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


How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus