were ready to accede to a day dedicated totally to the memory of the Holocaust, but they would not allow that day to destroy Passover.

Setting a Date for Yom Hashoah

In this article Rabbi Greenberg explores the meaningfulness of Yom Hashoah. A related piece in this section, “Early Proposals for Holocaust Commemoration,” provides background for the article below, which is excerpted with permission of the author from The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.

Earnest Bargaining

For two years [from 1948-50] in the Knesset [the Israeli parliament], the two main antagonists over the commemoration bill blocked each other. The turning point came in late 1950, when earnest bargaining began. 

The ghetto fighters and their allies wanted a special day, as close to 14-15 Nissan as possible [to mark the beginning of the Warsaw ghetto uprising]. Their terminus ad quem [latest acceptable date] was May 16, the date on which Jurgen Stroop, the German general, declared that the ghetto was totally destroyed.calendar

The Orthodox wanted to push the date as far back as possible from Passover–at the least, into the next month of Iyar (the second Hebrew month) so as not to infringe on the prohibitions of mourning and eulogies in the month of Nissan. If the date could be deferred to the month of Iyar, it would fall within the  Sefirat Ha’Omer mourning period [the period between Passover and Shavuot], which would make it less troublingly “innovative” to the current mindset of the halachic authorities.

A Leading Rabbi Holds Fast to Tradition

As the parties jockeyed back and forth, the Orthodox representatives, hoping for some leeway, privately sought out the leading posek (halakhic decisor) of the Orthodox right, a man of towering stature, the Chazon Ish. But the Chazon Ish was unyielding; it was prohibited to disrupt the joy of Nissan with any such public mourning. In effect, the Chazon Ish ruled that not the slightest hair on the head of tradition could be touched for the sake of remembering the Holocaust. The inherited practice was unaffected by historical experience; the halakhah and Judaism remained outside of history, untouched by the flux of time or the sledgehammer blows of the Holocaust.

1 2 3 4