This guest post by Raphael Magarik is a response to Eliana Fishman’s post on why American Jews shouldn’t say Hallel on Israel’s Independence Day. Raffi studies talmud, Hebrew, and dance as a Dorot Fellow in Israel.
I appreciated reading your articulation of why American Jews shouldn’t say Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut. It’s thoughtful and learned; we would be lucky to have more discourse like this around Israel.
I hear the depth of your personal and familial debt to America, and I think it’s important to honor that. I say parts of Hallel on Thanksgiving (as does the Spanish Portugese Synagogue); it might be a practice you’d like to adopt.
That said, I see things a bit differently in terms of Yom Haatzmaut. You think we shouldn’t say it because Hallel requires a situation in which “the entirety of the Jewish people (or what Chazal considered to be adequate representation of the entirety of the Jewish people) faced life-threatening adversity.” We Americans weren’t redeemed by the establishment of the state: ergo, we shouldn’t say Hallel (with worthy detours through later interpretations).
Now, on textual grounds, I think you flatten the sources considerably. On Megillah 14a, R. Yehoshua b. Karcha is cited as implying that one could recite Hallel on the transition from slavery to freedom (otherwise the logical inference doesn’t work), and even in Pesachim, one of the examples cited (Chananya, Mishael and Azarya before Nebuchadnezar) does not seem to fit the rubric you’re describing (are three individuals representative of the whole people?). And I don’t think you’ve adequately accounted for Channukah here, either.
I think these textual intricacies point to a deeper problem. When halakhic sources are presented as clear injunctions—rather than as (crucial) conversation starters and refiners—they obscure the main issues. Halakha is not trigonometry. The question of how to commemorate the past cannot be answered without a serious conversation about values, and any halakhic conversation that attempts to short-cut that conversation by syllogism is procedurally mistaken. (A good-example of this is the question of saying Hallel without a bracha, where your reading of the sources breaks down. First, you depart from Rav Ovadia, on whom you otherwise rely; he supports Hallel without a bracha. But more importantly, there simply is no serious technical hurdle to reciting “Hallel without a bracha,” since that is just reciting tehilim. If you are against bracha-less Hallel, as it seems you are, that must be because of values—not technical barriers.)
And you implicitly admit this, I think, in your parenthetical—”or what Chazal considered to be adequate representation of the entirety of the Jewish people.” Chazal had to judge what was “representative”; it stands to reason that contemporary Jews do too. It is not enough to note that my family made it to America before the Holocaust. I have to weigh that fact’s significance, compared to the significance of Israeli Jews’ redemption.
Here are a few of the reasons I think the establishment of the state and Israeli victory in 1948 merits being considered a moment of national redemption:
1) Location. Eretz Yisrael is sacred to Jews; America is not. Ovadya Yosef attributes saying Hallel on Hannuka to the existence, in the Hasmonean period, of the beit hamikdash. Part of the point here, I take it, is that Judaism values physical spaces (and the appertaining institutions). Of course, we have to explain the reasons, meaning and parameter of that value. Nonetheless, I cannot ignore it. 1948 is part of the continuing, particular mythic story of the Jewish people. An engagement ring that has been worn in a family for generations is inherently more precious than a new one. Histories of places matter as much as those of objects do, and the centrality of Israel to Jews should shape our valuation of the importance of 1948.
2) The centrality of Israel to Diasporic culture and religion. I have spent two years learning in Israel; I bring from Israel to the States textual knowledge, liturgical skills, and a renewed sense of belonging and commitment. In that, I sense I am typical of involved American Jews. Orthodox youth learn to read gemara in Israel, disaffected Jews “come back” through Birthright, liberal rabbinical students learn to daven in South Jerusalem.
Israeli culture is a more vibrant and intense Jewish culture than any other. There are good, even great movies now in Hebrew. Talmudic scholarship is flowering. Hebrew novels (and popular trash) reference the Tanakh, rethink the problems of Jewish history, and memorialize the holocaust. This is itself redemptive, and when we are brutally honest, American Jews must admit that we depend on these cultural springs. I think you define redemption too narrowly.
There are more such reasons. But to return to my main point, I wonder if there are any historical events on the basis of which—had you witnessed them—you would be inclined to legislate Hallel for all Israel. Are you under the illusion that God used to work miracles and no longer does? That the stories of Purim, Channukah, and Yetziat Mitzrayim do not themselves smooth over historical irruptions, exceptions, qualifications? That we are not dealing with, in these cases, myth rather than empirical fact? In some cases, I think the amount of historical compression and contortion vast exceeds any we could imagine doing ourselves. I do not say that, chas v’shalom, to cast aspersions on our Torah, but to gesture to the deep danger of erecting unreachable standards for the miraculous.
Do you know that there was no forced Roman galut following the destruction of the Second Temple? That the diasporic Jews were already plentiful and prosperous? Exactly what difference does that make to how you observe Tisha B’av? Does that affect how you read the line, “ומפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו ונתרחקנו מעל אדמתנו ואין אנחנו יכולים לעלות ולהראות” (because of our sins, we were exiled from our land and distanced from our ground, and we cannot ascend to the temple…)? Exactly how? Let us reconsider historically every Jewish holiday, every piece of liturgy, every myth, in light of your dispassionate standard. I do not think much will survive.
To be sure, you may not want to mythicize the establishment of the State. By all means, let us have that conversation! We can talk about the Naqba, about the importance of place today, about varying models of Jewish sovereignty and diasporism, etc. Your family’s experiences may ultimately justify you in not saying Hallel, but if so, it won’t be a matter of brute fact. It’ll be because you consciously articulated why you want to privilege their history over Israel’s. Let’s not pretend we can avoid that conversation. Let’s not use halakhic jargon to avoid weighing seriously our values around Israel and Zionism.
Wishing you a reflective Yom Hazikaron and a joyous Yom Haatzmaut.
Read the first post in this discussion by Eliana Fishman here.