Reinvent Yom HaAtzmaut?

Robbie Gringas makes a case:

Yom Ha'atzmaut is currently far from being an event through which the Jewish community "celebrates itself". While Chanukah, a festival marking momentous events in the land of Israel, is celebrated in the home and in the community with comfort and ease, Yom Ha'atzmaut, another festival marking momentous events in that far-away land, is neither comfortable nor homely. Chanukah has become a festival that is 'owned' by the local population, no matter where in the world they live. Yom Ha'atzmaut is and has always been owned by Israelis...

Nor, for example, is St Patrick's Day to those of Irish descent what Yom Ha'atzmaut is to Jews... St Patrick's Day has now moved far beyond being an Irish Catholic event. The largest St Patrick's Day Parade now takes place in Chicago not Dublin. The slogan throughout the States, "Everyone's Irish on St Patrick's Day", marks its ecumenical, non-ethnic intentions, as the festival celebrates more the sale of Irish-style goods (mainly great beer) than the promotion of Irish life and authentic culture. Despite this gradual draining of the festival's content, St Patrick's Day nevertheless celebrates a more authentic, less complicated sense of exilic longing, than does Yom Ha'atzmaut for Jews...

The time may have come for us to begin draw inspiration not from other nationalisms, nor from other ethnicities, but from our own. We need to begin to see and develop Yom Ha'atzmaut as a Jewish holiday: a chag. Paradoxically, because Yom Ha'Atzmaut is such an established yet unclaimed festival in the orthodox world, we may find ourselves with a great deal of room for maneuver. We may draw from religious wisdom without committing to its authority: we may refer to religious constructs without commenting on their essence...

Each chag has a narrative and a theme that express themselves through a designated experience, structured reflection, and symbolic action...

We would suggest that Yom Ha'atzmaut should mark the following theme: להיות עם חופשי בארצנו – To be a free people in our land. This would allow us to focus on the four areas of Zionism that together would suggest a unique aspect to Jewish existence...

For Chag Ha'atzmaut it might be tempting to reach for the Declaration of Independence, or for one's Tanach, to find the specific megillah appropriate to our Chag Ha'atzmaut. But before doing so it would be useful to increase the breadth of our options. Perhaps a piece of literature from beyond the Tanach might be equally appropriate? What might the story of the Golem of Prague reflect on Israel's narrative of sovereignty, power, and tradition? How could a biography of Albert Einstein – an individual, Diaspora-dwelling, light unto the nations, almost-President of Israel – comment on Am Chofshi b'Artzenu? Must we choose only one text?...

As we have stated, there may be value in drawing on Jewish 'traditional forms' of ritual so as to lend - not necessarily authority - but contextual familiarity to our Chag Ha'atzmaut rites of passage. One such form might be the Seder Plate, as applied to the four principles of Chag Ha'atzmaut... one might raise and drink a glass of water to mark the life-giving simplicity of להיות , to cut open a pomegranate to mark the unified and diverse nature of עם , to eat a wild sabra fruit to mark the prickly yet sweet ambivalence of חופשי , and to light a vial of olive oil to mark ארצנו .

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There are  several worthy observations here, but color me skeptical about any attempt to create a really meaningful ritual celebration intentionally and all at once. Isn't it possible that the ancient festivals are so rich with meaning precisely because no one human individual (or, God save us all, committee) designed them? Do we really want to perform rituals born in a brainstorming session and tailored to express themes X, Y, and Z, as defined by seventeen bullet-pointed specifications? Aren't the contradictions and opacities and confusions of the classic Jewish holidays a significant part of the reason we'll never exhaust the ways they can be meaningful? It's not that I disagree with Gringas that Yom HaAtzmaut ought to develop further, but perhaps it will best do so if we let it do so in unexpected and unplanned ways.

Jewish Shrines (BJPA Roulette)



BJPA Roulette is a safer and more informative alternative to its Russian counterpart. It is ideal for Jewish communal procrastinators, and perhaps even for new forms of occult divination. (BJPA takes no legal, moral or spiritual responsibility for predictions derived from our Random Publication feature.) To play, simply go to and let blind fate recommend a publication.

I've just done so, and I landed on Living Room: Shrines, by Vanessa L. Ochs.

Jews, in theory, don’t make shrines; in reality, of course, we do — we just don’t talk about them. Our shrines are spiritual agents that construct our religious and cultural identities, that prompt ethical and holy response, and that foster connections between oneself and the community. Sometimes we amass photos of our ancestors to look over us, interceding with God on our behalf at the hot moments of our lives. We may assemble the Rosh Hashanah cards we received on the mantelpiece, with hopes that the wishes they have extended for a good, sweet year will come true. We may keep out various Israeli souvenirs, trinkets, and ritual objects we have collected: the Hebrew Coca-Cola can, the decoupage hamsa, the mezuzah purchased in the Cardo...

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San Fran Circumcision Ban: Cutting Down on Cutting


Despite all the demonstrable health benefits of circumcision, San Francisco will vote in November to decide whether or not to ban circumcision in the city, without any sort of religious exemption for Jews and Muslims.

