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

September 2, 2020 | Elliot Jager
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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.

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