Yom Hashoah: hope out of grief

The obligation to remember the Holocaust in a defiantly religious way is now taking shape


By Lord Jonathan Sacks, April 8, 2010
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The echoing irony of the Holocaust is that we have still not found an adequate way of giving its remembrance religious expression, in the way we do for the exodus on Pesach, or the destruction of the Temples on Tisha b'Av.

Almost everything else that can be said or done, has been said or done. There are Holocaust histories, conferences, seminars, university courses, exhibitions, museums, memorials, documentaries and films. There was a time in the 1980s when one out of every four books published on a Jewish theme was about the Holocaust. Yet this one lacuna remains.

Understandably so. After the war, Jews wrestled with the question of what would constitute an act of religious remembrance. There were obvious difficulties. What date could you choose to mark an event that took place over several years during which, each day, thousands of Jews were killed? The Israeli rabbinate initially chose Asarah b'Tevet, already a fast day recalling the start of the siege of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. But what was the connection between that and the Holocaust?

Others proposed the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But that happened at the beginning of Pesach. You cannot grieve on a festival. Yet others, including Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, argued for Tisha b'Av, the supreme Jewish day of mourning, but many objected because it would have meant including the Holocaust among other catastrophes. It needed a day of its own.

Eventually, a compromise date, Nisan 27, was chosen - as near as possible to Pesach and a week before Israel's Independence Day. Kinot (Laments) in memory of the Shoah were added to the prayers of Asarah be-Tevet and Tisha b'Av. Some add a Holocaust remembrance on Seder night: it is included in my edition of the Haggadah.

Then there was the question of which religious texts you could use. Several attempts have been made to write a megillah about the Holocaust on the lines of Eichah, the book of Lamentations; none was adequate. What poetry can you write about an event that, according to the philosopher Theodor Adorno, made poetry impossible? So, no generally accepted liturgy has emerged. Many shuls hold Yom Hashoah services built around survivor testimonies. But the survivors are getting older and fewer.

Our generation owes the victims and survivors the knowledge that their memory will live on.The time has come to begin shaping a service that will endure across the generations. Only when an act becomes a mitzvah is it endowed with permanence, and Holocaust remembrance is part of the mitzvah of remembering Amalek, the Jewish symbol of human evil.

So, last year, we assembled a group of rabbis, cantors, a choir and children of survivors to devise such a service, built around music, narration and imagery. Its theme was "From grief to hope" and the passing on of memory from one generation to the next. It was held at the Elstree and Borehamwood Synagogue and it was intensely moving. This year it will be held at the Edgware synagogue on the night of April 12.

It is too soon to say that we have arrived at a liturgy. Perhaps Yom Hashoah will always be marked by a mix of fixed texts and ever-changing elaborations, the way a Seder service is. But technology has given us a way of enhancing the process. After this year's service, we will make a film, to be available on the Internet, that can be used as a whole or in part by every shul and school throughout the world. If this does no more than stimulate others to develop their own forms of service, that too will be a blessing.

Holocaust commemoration has spread far beyond the Jewish community. Britain and the UN have chosen January 27, anniversary of Auschwitz's liberation, as a day of remembering. Let it not be said of us that we failed the victims, survivors, and future generations, by not creating a place for the Holocaust on the map of Jewish memory. It will tell for all time that, though Hitler destroyed a third of our people, he did not destroy our faith. The Jewish people lives and still bears witness to the God of life.

Lord Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

    Last updated: 10:49am, July 9 2010

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