Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yom haShoah, tallit, and the dangers of a rabbi’s quirks

I, personally, do not observe Yom haShoah as a day of its own.

Aside from the mourning-in-Nisan issue, I follow what I heard Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik say, in his recorded Tishah b’Av talks: Tishah b’Av should be the day to commemorate the Holocaust. I grant that there are plenty of sources to show that Jews have, historically, observed other memorial days (such as 20 Sivan) for specific tragedies, but this is the view to which I gravitate.

However, I attend Yom haShoah programs anyway, because of a much bigger issue: The problem of a rabbi displaying his own unique practices in public.

I see three problems with public idiosyncrasy:

1: One rabbi’s personal quirks may inappropriately spread to others.

Example: I daven with a tallis over my head for most of the morning davening, and I know that others have started doing the same. I don’t know whether it’s emulation, or something they picked up on their own, but I worry if it’s emulation, because although I do it for personal concentration, I’m not sure the others understand it that way.

Another example: I have long wished to wear a tallis with the recently discovered murex techelet. I don't think it is proven, 100%, to be the right one, but there is no downside to wearing it even if it is wrong. However, I resist because it’s expensive, and I wouldn’t want others to think the expense obligatory because, “The rabbi wears it.”

2: One rabbi's quirks may inadvertently make others look bad.

To return to the earlier examples: What will people think of another rabbi who chooses not to wear a tallis over his head, or who doesn't wear techelet?

This issue is brought up in the gemara; it’s a concern called “laaz,” which translates loosely as “slander.” The gemara (Gittin 5b) talks about the case of Bar Hedya, who wished to be certified as a deliverer of gittin (billls of divorce):

Bar Hedya wanted to be approved to deliver gittin. He came to R’ Achi, the official responsible for gittin, who told him, “You must be present for the writing of every letter.”
He then came to R’ Ami and R’ Asi, who told him, “You need not do so. And if you should say, ‘I will practice stringently,’ you would slander earlier gittin!’”

So we don’t have a right to introduce stringencies which will make others look bad.

Note, though, that this concern for slander requires more nuance; it should not be a catch-all warning against public stringency.

In my class on Pesach regarding Machine Matzah and its early controversies, I noted that the Sanzer Rebbe (Divrei Chaim 24) argued vociferously against adoption of machine matzah, and rejected outright the concern that his insistence on using hand matzah would make others, who ate machine matzah, look bad.

The Sanzer brought several arguments, including:
• If others truly are not careful with mitzvot, I don’t need to worry that my care with mitzvot makes them look bad;
• The “slander” concern regarding a get is worse than in other areas of law, because it would result in children being mistakenly labelled “illegitimate.”
• The “slander” concern is not relevant if others are the ones who choose to deviate from the norm, and I maintain the norm.
And more.

3. Who are you to be quirky, anyway?

"Oh, he thinks he's Mr. Pious, wearing his tallis over his head like that for davening. Why, I remember when he..."

This is a concern for yuhara, which translates roughly to "arrogance" and "self-righteousness." This, too, is a talmudic concern, that one should not adopt practices which are identified with special piety, lest he seem to think too much of himself.

Or, to quote the classic punchline, "Look who thinks he's a gornisht!" (Google it, if you don't know the joke. It's out there.)

Again, nuance is required; the gemara does say that in certain cases one may adopt special practices, and ignore yuhara appearances, because his practices won't stand out or because his righteousness will encourage others to be righteous. (See, for example, Pesachim 54b.)

But, at bottom, this is another reason to avoid exhibiting unique halachic behavior in public.

So I try not to exhibit religiously quirky behavior (other types of quirky behavior are fine…) in public, I attend Yom haShoah programs, and it’s a small price to pay to avoid these three problems.


  1. Interesting. What would you do if you lived in Israel?

    It does seem that there is a place for a separate religious observance (Tisha B'Av) and secular/national/peoplehood observance (Yom Hashoah), since even those who are NOT religious are still affected by something that happened to their community.

    I assume you "observe" some secular events, such as 4th of July, yes?

    Or is the problem for you that the local Yom Hashoah events are being framed in a religious way...?

  2. I would do the same in Israel.

    The distinction between religious and secular commemoration is interesting. I don't think I can really distinguish, though. For me, mourning is inherently religious.

  3. I never thought of Yom haShoah in that light before, and I suspect the reason for separate commemoration is simply because of how recent it is. Let's see how much enthusiasm Jews retain for the practice a generation or two after all of the survivors are gone.

    Clearly, you take your responsibility as a role model for our Jewish community very seriously. It's one less worry you'll have when you're no longer a congregational rabbi (so you can wait until you move to Toronto to get the new tallis!)

    I'd always assumed that the other men wore their tallitot over their heads for the same reason you do. ...and if they are just emulating your practice, what's the harm? It probably still makes it easier for them to concentrate.

  4. the rabbanut actually selected 10 tevet and not 9 av for shoah remembrance. as rav lau explained (my possibly faulty trans.):

    There is great symbolism in the juxtaposition of these two tragic events—the beginning of the destruction of the First Temple and the attempt to destroy the entire Jewish people in our generation—in one day of remembrance: in the coupling of these two events there is an expression of hope, that the European Holocaust brought to an end the cycle of suffering of the Jewish people. With this association with Asarah be-Tevet, and as with the other public fast days, there is nothing left for us but to hope and to pray for the realization of the words of Zechariah the Prophet, who lived during era of the Return to Zion: “Thus saith the LORD of hosts: The fast of the fourth month [Shiv’ah Asar be-Tamuz], and the fast of the fifth [Tish’ah be-Av], and the fast of the seventh [Tzom Gedaliah], and the fast of the tenth [Asarah be-Tevet], shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons; therefore love ye truth and peace [Zechariah 8:19].”

    but he was not opposed to yom hashoah and saw it as complementary to 10 tevet. (and certainly he is a featured speaking at yom hashoah commemorations)

  5. Fruma-
    The separate commemoration actually has more to do with politics. The movement to create Yom haShoah included a group that specifically wanted to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and to avoid lumping it in with religious tragedies past.
    Re: Tallit - Some did it before I showed up, and some started on their own; I don't mean to say that all are emulating me, at all. But my concern is someone taking it to be an essential mitzvah and not just a nice thing I do because it helps me daven.

    Yes; our selichos (a British edition) contain Holocaust selichos for Asarah b'Tevet.

  6. The silk tallit or sometime called Prayer Shawls, are a significant part in the lives of all Jewish men and some Jewish women as well. During prayer it bestows a sense of spirituality and elation on the person praying. The Tallit is a classic Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah gift.