A Tale of Two Funerals

When he passed away on November 8 in Jerusalem, the American- born Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel was widely credited with having transformed the Mir Yeshiva into the world’s largest. Some 100,000 people flocked to his funeral. The procession began at the Mir in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, and continued afoot to the Har Hamenuhot cemetery. For those neighborhoods of Jerusalem and for the population that lives there, time stood still. Businesses were closed and study was suspended even at other institutions.

His death was considered a loss of a once-in-a-generation leader.

Amazingly, though, outside that community, almost no one noticed. Most Israelis could not name him and were unaware that he had died.

Even those American Jews who know, however vaguely, of the Mir Yeshiva, could not have named the person who headed it. Nor did they hear that he had died.

We’re living increasingly in a world of parallel but non-intersecting Jewish universes, each with its own ideals and heroes, neighborhoods and values, each too readily dismissive of the other. In the aftermath of Rabbi Finkel’s passing, and the images of his funeral which were a sea of black, extending down entire city streets, it’s worth comparing this moment in our history to another Jewish funeral, also attended by some 100,000 people.

That was the funeral of the brilliant Yiddish writer Y.L. Peretz, who died in Warsaw just shy of a century ago. Professor Ruth Wisse, writing in Commentary magazine in March 1991, described his funeral as follows: “Published reports of the funeral lingers on the by-then extraordinary fact that each of the splintering political, religious, social and cultural groups was officially represented in the procession – Hebraists and Yiddishists, observant Jews and all manner of secularists, Zionists and socialists and Territorialists in all their tangled branches, conservative community leadership and radical workers’ opposition.”

What a striking difference! How many secular Jews could be found at Rabbi Finkel’s funeral? How many observant Jews not in black? None of the former, I would imagine. And very, very few of the latter.

Which leads me to the following question: Who is there anywhere in the Jewish world whose passing would evoke the sense of shared loss that was felt when Peretz died? Is there anyone in the Jewish world – in Israel, the United States, or anywhere else – who would be mourned by secularists and religious Jews alike, conservatives and liberals, Zionists and those more dubious about the Jewish state? Were Haim Nahman Bialik to die now, would the Israeli religious community mark his passing? (In 1934, it did.) Were Rabbi Shlomo Goren alive now, would American Reform and Conservative Jews see his loss as theirs, too? Would Israeli Orthodox Jews take note of the loss of Abba Hillel Silver? There are (a very few) Israeli national leaders who will likely be mourned across the religious divide, but will their passing be marked in any meaningful way in American Jewish life? Is there a single American Jewish leader of whom Israelis would take note after his or her death? To tell the truth, I can’t think of a single Jewish person whose loss would evoke the kind of cross-chasm mourning that Peretz’s did. We live in a very different and much impoverished age.
What matters, of course, is not really who mourns whom at funerals. What matters is who takes whom seriously during their lifetime. And increasingly, I fear, we take seriously those people who are more or less like us. We embrace (and then “like” on Facebook, or forward to others) the views of those with whom we agree, and disparage (and don’t “like” or Retweet, and never forward) the views of those whose views we don’t share.

If people on the “Right” read writers like Peter Beinart, it’s not because they think that they might have something to learn from him (even if they disagree with his conclusions), but rather, simply to show how completely off-base he is. And when people on the “Left” read Caroline Glick, it’s also not because they think there might be something to glean from arguments with which they ultimately disagree. It’s simply to confirm their (incorrect) preconceived notion that anyone to their right is a Neanderthal.

How different we are from the sages of the Talmud, who carefully preserved the opinions of those with whom they disagreed, including even those opinions that were ultimately rejected.

Our sages understood that even the “losing” positions had what to teach, that there are moral and strategic insights to be gleaned even from those whose conclusions we do not share.

