Why Remember?

Try to Remember

I lay awake one night, unable to sleep due to cascading memories of the day, like ping pong balls in a demonstration of the chain reaction effect, or the piano I prepared with little flashlight bulbs laying on the strings… so that, as I played the written score, and the piano's hammer hit a string with a bulb on it, the bulb flew into the air landing on a random string… extending the “melody” in unanticipated ways. And so my thoughts went, careening around.

Try to remember that time in September

When the moon was new

And you stood as a Jew1

As I've mentioned in previous years, this day has a variety of names. Four years ago I spoke about two of these names: Yom Harat Olam [The day of the creation of the world] and Yom Teru'ah [The day of the shofar blast]. This year, we'll look more closely at the name: Yom haZikaron [The Day of Remembrance].

Certain memories are burnt, almost branded into our awareness, as they are cut into our flesh.

Memory itself is an uncertain state of consciousness and we Jews have long been busy remembering. Grab hold of your brain for a moment… you think you've been remembering? Wrong. Henri Bergson, a French Jewish philosopher at the beginning of the 20th century said: “The brain's function is to choose from the past, to diminish it, to simplify it, to utilize it, but not to preserve it.”2


Many years ago, when I was a college student, one of my roommates and I spoke about Jews and guilt. We decided that, while the Jews may not have invented guilt (after all, there were law codes (remember Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE)?) before the Jewish people existed, we Jews probably perfected guilt.

However, when it comes to remembering, and its formal reconstruction: history, I think we can fairly safely say, despite Herodotus [5th century BCE (484 BCE - ca. 425 BCE)], who lived after the court historians of the Davidic kingdom (which existed from roughly 930s BCE until about 720s BCE),3 that we Jews invented it.

But, let's be generous and give Herodotus that honor. Even so, for him (according to historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi4) the writing of history was simply to slow the erosion of memory. History had no truths to offer. In fact, this is the common view held by Hegel: "What history and experience teach us is this: that people and government never have learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it."5

On the other hand, what is now a common, even popular idea that everyone knows from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”6 was new at one time. The idea of meaning [emphasis mine] in history was invented by us Jews. “The heavens,” [Psalm 19:1], might still “declare the glory of the Lord,” but human history, we Jews claim, reveals God's will and purposes.

These thoughts came to mind as my sister, brother and I marked the 61st anniversary of Hiroshima Day (August 6) during Israel's recent war with Hezbollah. I asked: “So what is the meaning of Hiroshima Day? Other than (duh) 'It shouldn't happen again!' what are we too learn from it?”

What And Why Should We Remember

We Jews have, since our earliest days, looked at our past and applied some kind of lesson from what we experienced. Prescriptions for social, civil and ritual practices all harkened back to the experience of our liberation from slavery in Egypt, because: “You were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Some of these rules instituted the Shabbat (Deuteronomy 5:12-15), regulated loans (Leviticus 25:35-38) and the treatment of servants (Leviticus 25:29-43), as well as widows, orphans and the poor (Deuteronomy 16:11, 12), and set the guidelines for sexual morality (Leviticus 18:3ff). So, clearly, we were to learn something from what we had experienced. But what were we to learn each time and how were we to learn it? Who was to teach it?

We weren't interested in the heroic deeds of our leaders, no, that was for “the nations”. Our history was shaped differently. We were to be aware of the way God intervened in history and how we responded to those interventions. Many Biblical stories belittled our own human actions. (While Ahab played a crucial role in defending all of the states in the area of the Land of Israel from Assyrian conquest, we Jews only remember him as an evil doer who introduced false gods to the Israelites.) We were always to be aware of the divine nature of our experience. “And it shall be, when the Lord your God shall bring you into the land which He swore unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you great and goodly cities, which you did not build, and houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which you did not hew, vineyards and olive-trees which you did not plant, and you shall eat and be satisfied-then beware lest you forget the Lord who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Deut. 6:10-12; cf. 8:11-18).

Through our experience in the world we Jews encountered the divine. While what occurred may have been interpreted differently by the official historians and prophets. The collective memory of our history was transmitted through our rituals such as the Passover meal and at the early summer holiday of first fruits (Deut. 25:5-9) more than it was through narrative texts. With the creation of the Bible, our own history (the first time any people's history) became part of our sacred scripture.

Our understanding of the functioning of the cosmos, in particular the concept of ethical monotheism that we shared with the world, implied that when something happened to us, it happened for a reason related to our ethical behavior. Our ancient neighbors believed that when something bad happened to them it was because they hadn't made the appropriate sacrifice or their god was weaker than the god that did them in. However when the Babylonians conquered us in 586 BCE we had already decided that God was the creator and controller of the entire universe.

And, if so, the Babylonians had not conquered us because our God was weak, but (in what must be one of the first instances of “blaming the victim”) because our God wanted to teach us a lesson!

We developed a similar response when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Our sages taught: “because of the errors we committed we were exiled from our land.” And, many were the possible “errors” that we had committed. While the classic explanation was that we engaged in “baseless hatred”. Whether it was that one “error” in particular or a cluster of “errors” I won't explore now.

It seems that “biblically speaking” we are to remember the major events in our history, because they were transformative. Our prophets, historians and sages “determined” which of these experiences we were to remember. And, they also established the lessons we were to glean from the events.

[With apologies to Leo Robin & Ralph Rainger]

Thanks for the memories

For Egypt on the Nile; Crossing Sinai in Style

For Deborah by her Palm and Gilead with its balm…

How much we have learned.

Thanks for the memories

For David with his harp; and dancing with the Ark…

For Solomon the wise, and Sheba his great prize

How much we have learned.

