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

Sept. 2 2020

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

American Aid to Lebanon Is a Gift to Iran

For many years, Lebanon has been a de-facto satellite of Tehran, which exerts control via its local proxy militia, Hizballah. The problem with the U.S. policy toward the country, according to Tony Badran, is that it pretends this is not the case, and continues to support the government in Beirut as if it were a bulwark against, rather than a pawn of, the Islamic Republic:

So obsessed is the Biden administration with the dubious art of using taxpayer dollars to underwrite the Lebanese pseudo-state run by the terrorist group Hizballah that it has spent its two years in office coming up with legally questionable schemes to pay the salaries of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), setting new precedents in the abuse of U.S. foreign security-assistance programs. In January, the administration rolled out its program to provide direct salary payments, in cash, to both the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Internal Security Forces (ISF).

The scale of U.S. financing of Lebanon’s Hizballah-dominated military apparatus cannot be understated: around 100,000 Lebanese are now getting cash stipends courtesy of the American taxpayer to spend in Hizballah-land. . . . This is hardly an accident. For U.S. policymakers, synergy between the LAF/ISF and Hizballah is baked into their policy, which is predicated on fostering and building up a common anti-Israel posture that joins Lebanon’s so-called “state institutions” with the country’s dominant terror group.

The implicit meaning of the U.S. bureaucratic mantra that U.S. assistance aims to “undermine Hizballah’s narrative that its weapons are necessary to defend Lebanon” is precisely that the LAF/ISF and the Lebanese terror group are jointly competing to achieve the same goals—namely, defending Lebanon from Israel.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israeli Security, Lebanon, U.S. Foreign policy