But are there any rabbis in Israel’s religious community who urge their students to read Ahad Ha’am’s vision for Zion or Amos Oz’s social critiques, or secular Israeli high school teachers who encourage their students to read Rav Kook’s (not so disparaging) religious assessment of secular Judaism? We’re all part of this troubling phenomenon, to some extent. After all, don’t we subscribe to those newspapers and magazines that say what we already think, and avoid like the plague those that might cause us to rethink the positions to which we’re now committed? Aren’t we, too, divided between CNN and Fox watchers, each of us proud of the fact that we never watch the other? Perhaps, I sometimes wistfully allow myself to imagine, it is time for those on the Left to subscribe to The Weekly Standard, and those on the Right to buy The Nation.

For the vast majority of the Jewish world, the death of Rabbi Finkel went unnoticed. And even for those outside his community who did hear about it, his passing and his funeral are yesterday’s news. But those images of the sea of black – and only black – on the streets of Jerusalem during his funeral procession ought to be a reminder of how different our world is from the world that Y.L. Peretz inhabited. Our response, I believe, ought to be to ask how we can begin to recreate the deeply interconnected Warsaw community, so lost in so many ways.

Perhaps we ought to start with reading, reminding ourselves that the important reading we do is not the reading with which we agree, but the reading that actually makes us think.

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

25 Comments on "A Tale of Two Funerals"

  • Roger S. says

    Great column. One small point: the TV divide is between MSNBC and Fox.

    BTW, I’m not sure if you will appreciate the comparison, but you have the sensibility of David Brooks in this column.

  • Sara Averick says

    Reb Aryeh Levin’s funeral in 1969 brought together 10s if not 100s of thousands of Jews from all backgrounds – underground mov’t vets from left to right, Sefardim, Ashkenazim, secular, religious, VIPs and the amcha, the entire rainbow – as well as Muslims and Christians. Would that we could all internalize his middot of ahavat chinam, kvod habriyot and ha’ve mekabel kol adam b’sever panim yafot.

  • Rabbi Gordis, Yasher koah – I could not agree more with you. I have taken to watching Fox over the last six months in an effort to do exactly what you say, though I still love the critique of it on The Daily Show or the Colbert Report. As Jews, we all need to do more of these efforts in an attempt to build ahdut ha’am. The sad truth is, however, that none of the people at the funeral will even read your column, let alone heed its suggestions. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi David Lerner

  • Morris Goodman says

    Vivid, beautiful point. Are we more frightened than during Peretz’time? The fear makes us hunker down, shore up our own narrow positions, and avoid any challenges or contradictions. When you are terrified, only ‘black’ or ‘white’ offers any solace. Now I challenge you and I to do something to turn this around. Any ideas?

  • Thank you Daniel, for reminding us to listen to opposing views.

  • Todah Rabah for this insightful and thought provoking piece. Although we all surely wish him decades of health and life, would not the esteemed writer and teacher Elie Wiesel qualify as a Jewish individual whose passing, based upon his real contribution to the Jewish people and it’s contemporary consciousness, be mourned by all segments of the Jewish (and even secular) world? I don’t know if there would be 100,000 at such a levaya, but does one really measure a tzaddik, a gadol, or even a mensch by such numbers?

    Shabbat Shalom from Manhattan Beach, CA

  • Daniel Milgram says

    Rabbi Gordis, perhaps this is occurring because 100-150 years ago everyone had the same Jewish upbringing and depth of knowledge with the difference between us being only what one chose to accept or reject. Today’s Jewish upbringing is differentiated from the beginning and therefore people do not identify with or respect Jewish people to their right or left. Thank you for such a thought-provoking article.

  • Jennifer Read says

    You make me feel ashamed. I thought about exposing myself to opinions I didn’t agree with and realized it simply made me uncomfortable. That’s the best reason to do it! So I won’t watch Fox because I see no point in being exposed to falsehood, but I will try to read responsible conservative columns.

  • David Burger says

    Daniel, as my Sephardic Chaverim say, Chazak Baruch. Perhaps the greatest threat to the Jewish people is sin’at chinam, baseless hatred (or dismissal, or disenfranchisement), just as it was 2000 years ago. We do have to start hearing each other. As you so often do, you hit the nail on the head.

