Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut: An American Jewish Story?
This is a guest post by Eliana Fishman, who lives, works, and prays in Washington DC. (See the response by Raphael Magarik here.)
What is the American Jewish story, and how do we tell it?
The question of whether or not to say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut has become a symbol of the division between religious Zionists and religious anti-Zionists. Religious Zionists, in particular followers of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, recite Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut with a blessing, while religious anti-Zionists do not say Hallel at all. On Yom Ha’atzmaut liturgical choice represents political orientation. This binary leaves American Jewish congregations in a bind. Is Yom Ha’atzmaut a day when American Jews can pray together? How can a community committed to a multitude of opinions around Zionism also share liturgy?
I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Not because I am an anti-Zionist (I’m not), not because I have lefty politics (I do), and not because I’m not a daily davener (I am). I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut because I am an American Jew. Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut is not about Zionism, and it’s not about joy over the establishment of a Jewish state. Hallel is about narrative.
One of the earliest references to Hallel’s recitation is in Masechet Pesachim 117a. The Talmud explains that Hallel is not about simple joy, but about the narrative of redemption. A baraita specifies six cases where 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 (e.g. at the Red Sea, when Joshua faced the Canaanites, when Deborah and Barak faced Sisera, etc). In each situation God redeems the entirety of the Jewish people, and a prophet established Hallel. The seventh instance that the baraita brings is either a summary, or a distinct case. The unnamed chachamim state that in each and every era that the Jewish people experience danger, Israel’s prophets establish the recitation of Hallel, and, when the people are redeemed, Israel says Hallel because of their redemption.
In each of these cases Hallel is recited first for extreme danger, and then for redemption. There is never any sense of “redemption is about to occur”, or “redemption is continuous”. Additionally, according to this baraita, Hallel is only recited when the entirety of the Jewish people are redeemed.
Did the establishment of the State of Israel redeem the entire Jewish people, or did it redeem only Jews in the land of Israel? Were American Jews redeemed on May 14, 1948? In order to answer that question we have to explore what redemption may or may not have occurred with the establishment of the State of Israel. I have three possible responses to that question—the Holocaust answer, the Arab army answer, and the continual answer.
1. The Holocaust. This narrative assumes that the entire Jewish people were in danger during the Holocaust, and God created the State of Israel as a way of preventing national destruction. In this narrative, either God established the State of Israel to rescue worldwide Jewry from the Nazis, or Israel was established to give survivors of the holocaust a place to go. There are numerous problems with this narrative: a fair amount of historical abrogation, including that not all Holocaust survivors went to Israel, people were living in Israel and fighting for its existence long before the Holocaust, and, if that was European Jewry’s redemption, shouldn’t the State of Israel’s establishment have taken place three years before the Holocaust instead of three years after. Plus, this narrative excludes most Sephardi Jews from Israel’s redemption.
2. The Arab Army Threat. The second narrative is that the establishment of the state of Israel redeemed the Jewish people from the threat of the Arab armies that threatened to invade Israel with the War of Independence/Nakba. Even if we ignore the academic work of revisionist historians, it’s still hard to make the case that this redemption is about American Jews. Even if every single Jew in Israel were wiped out on May 5, 1948, the Jews of America would still exist. If American Jews survived European Jewry’s annihilation earlier in the century, there is no reason to believe that they couldn’t survive Israeli Jewry’s eradication.
3. Continuous Redemption. The final possibility of redemption is that the state of Israel has saved Jews from any anti-Semitic threats that exist throughout the world. According to this narrative, Israel saved my ancestors from anti-Semitism, not America. This narrative buys into the idea that American Jews still face existential anti-Semitic threats, and we all actually need Israel to save our lives. Is this the crux of the American Jewish relationship? Fear? What is the American Jewish relationship to Israel?
It’s complicated. But it is certainly not about redemption. The establishment of the State of Israel was not a redemptive moment for my ancestors. My ancestors were redeemed from European anti-Semitism when they arrived in the United States. That is ultimately the reason that I don’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Kinship with Israel, watching Srugim, amazement at Ruth Calderon’s Knesset speech, and following Israeli politics does not equal redemption. My ability to practice my religion as I like, without any fear of government intrusion or persecution, has nothing to do with Israel’s establishment, and everything to do with being American. When American Jews say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut they are displaying ingratitude to the United States, the country that allows them the freedom to practice Judaism. For many American Jews the United States provided redemption from religious persecution. Israel did not.
Doesn’t the continued existence of American anti-Semitism mean that one day American Jews will have to move to Israel?
Yes, anti-Semitism still exists in America. So does anti-Semitism in Israel. What doesn’t exist in America is state-sponsored anti-Semitism. American Jews do not face persecution for their religious practice.
Don’t you know that American Jewish power exists because of the establishment of the State of Israel?! American Jewry couldn’t even stop the Holocaust from happening, and now American Jews are powerful, all because of Israel!
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Sadly, there is no way to do a double-blind test experiment on history. We have no way of knowing if American Jewish power is related to the establishment of the state of Israel, the increasing wealth of the American Jewish community, Jews becoming white, guilt over the Holocaust, etc.
Ok, so you don’t want to say full Hallel with a bracha. How about a compromise? Half-Hallel? Hallel without a bracha?
Half Hallel and Hallel without a bracha are two separate issues. Let’s address Hallel without a bracha first.
Halachists have long acknowledged that individual Jewish communities have different types of practices. The Meiri, referencing Tosafot on Masechet Sukkah 44b, states that when an individual experiences redemption, he should say Hallel for himself on that day each year, but not recite a bracha. If the entire Jewish people isn’t included in the miracle, then Hallel isn’t completed. Similarly, if the Jewish community of Washington DC experiences redemption, then DC Jews should say Hallel every year without a bracha, while all Jews outside of DC would not say Hallel. The Meiri and Tosafot are acknowledging that despite the national status of the Jewish people, separate Jewish communities have their own identities, and their own narratives. Imposing one narrative on another community does not make sense. Just like different geographic communities made decisions about eating legumes on Pesach, different geographic communities can make decisions about saying Hallel on redemptive moments in their communities.
Rav Ovadiah Yosef cites the Meiri and Tosafot when he responds to the issue of Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. According to the Meiri, if the entire Jewish community says Hallel, then a bracha is required. However, if only some Jews are saying Hallel, then those Jews say Hallel without a bracha. If the entire Jewish community was meant to say Hallel, then Jews in Israel and in the diaspora would both be saying Hallel with a bracha. Since Yosef only allows Hallel sans-blessing, there must be a population not saying Hallel at all. Some Jews must not be saying Hallel.
Isn’t Rav Ovadiah just talking about religious anti-Zionists?
Possibly. However, he does not offer ideology as a reason for limiting the scope of Hallel’s recitation. He does give the minimal scope of Yom Ha’atzmaut’s redemptive power over only a portion of the Jewish people as a reason for saying Hallel without a bracha.
“…Chazal only established the recitation of Hallel on Israel’s redemption if all of Israel was present at the danger, and was redeemed from that danger, but if a community or an entire state of [the people of] Israel was redeemed from their danger, they are not permitted to establish Hallel with brachot, but it is correct to say Hallel without a bracha.” (Yabia Omer Orach Chaim 6:41)
Rav Ovadiah acknowledges the limits of geography in establishing new Hallel. At no point does he specifically discuss what diaspora Jewry should do on Yom Ha’atzmaut, but he uses geographic disparity as a basis for advocating Hallel without a bracha.
On to half-Hallel. The original reason in Masechet Arachin 10a-b for saying half-Hallel on the last six days of Pesach has to do with sacrifices. The accepted myth for half-Hallel is that we can’t say full Hallel because of the midrash in Masechet Megillah 10b about God chastising the angels for celebrating when “the work of my hands” (i.e. the Egyptians) were drowning in the sea. This source, and the myth that associates it with saying half-Hallel on Pesach, offers an opportunity for Israelis who are saying Hallel to express their politics. Lefty Israelis can say half-Hallel without a bracha. Right-leaning Israelis can say full Hallel without a bracha. Americans of all political persuasions should say neither, because the establishment of the state of Israel had nothing to do with their redemption.
The discussion around Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut has frequently deteriorated into debates over Zionism and anti-Zionism. While that debate is entirely worthwhile, it is tangential to whether or not American Jews should say Hallel. American Jews should not say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut because the establishment of the state of Israel did not redeem us. The United States of America did.
Live in/around Washington DC? Interested in coming to a minyan that won’t say Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut/Nakba? Check it out.
See the response to this post by Raphael Magarik here.