Amidst Controversy in Israel over a Pilgrimage to Ukraine, Some Reflections on Religion, Superstition, and Visiting Tombs

In 1768, with Poland in the midst of a bloody civil war, pro-Russian forces attacked the city of Uman in present-day Ukraine. The town’s Jewish and Polish residents fought side by side, but, after thousands were killed, the Poles made peace, and thousands more Jews were massacred. In 1810, the ḥasidic rabbi Naḥman of Bratslav came there to spend his final months, and thereafter pilgrims flocked to his grave every year on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. These pilgrimages have, since the fall of the USSR, been massive gatherings, bringing thousands of Jews—most ḥasidic, but some secular—to the town, especially from Israel.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the journey to Uman has become a political hot potato, as ḥaredi politicians have tried to get travel restrictions waved for the pilgrims, while Ukrainian authorities have sought to restrict Israelis from entering their country. Meanwhile, one Israeli pilgrim has tested positive for COVID-19, and another was recently attacked by a local. An Israeli columnist has condemned the annual ritual as idolatrous.

Elliot Jager considers the situation, and the practice he dubs “graving”:

Jewish law does not obligate graving, not even to visit the burial site of a loved one. However, the notion that the spirits of deceased relatives can intervene on our behalf is discussed in the Talmud. Rabbinic Judaism sought to balance the requirement that prayer be directed exclusively to God with our emotional need to hold on to the memories of loved ones. Rationalist traditionalism tends to discourage obsessive visits to gravesites.

In contrast, fundamentalists tend to play up graving. The Lubavitcher rebbe would spend several afternoons a week in meditation at the tomb of his father-in-law [and predecessor].

Personally, I find occasional visits to the graveyard cathartic. I keep deceased loved ones in my thoughts and prayers year-round. But I endeavor not to be obsessive about it. So, maybe superstition is what happens when you catapult graving beyond what the sages of old intended. And idolatry is what happens when you make a fetish out of what should be symbolic.

Faith ought to provide a spiritual, ethical, and social framework for living. This is not enough for fanatics who feel compelled to signal their piety ostentatiously. Religion becomes an excuse for obsessive-compulsive behavior. . . . Faith is what you struggle with when you do not have the crutch of easy graving.

Read more at Jager File

More about: Coronavirus, Hasidism, Israeli politics, Jewish history, Judaism, Ukraine

Why Arab Jerusalem Has Stayed Quiet

One of Hamas’s most notable failures since October 7 is that it has not succeeded in inspiring a violent uprising either among the Palestinians of the West Bank or the Arab citizens of Israel. The latter seem horrified by Hamas’s actions and tend to sympathize with their own country. In the former case, quiet has been maintained by the IDF and Shin Bet, which have carried out a steady stream of arrests, raids, and even airstrikes.

But there is a third category of Arab living in Israel, namely the Arabs of Jerusalem, whose intermediate legal status gives them access to Israeli social services and the right to vote in municipal elections. They may also apply for Israeli citizenship if they so desire, although most do not.

On Wednesday, off-duty Israeli soldiers in the Old City of Jerusalem shot at a Palestinian who, it seems, was attempting to attack them. But this incident is a rare exception to the quiet that has prevailed in Arab Jerusalem since the war began. Eytan Laub asked a friend in an Arab neighborhood why:

Listen, he said, we . . . have much to lose. We already fear that any confrontation would have consequences. Making trouble may put our residence rights at risk. Furthermore, he added, not a few in the neighborhood, including his own family, have applied for Israeli citizenship and participating in disturbances would hardly help with that.

Such an attitude reflects a general trend since the end of the second intifada:

In recent years, the numbers of [Arab] Jerusalemites applying for Israeli citizenship has risen, as the social stigma of becoming Israeli has begun to erode and despite an Israeli naturalization process that can take years and result in denial (because of the requirement to show Jerusalem residence or the need to pass a Hebrew language test). The number of east Jerusalemites granted citizenship has also risen, from 827 in 2009 to over 1,600 in 2020.

Oddly enough, Laub goes on to argue, the construction of the West Bank separation fence in the early 2000s, which cuts through the Arab-majority parts of Jerusalem, has helped to encouraged better relations.

Read more at Jerusalem Strategic Tribune

More about: East Jerusalem, Israeli Arabs, Jerusalem