  • Sidney Brounstein says

    It is glib – but somewhat misleading – to state that people read only what agrees with them. I, for example, have switched from watching CNN to Fox because the former ignore news that doesn’t suit them, and often distorts news to conform to its views; I find that Fox in fact does report the news adequately; its commentary thereon happens also to suit me (as it would not have two or more decades ago). I would gladly welcome any argument that adds light even in directions I oppose, but such argument is not to be heard from the current die-hard leftist elite, certainly not from the Nation. If you can point out an intellectual left-wing source, one that plays with opinions, not facts, I would be thrilled to read.

  • Marc says

    I agree that Israel is polarised. But maybe even more so America and American Jews. What Jew on the ‘left’ could listen to one Republican debate without cringing 99% of the time? What Republican candidate could entertain that there is more to improving health care in the USA than repealing Obamacare? We see extrame polarisation and I can only hope, Gd willing, this will lead us to feel that we are as far from unity as possible. For then we can be certain that just around the next bend will be the jackpot with Machiach leading the way!

  • Dear Rabbi Gordis,

    I appreciate what you have shared. It feels good to sing with others in the ‘same choir’ as I am in, and particularly to davven in a shul with like-minded spiritual souls with whom I ”share views”. Yet, personally for myself at the same time, I “take seriously those people,” my teachers– who live a different life-style than myself. I learn from others. Maybe the others can’t include me on a personal basis, but I can cross ‘boundaries’ and experience that which will uplift and inspire me to be a better human and Jew. Not only that, but in my baby boomer Jewish newsletter, Joyous Chai Lights, for the last three decades, I share all the people/teachers/rabbis in my greater community so that they, too, can cross ‘boundaries’ and experience all denominations of Judaism in Four Worlds: Spirit, Mind, Heart and Body.

    I know that there are two people who were mourned trans-denominationally and universally. I humbly offer to you the name of one of my beloved rebbes whose 17th yahrzeit this last week was commemorated around the world. Reb Shlomo Carlebach, z’l, has left a rich legacy of his renowned song and Torah, for all Jews, globally. We learned in joy with Shlomo at the same time.

    In addition, on 25 Elul 5771, my beloved Jerusalem chareidi rebbe, Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen, z’l, left in deep mourning, students and friends, secularists and religious Jews alike from all denomination, and faiths, all over the world. This “shared loss” “evoked cross-chasm mourning”.

    May we all be blessed to circumcise our hearts, as well as our minds to those different from ourselves, and find the light and the blesSings, especially as we enter Kislev.

    BlesSings to you always,
    your former Ethics AJU/UJ student,
    Joy Krauthammer

  • Danny–

    Once again, you have gotten part of it right but gotten the other part completely wrong.

    As a past chairman of CLAL and a person who believes that without pluralism we have no chance of being a holy people, I certainly applaud your plea that Jews should desist from demonizing those with whom we differ and should instead try to find at least a partial truth in sincere opinons expressed by those who mean well but with whom we disagree.

    But I have two or three issues to raise.

    First, you are the same guy who agreed to have a 90 minute exchange with a J Street leadership mission to Israel. Then you spent virtually the entire 90 minutes lecturing them about everything you believed they were doing wrong and left virtually no time for questions or conversation.

    Then you went on to write an article further demonizing J Street and listing the reasons why they should be voted out of the Jewish tent.

    In other words, you talk the talk but you aren’t walking the walk. You write this beautiful piece about pluralism but then with your own behavior act in the complete opposite way.

    Shame on you.

    It is perfectly acceptable to disagree with the positions of J Street. It is unacceptable and completelely at odds with Jewish values to impugn their motives and suggest that their voice should be silenced.

    Second, the point you make in this piece is beautiful and valid but the examples you give to illustrate it are completely irrelevant to the real issues we are facing today.

