No to Uman

There has to be an end to the meshugas of going to Uman.

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Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer,

קבר רבי נחמן, אומן
קבר רבי נחמן, אומן
עוזי ברוך

Rosh Hashanah is less than a week away.  Israel has emerged from a devastating war that, despite Israel’s ostensibly overwhelming victory, leaves enormously painful questions that only Israel’s governmental insiders can conceivably answer — if they can.  Hamas has been left with at least 3,000 rockets, maybe lots more. Her infrastructure, on the verge of being wiped out, instead seems to have remained fundamentally intact.

Along the way, Israel sustained not only the enormous psychological and emotional costs of war but also the hard dollars-and-shekels costs: mobilizing tens of thousands of soldiers and reservists, arming and outfitting people for the incursion into Gaza, replacing the cost of Iron Dome anti-ballistic missiles, and incurring a 32 percent reduction in tourism.

It is against the particular backdrop of that enormous drop in tourist dollars and shekels — the loss of the money that the vanished tourists would have spent in Israel on hotel rooms, dining, touring, transportation, fuel, clothing, souvenirs, and so much more — that we now contemplate one of the most maddening phenomena of contemporary Judaism: the mass exodus of 30,000 Jewish men around the world to a bona fide historic world center of Jew-hatred, the despicable hamlet of Uman, Ukraine.

If recent past practice is repeated, thirty thousand Jewish men will abandon their wives and children for the holiest days of the year to spend millions of dollars and shekels in precious tourist monetary currency in one of the world’s most anti-Semitic dumps.

As an Orthodox rabbi of thirty-three years, I feel comfortable writing that this mass exodus makes no sense and has not a smudgeon of halakhic legitimacy. It honors no conceivable ethic or custom in Judaism.  It flies in the face of Jewish law, Jewish ritual, Jewish history, and Jewish commonsense.

In brief — it is utterly irrational.

There, I said it.  Finally, someone with a rabbinical ordination has said it in its simplest formulation:  It is irrational. 

Since when is there an ethic to abandon one’s wife and children annually for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, unless called upon to serve in the IDF or otherwise conscripted against one’s will, whether to serve in a Tsarist army or to serve an employer who demands a one-time business trip away from family? 

Indeed, in most Western societies, even the least sympathetic employer begrudgingly lets Jewish workers stay home with family on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  In America, Los Angeles Dodgers pitching legend Sandy Koufax famously stayed home on Yom Kippur, even during the World Series, because a Jew stays home on Yom Kippur, ideally attending synagogue services with family.  In the 1940s, a distinctly non-religious Jewish baseball player, Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers, did the same.  He was not a religious man and was open about that.  But he understood that, on Yom Kippur, a Jew belongs with his family in synagogue, not on the baseball diamond.  And not in Uman.

Who declared a gravesite in Uman, Ukraine — a beloved watering hole of Cossacks for centuries — to be a holier place on earth for Jews than the Har Habayit (Temple Mount), the Kotel (Western Wall), Mearat Hamakhpelah (the Tombs of the Patriarchs) in Hevron, or the graves throughout Israel of some of the most important rabbis of the centuries — the Rambam (Maimonides), Rav Shimon Bar Yochai, the Ramban (Nachmanides), the Ohr Hachaim or more modern and contemporary Torah giants like Harav Moshe Feinstein, Harav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook and his son Harav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Harav Avraham Shapira, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, Harav Ovadia Yosef, Harav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, Harav Noach Weinberg, or so many others of blessed eternal righteous memory?

This really is terrible — whoever started this Uman trip really owes an answer somewhere. It brings such a degree of contempt for Jewish religious observance and piety, as cynics point to that kind of thing with justification for their own anti-religionism.

In 1648, Ivan Hanzha — a colonel to Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnitzki — seized Uman for the Cossacks. Thousands upon thousands of Jews were murdered in Uman in the Eighteenth Century.  Jews came back to Uman in the following century, and then in the following century the Germans came in and murdered the remaining 17,000 Jews there in the Twentieth Century.  Yet, over the most recent twenty years, a cute and sweet little pilgrimage of a few hundred outliers has evolved and mushroomed into what we see today.

It makes no sense — absolutely no sense — and it practically is criminal in driving Jewish monetary assets out of Israel and America, and towards an economy that, at best, is unfriendly to Jews.  Increasingly, too, the population of the Jewishly insane in Uman has extended to include people getting arrested on Rosh Hashanah in bar fights, adding a new meaning to the Day of Judgment.

It needs to be said by someone.  May as well be me.  I condemn the misleading of tens of thousands of Jews into thinking that there is something holy, religiously righteous, and blessed in Heaven in the phenomenon of 30,000 Jewish men abandoning their wives and children annually for the Days of Awe to gather in Uman, Ukraine. 

It is not blessed.  It is simply wrong. 

The premise that sinners or others will gain perfect atonement by visiting a grave in Uman, while abandoning the loved ones who rely on them at home, and by absconding with so much Jewish wealth, removing it from Israel and other Western Jewish communities, must be condemned. Out loud.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is author of General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine (Steimatzky: 1985). His political commentaries have appeared on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review,  Los Angeles Times, and in other major American publications.  He formerly was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, is an adjunct professor of law at two prominent American law schools, and is Rav of Young Israel of Orange County, California.  His writings can be found at Home - RabbiDov.com