The JTA Archive's blog takes a fascinating look back today at JTA articles from the 20th century on the topic of circumcision. With a hat-tip to our friends at the JTA, and a reminder regarding the old adage about imitation and flattery, here is our own round-up of a few circumcision-related BJPA holdings, all of them from the past three decades:

Perhaps the real motivation for the San Francisco circumcision ban is precisely to unite the Jewish and Muslim communities in opposition... Or not.

Publications on Difference at Passover

Four Cups

Across Barriers


Publications on the mixed, modern Seder


The First Cup: Mixed Marriages

Passover, a Lesson in Inclusiveness

Adam Bronfman, Kerry M. Olitzky, 2009


The Second Cup: Jews and Christians

Is Every Seder Kosher for Passover?

A. James Rudin, 1999


The Third Cup: Jews and Palestinians

Sharing Pesach with a Palestinian

Lawrence Baron, 1988


The Fourth Cup: Jews and Jews

Keeping Peace at the Seder Table

Sally Shafton, 1984


Explore many more publications about Passover at

Being Chosen, Being Distinct

Jewish distinction has been in the news this past week. In a NY Times Op-Ed column, Jewish novelist Michal Chabon (of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union) reacts to the Gaza flotilla affair with a lament that Jews appear to be no smarter than any other people, chosenness notwithstanding. This reaction opens an exploration of the concept of Jewish distinction:

This is, of course, the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity: the idea of chosenness, of exceptionalism, of the treasure that is a curse, the blessing that is a burden, of the setting apart that may presage redemption or extermination. To be chosen has been, all too often in our history, to be culled... Now, with the memory of the Mavi Marmara fresh in our minds, is the time for Jews to confront, at long last, the eternal truth of our stupidity as a people, which I will stack, blunder for blunder, against that of any other nation now or at any time living on this planet of folly, in this world of Chelm.
Leaving aside questions of Jewish superiority, a Newsweek article from June 3rd reports that
the Jews of the Diaspora share a set of telltale genetic markers, supporting the traditional belief that Jews scattered around the world have a common ancestry. But various Diaspora populations have their own distinct genetic signatures, shedding light on their origins and history. In addition to the age-old question of whether Jews are simply people who share a religion or are a distinct population, the scientific verdict is settling on the latter.
The question of Chosenness has long been a sore point for antisemites, a point of affection for philosemites, and, naturally, a point of discomfort for many Jews.

Perhaps most famously, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, rejected the notion of chosenness. As George B. Driesen noted in The Reconstructionist in 1995, Kaplan "believed that the notion of a chosen people conflicts with a non-supernatural conception of divinity." Driesen quotes Kaplan directly as writing that "it is deemed inadvisable, to say the least, to keep alive ideas of racial or national superiority, inasmuch as they are known to exercise a divisive influence, generating suspicion and hatred." Driesen goes on to trace the development of liturgical innovations in the non-Orthodox movements which sought to erase ideas of Jewish chosenness. (For more on the theme of Jewish chosenness as manifested in liturgy, read Gordon M. Freeman's analysis of the prayer Aleinu as a political statement.)

Arnold M. Eisen, now Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, argued in 1990 that the idea of chosenness has been critical to the formation of American Jewish identity, allowing 20th Century American Jews "to make their way, yet remain distinct." This idea, he writes, has "provoked... an outpouring of interpretation, while others (exile, messiah, revelation) were virtually ignored".

What do you think? Is the idea of the Jewish people as the Chosen people an eternal truth, or an outdated concept? Does it imply superiority? Does it imply inferiority? Is it compatible with the notion of human equality? Let's hear some opinions in the comments section.

My own personal view (as always, not reflecting any official position of the BJPA) is that Jewish chosenness need not be seen as implying superiority of any kind. One can just as easily conceive of it as a special responsibility given to the Jews, a responsibility to foster ethical monotheism in the world, but with the knowledge that other peoples, cultures and individuals may also be chosen for other different and important tasks. Indeed, one might say that each person on earth is chosen for a unique and vital purpose. But enough homiletics; what say you?

Relationship-endings and Jewish communities

American Jewish marriages end in divorce at a similar rate as American marriages in general. In her article, Rekindling Tradition as Life Partnerships End, Kathleen Jenkins uses dozens of qualitative interviews with Jewish divorce(e)s and clergy to explore how divorce affects Jewish practices, attachments, and needs.

All the participants talked about how negatively divorce impacted their home practice, shabbat and holiday celebrations. Many turned or returned to synagogue congregational life as a source of meaningful Jewish engagement. Singing, communal prayer, and various rituals that communities have developed, like a mikvah visit associated with the completion of the divorce or the recitation of kaddish for the death of the relationship, could be sources of comfort and meaning.

On the other hand, respondents also often described experiences of silence, frustration, and shame: synagogue dues not accessible to a suddenly poorer unit; activities centered around families; fear of gossip and/or anxiety around divorce making discussions of divorce feel taboo, etc.

The author points out that the transitional period after a divorce is a time of rich spiritual potential, one that Jewish communities and clergy should not overlook in terms of outreach and building communal connections. Her recommendations include ideas like explicitly including divorce in references to areas of pastoral care and not shying away from mentioning divorce in sermons; establishing and offering ritual practices associated with divorce; and diversifying synagogue activities beyond the normative family model.