    You harken back longingly to two events about which the vast majority of your readers are completely unfamiliar and never will be as though they are a sign of the good old days we should all be longing for.

    But for 99.9 percent of Jews those days never existed in the first place. They never did or will mourn the loss of an Orthodox rabbinic scholar or a Yiddish author.

    In the real world for most Jews, we live in a time where the Prime Minister of Israel is murderered by an Orthodox rabbinic student who is acting with the encouragement and upon the instruction of Orthodox leaders who today–16 years later are still highly respected and more powerful than ever.

    And Israel is now a country where a significant percentage of those Jews have always regarded the unrepentant murderer as a hero and still hold rallies demanding his pardon.

    We live in a world where a large percentage of American Jewish “leaders” spread vicious slander about the President of United States and view themselves as patriots for doing so and at the same time insist that no American Jews criticize the actions of the Israeli government out loud because that’s not what Jews do.

    You write a wonderful piece about the disconnect that many liberal American rabbis and students feel toward Israel but instead of examining the reasons behind that you go on to suggest that the rabbis need more and better education but never suggest that we look at the reasons behind their disaffections in the first place.

    That is like the owner of a corner bookstore deciding that to combat Amazon.com they need better newspaper advertising and window displays.

    It is important to recongize the threat that Amazon.com poses to their very existence but the proposed solution ain’t gonna get it done.

    You are a great speaker and an outstanding writer. I loved meeting you and hearing you speak here in Tucson.

    But your work reminds me of the Philadelphia Eagles. Seven times this year they have led going into the fourth quarter but then went on to lose the game. They get their fans all excited but leave them feeling sad and disappointed.

    Step it up and learn how to finish Danny. Then you will be a winner in my book.

  • M.J. Eizen says

    I believe your article shows the polarization that exists in Jewish society today. As an American Israeli, I feel like a rare breed here, as I am neither secular or orthodox, but truly traditional. I have great respect for the teachings of our sages, and our tradition of learning. At the same time, I can tell you that on most occasions when I have been in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods, I feel that I am ostracized and certainly not warmly received. On the other hand, I have been with secular Jews and have heard the worst comments imaginable about the ultra-orthodox.

    Quite frankly, both sides leave me in pain. I was raised by my parents, Z”L to know that all of us are one nation, one people, with one land, one G-D, and one Torah. I was taught that every Jew is a brother or sister, and all of them are special, and worthy of my consideration and aid. I truly and honestly believe with all of my heart that the reason that there is no peace in the land of Israel is because we do not have peace amongst ourselves. Your article makes it clear to me that we have a long way to go, and much to do. I fully concur with David Burger’s comments above.

  • Stephen says

    I think by nature us Jews are cynical and sceptical but believe what we believe fervently. I read both left and right knowing even those I’m more closely aligned with aren’t always right. A right winger killed Rabin but did most Jews not mourn? When Dayan died was he mourned by one group over another? When Sharon leaves this side of the grass will all not have nice things to say about him? Yes there are leaders who can pass that I would be indifferent to the occasion or perhaps meanly think-“Thanks God he was taken.”Some people are more important to a certain audience and I think it is maturity on our part that a Jew is dead let us mourn isn’t just a reflexive action.

  • Netanel Haziza says

    I read your thoughtful article right after a Reuter’s article carried by the Jerusalem Post about NASA launching a probe to find out if Mars can sustain life. It appears that for most of us, Mars isn’t far away at all, and unfortunately, most of us aren’t interested in launching probes… For which reason, I benefitted much more from reading Jonathan Rosenblum’s highly inspiring and moving article about Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel’s life. A great teacher, like Rabbi Finkel, doesn’t spend too much time bemoaning an unispired student’s lack of interest, but works energetically to help him overcome it. The more you connect, the more you can help others connect. If you have been granted a forum to reach out to people, why not use it for just that?

