Monday, September 26, 2011

The Annual Pilgrimage to Uman – Right or Wrong?

The Ukraine is one of the most anti Semitic parts of the world. At least that was the case during the Holocaust. Both my father and my father in law were there during then. Were it not for some righteous gentiles neither my wife nor I would exist. Both of our fathers would have perished before we were born. I have told both stories in the past.

The fact is however that except for the very small number of righteous gentiles who literally risked their lives to save Jews, the Ukrainian people were happy to accommodate their Nazi captors in rounding up Jews and gladly handing them over to the Nazis who sent them to their deaths. The Ukrainian people in fact relished the idea.

So the following comes as no surprise. Ynet reports that about 300 ultra-nationalist bigots protested the upcoming annual Jewish pilgrimage to Uman - a city in the Ukraine where Rav Nachman of Brelsov is buried.

I am not saying that there is the kind of anti-Semitsm in the Ukraine today that there was during the Holocaust. But clearly it exists at some level. Menachem Begin once said about Poland that anti-Semitism is in their mother’s milk! Based on everything I've heard from Holocaust survivors from that area - what’s true for Poland goes double for the Ukraine.

About 100 of these protesters were arrested because they violated a court order to not protest. That’s probably because protests are not being done at the behest of the townspeople. In fact the opposite is true. They want these Chasidic Jews there. The economic benefits to the town far outweigh any anti Semitic sentiments they may harbor under their skin. This is in effect their Christmas season. Hotels are packed and they charge premium prices for their rooms. Private ancillary services make a killing on the money that pours in.

Despite the financial benefits however, tens of thousands of Breslover Chasidim coming into a small town takes its toll. It cannot be pleasant for Uman’s citizenry for their town to be virtually taken over by these ‘strange looking Jews’. Who knows what happens ‘on the ground’ …what kind of mess they make, or how self centered they are interacting with their hosts …or how uncaring about the mess they might leave behind. But even if they are careful about these things – the mess is inevitable. That just feeds any residual anti-Semitism these Ukrainians have.

Most of these Chasidim leave the holy land at one of the holiest times of the year and travel to an unholy land to pray at the grave of their founder. I have to ask, what is the point here? Why do these Chasidim feel they need a dead intermediary for their prayers of forgiveness on Rosh Hashanah? Even if there is some sort of gain - is the gain worth the price?

I have never really understood the current growing trend of praying at the burial sites of Tzadikim even though the source for that is a Midrash on the Torah itself (Shemos 13:22). Calev - one of the 12 spies sent by Moshe to Israel to survey the circumstances prior to entry of the entire Bnei Yisroel - took a detour to the Ma'aras HaMachpela (the cave of the patriarchs) to pray for a successful mission. But that was not the traditional way of praying to God for His help. If it were all the spies including Yehoshua would have done so.

The point is that we need no intermediary in asking for God’s help. We can and should reference ancestral Tzadikim in the sense of invoking their merit on our behalf as an inducement (as it were) to God to grant us a favorable outcome for our prayers. This need not be done at the grave sites. In fact we do it every day during the Amidah.

Nonetheless this has become a very popular method of prayer these days. Many people make great efforts to pray at the grave sites of various historical figures all over the world - but mostly in Israel. I fear that with so many people from all walks of life and backgrounds doing it – that the very concept has in some cases been distorted to praying to the actual dead person for help. I don’t see how that can be anything other than Avodah Zara – a form of idolatry! And yet, praying at the gravesite of righteous ancestors has taken on ever greater importance among so many people.

This Uman phenomenon has picked up steam in recent years and is now out of control. A record 30,000 Chasidim and a few tag-along fun-seekers will be descending on a little Ukrainian city this Rosh Hashanah. No one will ever convince me that this is Judaism! And it certainly is not worth exacerbating the latent anti-Semitism in its wake.