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October 14, 2015 | 1st Cheshvan 5776

Pluralism VII

Galilee Diary #310, November 5, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights;

How have the mighty fallen!

Tell it not in Gat, do not proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon,

Lest the daughters of the Philistine rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult. -II Samuel 1:19-20

David’s elegy for Saul and Jonathan is one of the classic poems of the Bible, a powerful public expression of grief for the fall of great leaders. And yet, of course, we know that David must have been pretty ambivalent about his grief, as Saul had tried to kill him on several occasions, and his death allowed David to become king after years of struggle. I suspect that public grief for a fallen political leader is never a simple matter.

The annual memorial day for Yitzchak Rabin is no exception:

· The date: officially, the 12th of Heshvan – though this year it was moved to the 11th so as not to fall on a Friday – we often move holidays to avoid collisions with Shabbat; indeed, the calendar has a built-in mechanism to prevent Yom Kippur from ever falling on a Sunday or a Friday. Modern holidays do not benefit from this, and must be moved ad hoc, by the Knesset. Meanwhile, there are those who insist that we should remember Rabin, a confirmed secularist and atheist, on the Gregorian date of his murder, November 4, and not let the Orthodox “take over” the day.

· Meanwhile, it turns out, many Orthodox Zionists “have a problem” with the day altogether. The Rabin assassination had a number of effects on Israeli society that are still playing out. One was a polarization – a perception by many secular Israelis that the assassin, Yigal Amir, was not a lone crazy, but was acting on behalf of a whole sector of society, with their public or secret approval – and that sector is the Orthodox Zionists, who have made central to their value system the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael and the prohibition of relinquishing any of it. Hence, the Orthodox tend to see the elaborate memorial observances for Rabin, and the endless discussions of the meaning of the day and of the need to guard against threats to democracy, as a direct or indirect attack on them. And to some extent they are right in their perception.

· It is interesting that there has been an upsurge of Orthodox interest in commemorating the 11th of Heshvan in recent years – the traditional date of the death of the matriarch Rachel – a commemoration that often includes a pilgrimage to her grave, located in a heavily guarded compound near Bethlehem, in the West Bank.

· Another impact of the assassination has been the rise of the “secular bet midrash” movement. Institutions have sprung up throughout the country to enable people who define themselves as secularists to study traditional texts in a non-traditional setting. This movement is seen by many as an attempt to reclaim the tradition from the Orthodox, to whom we had left it for safekeeping, and who were not worthy guardians. And so, this year, a national network of secular batei midrash, with funding from the New York Federation, sponsored study evenings in memory of Yitchak Rabin, at which traditional texts bearing on “leadership in times of crisis” were studied, throughout the week of the memorial day. While programs like these are intended to foster pluralism and provide opportunities for all types of Jews to meet and share their cultural heritage, in reality they contribute to the polarization, for what they really do is present a competing conception of how to study, one which is foreign to anyone who has had an Orthodox education. In most cases, therefore, Orthodox Jews are not attracted to the sessions and continue to study in their own batei midrash and study groups, feeling that these new, undisciplined approaches to text are inauthentic.

It seems that the trauma of Rabin’s assassination, instead of uniting us, has simply exposed more clearly the fault lines dividing us.

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