  • Thank you for being the voice that pushes the envelope we prefer to leave closed.
    Of course you are right. We are all, Americans too, tragically divided; people around the world acting and thinking out of fear, hunkering down – each deeper into his/her own political, social or religious group – too overwhelmed, too frightened by opposing views to take an honest look at others.
    Perhaps it is because we no longer live in separate, isolated homogeneous communities that we feel unsafe.Because in the media world, all communities are connected at every moment and instantly to all others.
    The truth is that opposing views do hurt: Islam wants to destroy Israel, to destroy the values of the west, because it perceives Western values as a threat to Islamic identity and traditions. America thinks it can charge into the countries of the Middle East and impose its interests, its own world view, on them, Around the world we have become like a stacked line of dominoes, failing to see that the fall of each piece, causes the fall of those around them.We have to leave each other alone, because only when each culture feels secure in its own area,its own identity, will it be able to study and accept with equanimity the philosophy of others.

  • Maion L. says

    I can’t speak for everyone on the democratic left, but I sometimes make a point of reading magazines, books, and websites that I know I will primarily disagree with – including Commentary, The New Republic, and even The National Review. However, I don’t subscribe, because I don’t want to give them any of my money.

  • Neal Gendler says

    DG — Well said. I agree with Rabbi Hyman that Elie Wiesel — may he live to 120 — would, or certainly should, be mourned by all Jews when his time on Earth ends (it should not be soon). I can’t imagine a Jew of any persuasion hearing him speak at length, as I have, and not being filled with great admiration and deep emotion.

    I think the Lubavitcher rebbe was a man whose death was, if not mourned, at least noted by most Jews. And justly so, even for those of us who are not Orthodox. Few Jews in my lifetime have drawn so many followers, brought so many people to Torah, and reached out to help so many Jews. Who else developed an international network of outposts, even in remote places, where a Jew of any persuasion can feel welcomed? (Does any other movement provide a seder for 1,500 travelers?)

    I think the killing of Yitzhak Rabin shocked and saddened most Jews, even those who disagreed with him. Many who might not have mourned a natural death grieved deeply at a Jew’s political assassination of another Jew.

    But there are Jews and Jewish causes with which most people I would consider “actively Jewish” would identify. A generation ago there was Anatoly Sharansky. In this decade, consider the nationwide concern for Gilad Shalit.

  • Mel Barenholtz says

    Larry Gellman:
    ” …, we live in a time where the Prime Minister of Israel is murderered by an Orthodox rabbinic student who is acting with the encouragement and upon the instruction of Orthodox leaders who today–16 years later are still highly respected and more powerful than ever.

    Shame on YOU! Your hostility to Orthodoxy (in this comment) is mind blowing.

    I challenge you to document this despicable calumny. I have no doubt that you will be unable to back up your assertion that Yigal Amir acted on the INSTRUCTION of ‘Orthodox leaders’.

    Shame on you for making this statement and shame on you for your chutzpa in writing ‘shame on you’ to Rabbi Gordis.

    Mel

  • To say that 100,000 people does not represent diversity is a pretty crude and unfair generalization.
    The 100,000 people who attended the funeral of Y.L. Peretz may have differed in certain respects, but they all obviously shared an appreciation for Yiddish literature.
    Similarly, the 100,000 who attended Rabbi Finkel’s funeral shared an appreciation and respect for Torah, but they also represented a wide spectrum of opinions and thought.
    On any given day at the Mir Yeshiva, the Beit Midrash has students from dozens of different countries, speaking dozens of different languages, from almost every kind of Jewish background.
    There are students from very traditional and observant homes as well as less traditional and even completely assimilated homes. Jews from zionist backgrounds, Jews from liberal and conservative backgrounds, even student who converted to judaism.
    Despite all their differences they speak the common languages of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic, and they share a love and deep commitment to perpetuating the learning of Torah that was nearly eradicated by the Nazis.
    100,000 attendees is not simply one particular community. 100,000 people represents nearly 2% of the jews in Israel.
    Yes, at the funeral there were lots of people wearing black. But people should be judged by more than the color of their suit.
    The mass of people represented many different communities with a great pluralism of thought, some that even conflict with each other. Yet they put their differences aside for one day to honor the life of a great Torah scholar.
    Perhaps if Jews were able to look beyond externals and get to know each other as individuals there would be greater unity among us.

