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A Tale of Two Funerals

November 25, 2011

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.

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