Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut: An American Jewish obligation

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.

Filed under Halakha, Prayer, Yom Haatzmaut

10 Responses to “Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut: An American Jewish obligation”

  1. I appreciated the two articles from Fishman and Magarik, but Magarik’s blog post’s tone is is a little antagonistic. I wish he he would have kept his good points without adding the demeaning tone.


    yr · April 15th, 2013 at 10:59 am
  2. just on values, and not halakha:

    your point 1) neglects to look at WHAT role 1948 plays in the involvement of contemporary jews with that physical space. a war was won, in response to the attack that came, in response to the internal victory against the palestinians, in response to the war that came, in response to the partition plan, etc. etc. if it’s really all about location, why shouldn’t one celebrate the moment of the inauguration of the First Aliyah, rather than the moment which the Labor Party and the Biltmore Program convinced the UN that statehood through partition was the best way of achieving jewish numerical majority in the country? that just seems like nationalist posturing, not a commemoration of location.

    point 2) similarly fails to demonstrate a connection to 1948, unless what you are saying is “well, if the other side had won that war, then israel wouldn’t be a cultural center now.” maybe, but there’s still no reason to say hallel on yom ha’atzmaut rather than in june, to commemorate the victory in the six-day war. or why not say it to commemorate the yishuv’s persistence through the arab revolt of 1936-39? once again, saying hallel on yom ha’atzmaut is a form of being drafter into the israeli state-building narrative, not a commemoration of culture in particular.


    Sam · April 15th, 2013 at 11:08 am
  3. I’m sorry if my post felt antagonistic—I do mean this to be an honest, open engagement. If it does come over as overly aggressive or, chas v’shalom, demeaning, I a) would like to know when (so I can learn for next time and b) hope you’ll chalk it down to my having worked as a polemical journalist. And for the record, I should say that Eliana remains my teacher as much as my bat plugta on this question, and I admire her research and thoughtfulness on the question. Raffi


    Raffi Magarik · April 15th, 2013 at 11:11 am
  4. I really enjoyed reading both of these posts. I agree with YR about the tone of Magarik’s post as well. The reason I like reading these posts so much was because they brought multiple sets of learned and articulate discourse to an interesting and important topic.

    My question in general is, how are we defining redemption? Is there a halachic or talmudic definition? I’m not an expert on historical or contemporary Israel but if the current status-quo is redemption I can’t help but be a bit let down by what redemption looks like and what effects it has on the world.


    Ari · April 15th, 2013 at 12:01 pm
  5. Sam—

    1) Worth clarifying that, at least for me, the goal is a halakhic conversation that’s about values. I think I’m artificially separating them only to see clearly how little the texts tell us without our normative inputs, and because Eliana knows the sources better than I do. But I hope I don’t convey the sense that these are two separate things; my intention is that we build towards one, value-thick, text-oriented conversation.

    2) Lots of good material here to chew over! Very quickly—before I go out dancing—I think your 2 is easiest to address. The state is very tied to the positive cultural effects I’m describing: it subsidizes the yeshivot, it pays for parts of birthright, it sponsors Hebrew University (through which a great deal of wonderful scholarship is done). I think we romanticize culture if we ignore the extent to which it is often the product of real complexes of power and sovereignty (i.e., states)—for me, hakamat hamedina is thus tied to the cultural flowering. Also, note that no one else has come up with a good, widely embraced religious container for my feelings here—so even if I thought there was the misfit you’re describing between what I value (culture) and statehood, I still might celebrate YH as a good compromise. On your 1, I think that’s a good point. I don’t think it blunts my point to Eliana, since we were arguing about the America/Israel tension, not the precise date/event to celebrate. To respond to 1, I should have to say a bit more about why I consider Jewish sovereignty itself to be desirable; that’s tricky, since I think it’s the most complex piece about the whole question, but roughly, I would say I think Jewish sovereignty is important for the same reason I think the Haitian Revolution was more miraculous than the Emancipation Proclamation and Civil War. There is something uniquely remarkable about a previously oppressed community entering the community of nations as free men: I think that about the moment that Haitian emissaries were applauded in the French Popular Assembly, and about the establishment of the State of Israel. The American freeing of the slaves was, I think, pareve by comparison (both less globally significant and less about oppressed people achieving autonomy and agency—which is not to ignore the significance of Black abolitionists here in the States).

    Ari, I think the short answer is that just because we were redeemed, we are not now in a state of redemption. The Hasmoneans turned pretty rotten pretty quick, for instance.


    Raffi Magarik · April 15th, 2013 at 1:48 pm
  6. For the record, Raffi, I did not see your tone as antagonistic. Pointed and challenging yes, but in a constructive way that encouraged further conversation rather than attempted to shut it down. Well-written post.


    Benjamin Epstein · April 16th, 2013 at 2:45 am
  7. So…I realize that this isn’t quite the point of the post. But isn’t there anyone out there who thinks (as I do) that we shouldn’t say Hallel on Y”H because to say Hallel for the creation of an entity which abused and displaced hundreds of thousands of people is obscene?


    miri · April 17th, 2013 at 2:13 pm
  8. miri-
    I think Eliana Fishman’s post alluded subtly to this in referencing the midrash about the Egyptians drowning in the sea.


    BZ · April 17th, 2013 at 8:08 pm
  9. miri,
    it’s a miracle! (that we could deceive ourselves into believing that those abused and displaced peoples left on their own accord because they had no connection to the land and just hate jews so much)


    Justin · April 18th, 2013 at 6:37 pm
  10. BZ,
    that doesn’t really do it for me. Eliana’s post is largely about whether or not American Jews should say Hallel; her question – “Did the establishment of the State of Israel redeem the entire Jewish people, or did it redeem only Jews in the land of Israel?” – assumes that anyone, American or Israeli, was redeemed by the establishment of the State.

    Eliana Fishman’s post concludes that “The establishment of the State of Israel was not a redemptive moment for my [American] ancestors.” But I want to raise the possibility that the establishment of the State of Israel was in fact a tragedy for Jews, no matter where they live, insofar as it has made us complicit in the obscene suffering of millions of people while forcing us to subordinate our historic theological/ethical ideals to the demands of modern nation-statehood. And for that reason, we (whether Israeli or American) should not say Hallel.

    So, I guess my real question was, isn’t there anyone out there who thinks that this debate, while halakhically interesting, misses the point altogether?


    miri · April 20th, 2013 at 10:22 pm

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