Top Conservative Rabbi Floats Idea Of ‘Peace Holiday’

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published December 17, 2004, issue of December 17, 2004.
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Give peace a holiday?

That’s the new idea being floated by the head of Conservative Judaism’s synagogue movement.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, issued an essay this week proposing that, considering all the “insecurity, violence and frustration” on Earth today, the time has come for Jews across the world to devote a day to peace.

In his essay, distributed to the Forward and to other media outlets, Epstein cited the Knesset’s relatively recent creation of two Jewish holidays: Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Israel Independence Day, in 1949, and Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, in 1955.

“I would, therefore, like to suggest that we institute a holiday of peace — Yom HaShalom, a day on which all Jews will be encouraged to recite selections from the very many prayers, psalms, and blessings through which the Jewish people have for millennia implored God to grant peace to us and to all humankind,” wrote Epstein, whose organization represents 760 Conservative congregations.

Epstein’s proposed holiday is the latest in a series of groundbreaking suggestions by the Conservative movement leader. But while his previous initiatives involved using innovative programming and marketing techniques to encourage Conservative Jews to incorporate traditional religious practices into their daily lives, with Yom HaShalom Epstein is taking on the much more radical task of attempting to create a new holiday.

So far the proposal is receiving a tepid response from other prominent American rabbis.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, a congregational organization representing about 910 synagogues, said he believed the proposal should be handed to the rabbinical unions of each denomination for consideration.

“If they were to agree on something, it would win wide acceptance,” Yoffie said. “I don’t think the lay congregation bodies would be inclined to make pronouncements on these matters.”

The Reconstructionist movement declined to comment.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University, Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, called the proposal “a creative idea with good intentions,” but noted that Judaism already has a holiday devoted to peace — Sukkot, the autumn festival immediately following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Citing regular prayers for peace in daily Jewish liturgy, including the kaddish and the Amidah, chanted three times a day, Lamm said: “I don’t think we have to have a special day for shalom. It is inscribed in the very nature of Judaism.”

In his essay, Epstein rejected such arguments, countering that the daily prayers are often rushed and that special time should be set aside to contemplate peace.

“While it is true that we already recite prayers for peace during both weekday and Shabbat davening [worship], many of us rush through these daily recitations, giving little thought to what we are saying,” Epstein wrote. “Nothing focuses the mind as wonderfully as a holiday with its own ritual, foods, melodies and liturgy. If that’s what it will take to focus our minds on peace, it’s well worth the effort.”

Epstein, who during the past decade has signed on to several dovish statements relating to the peace process, offered several suggestions for how his proposed peace holiday would be observed.

“We might commit ourselves to see a movie or read a book about efforts to achieve peace,” Epstein wrote. “We might also attend lectures and participate in gatherings that pay tribute to seekers of peace in our time, with attendees encouraged to bring in the names of people they feel are worthy of emulation.”

Liturgy for the holiday could be gleaned easily from existing Jewish prayers and texts, according to Epstein. “We are told in the Bible to seek peace and pursue it; prayers for peace abound in the [prayer book], and we greet each other with the word shalom,” the Conservative rabbi wrote. “It is a key concept, a primary value, in our tradition.”

Epstein said that each of the Jewish denominations “could provide its members with a collection of readings to recite while sitting at work, attending to various errands, or during a meditative lunch hour.”

If the holiday catches on, “we can share it with our neighbors, inviting others to join us in affirming the value of peace,” Epstein said. “In this way, we will truly serve as an or l’goyim — a light unto the nations.”






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