  • Mel–

    In the first place, my criticism (and “shame on you”) directed to Rabbi Gordis had nothing to do with the Rabin assassination which he never mentioned in his article.

    It was related to the main point of his article which related to the need for tolerance and pluralism and the need for us to try to find at least the partial truth in the views of those with whom we disagree.

    I couldn’t agree with Danny more on that point.

    The “shame on you” was based on his throwing J Street out of the Jewish tent in a column a few months ago based on the fact that he disagreed with their approach and conclusions. He exhibited personally all of the qualities that he said in this article should be avoided.

    http://southjerusalem.com/2011/06/arrogance-101-lecturer-daniel-gordis/

    Since he obviously knows better based on the brilliant points he made in this piece, my “shame on you” stands.

    As far as Yigal Amir acting on the instructions and with the encouragement of his rabbinic leaders in Israel and the U.S. is concerned, that point is well established as fact.

    I would suggest that you begin reading on page 108 of the attached document to refresh your memory.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=4Vna5R9K3ogC&pg=PA110&lpg=PA110&dq=death+sentence+on+rabin&source=bl&ots=TsbKWSQ-bH&sig=ENixP8I1hp_oOL-XZ94box84v_0&hl=en&ei=aHfUTrvfN-aciQK5nIDFDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&sqi=2&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=death%20sentence%20on%20rabin&f=false\

    It is also fact that Amir remains unrepentant and widely regarded as a hero among the same Orthodox groups in Israel who sponsored and led the “Death to Rabin” rallies in Israel shortly before Amir murdered him. There are still rallies held in Israel calling for Amir’s pardon.

    Those facts have nothing to do with those Orthodox Jews (dozens of whom are among my best friends and teachers)who believe that ritual observance and a clinging to the text as they read it helps them make the world a better place and live happier and more productive lives.

    I am an avid student of Judaism and run every decision in my life through a Jewish filter.

    The fact that I have disdain for those who encourage others to murder Israeli prime ministers to save the Jewish people and the land of Israel should not be confused by you or others for some sort of hatred of Orthodox Judaism.

    I could include numerous historical links that make it clear that there was a call for the death of Rabin among a swath of Orthodox rabbis and leaders before his murder.

    I’ll be happy to provide them if you still believe that it never happened.

    But that has nothing to do with my belief that all denominations and flavors of Judaism have something to add to our collective quest for a better world.

  • Jon says

    You don’t even have to go back 100 years.

    Look at Israel’s Declaration of Independence on Erev Shabbat. When the rabbi there said shehechiyanu, many of the bareheaded men in the crowd instinctively put on headcoverings (even napkins) and recited Amen at the conclusion. That was a different era.

    Outside Israel, probably the last time we saw a truly unified, diverse Jewish crowd was in December 1987 when 250,000 rallied for Soviet Jewry on the eve of Gorbachev’s visit. The entire Jewish spectrum was represented–remarkable.

  • Howard Stevens says

    Dan Gordis mourns “the deeply interconnected Warsaw community.” We once had a more “deeply interconnected” world wide Jewish community.

    But are his prolonged attacks on the liberal Jewish community typical causes of the divisions he bewails?

    Is he showing a bit of remorse by attempting to bring his grandfather into the discussion, when some students of Robert Gordis, a beloved mentor and teacher at JTS for more than four decades, think that he would not have approved of what Danny has done?

    Is our 2011 Rabbi Gordis himself an example of the polarizing intolerance that is infecting our l discourse in the 21st century, a loss of the ability to try to understand other views and other behaviors before excoriating them out of hand?

    Just asking.

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