Holocaust Scroll

The Conservative movement's creation of this scroll is the latest attempt in contemporary Judaism to create a liturgy for Yom Hashoah.

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"Yom Hashoah must not be characterized as a religious holiday," she wrote, "but as a commemoration of our martyrs who perished under the Nazi war machine, and a tribute to those who survived."

Despite such sentiments, the Rabbinical Assembly and the Conservative movement's rabbinical seminary in Israel, the Schechter Institute, have published the new Megillah. It was written by Avigdor Shinan, a professor of Hebrew literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, with the help of an academic committee.

Addressing the gathering in Toronto, Shinan told worshippers that the Megillah had been written through him, not by him. "I sat down at the computer, and after six hours the first draft emerged," said Shinan, the son of Holocaust survivors. "It was as if somebody was moving my hand and my head."

Contents of the New Megillah

The six-chapter Megillah is built largely around first-person testimonies. After an opening chapter that gives a searing overview of the victims' suffering, it offers composite sketches of a Christian journalist observing life in the Warsaw Ghetto, a Jewish woman in a work camp, and a Jewish youth who was forced to pull out the teeth from his brother's corpse and shove other dead bodies into ovens. A fifth chapter consists of a eulogy for those who died in the Holocaust; the final chapter recounts the efforts to rebuild Jewish life after the war ended.

Organizers of the Megillah say that, in addition to supplying a set ritual, the new document is meant to address theological questions posed by the Holocaust but often ignored at communal ceremonies.

In one chapter, the woman in the work camp blames the Jews of Europe for ignoring the rising tide of anti-Semitism and rejecting the advice to "emigrate to the distant east." Others place the question--though not necessarily direct blame--at God's feet.

The overriding theological message of the Megillah is that human beings have a right to question the divine, but they cannot expect answer --and that even without answers, the Jewish faith in God endures. The Megillah ends with the exhortation: "Do not mourn too much, but do not sink into the forgetfulness of apathy. Do not allow days of darkness to return; weep, but wipe the tears away. Do not absolve and do not exonerate, do not attempt to understand. Learn to live without an answer. Through our blood, live!"

The Role of Ritual

In addition to reading the Megillah, several members of the Schechter Institute, including its president, Rabbi David Golinkin, have adopted the practice of fasting on Yom Hashoah.

"Historic events are remembered in Judaism only if they are anchored in religious rituals," Golinkin wrote in his introduction to Megillat Hashoah. "The kindling of six torches by survivors in the courtyard of Yad Vashem is a meaningful ritual, but will it last when there are no living survivors?"

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Sheldon Gordon is a correspondent for The Forward.