Thanks for the memories

For Elijah's duel with Ba'al, and Elisha who increased oil.

For Micha's humble man; Isaiah's lion and lamb.

How much we have learned.

But Then We Stopped Learning From New Memories

But, amazingly enough, once that Biblical period had ended, our sages decided that history, perhaps time itself, had ended as well. For nearly two thousand years no events past the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans (except the expulsion from Spain) gained any traction as being worth learning from. One of our ancient rabbis' primary modes of reading the Bible was to collapse all time of any events that are mentioned in it: אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה. “All events are neither new nor old in the Torah.” Any event that happened at any time that's mentioned in the Bible is grist for the mill of producing the flour from which the rabbis knead the dough that becomes the daily bread of our understanding the world. No events past the Destruction are worth learning from and, as a corollary, not worth remembering, as illustrated in this medieval poem. Only two events were of consequence: Our liberation from slavery in Egypt and the Destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem:

A fire kindles within me as I recall-when I left Egypt,
But I raise laments as I remember-
when I left Jerusalem.

Moses sang a song that would never be forgotten-when I left Egypt,
Jeremiah mourned and cried out in grief-
when I left Jerusalem.

The sea-waves pounded but stood up like a wall-when I left Egypt,
The waters overflowed and ran over my head-
when I left Jerusalem.

Moses led me and Aaron guided me-when I left Egypt,
Nebuchadnezzar and the Emperor Hadrian-
when I left Jerusalem.7

Why were the earliest rabbis not interested in history… not even of their own time? They never wrote about this disinterest. Some suggest that they wished to take the Jewish people out of history. We had learned all there was to learn from our Biblical experience: Shabbat, care for widows and orphans, and the like. What more was there to learn?

The prophets had taught us all there was to learn from our history. But, everyone agreed, prophecy had ended. Even if the earliest rabbis thought of themselves as successors to the prophets they certainly did not accept the possibility of prophecy in their own time… and in fact there are stories of rabbis insisting on democratic decisions in contrast to heavenly voices.

Even the intrigues of whoever was in power at any particular time offered no new lessons, whether the powerful were Jews or foreigners and so, they were ignored.

All of this changed, but ever so briefly following our expulsion from Spain. Those who lived through the upheaval wondered (in the words of Ibn Verga): “Why this enormous wrath?” which they perceived as having come from God. Remember Jews had lived on the Iberian peninsula for over a thousand years. We had experienced a “Golden Age” there. The historians of the expulsion seemed to intuit that the events of their day had (in the words, once again of Yerushalmi8) “a meaning for the present and the future” that they could not explain by simply referring back to the destruction of the Temple. But historians were not the only Jews offering explanations of the event. And the meaning the historians offered was overshadowed by the mythic interpretation of Jewish existence that developed among the Kabbalists of Tzfat, an explanation that seemed to offer each Jew, by the manner of his devotion, the ability to bring about the messianic time.

Now We Reject The Thought That Our Memories Have Meaning

It wasn't until we Jews began to enter the modern world that we started to get our “memory” back. Modern Jewish history began less than 200 years ago when a 23 year old German Jew named Leopold Zunz decided, as one of the many responses to modernity, there should be an academic examination of the Jewish past. He was interested in this, not because he thought there was anything to learn from the past, but, because he thought that the story was coming to an end and that the experience of his people should, at least, be preserved.

Sometimes, it seems that the whole point of modern academic Jewish history is based on the idea that it has no “application” or “meaning”. This is illustrated by another comment by Yerushalmi where he disagrees with the “appreciation” of Jewish history by the German Jesuit scholar Peter Browe who wrote:

This entire history of the Jewish people…, cannot be explained out of purely political and sociological considerations…. Only out of faith can we in some way understand the solution…9

Modern Jewish historians want our history to be strictly secular. They do not want it to have “meaning”. Once the idea that that Jewish history has meaning is admitted, it can no longer be studied strictly scientifically the same as any other subject. It becomes a metaphor for some other deeper understanding of the Jews' role in the world. And, we feel uncomfortable about that.

Perhaps Remembering Is Built Into Being Jewish?

There is a sense in which you could argue that remembering is built into being Jewish. The Hebrew word for “male” (the gender) is זַכָר and the Hebrew word for memory is זַכוֹר. I asked about this correspondence and learned from a liturgy professor at HUC-JIR that the core meaning of the three letters of zachar suggest “pointing”, as in pointing to, or pointing out something. We don't so much remember or memorialize something, as we “point to” it. However, in contrast to this, a Bible professor colleague of his commented that in actuality the word זַכָר is related to the Arabic word for “to speak” and has nothing to do with memory.

But, if it does… what does it mean to “point to” something? How does that differ from remembering? Rabbi Larry Hoffman asks: “Does God Remember?” In the liturgy of Rosh haShannah we have been asking God to “Remember us.”

Our ancestors did all kinds of things for God, including the binding of Isaac. These are all of the past, in a way that we can ask God to remember them-in the same way that Texans might plead, “Remember the Alamo.” But God's attributes are different. They are eternal. How can a quality that is continuously present be “remembered”?

So how does God remember? As the ancient rabbis imagine it, God remembers, by using pointers. We might better describe this as God's attention.

In Rabbi Hoffman's words:

Like children in a busy household, the Rabbis devised a liturgy to solicit a busy parent's attention. Directly, God attends to the forefathers, the covenant, and the akedah, but also, like a parent looking deep within himself, God takes note of his own attributes, all thirteen of them being but different variations on a single theme: mercy.10

So much for God's remembering. But, what about our own?

On The Importance Of Forgetting

Now and then there are things that we simply do not want to and perhaps should not remember.

Remember Henri Bergson's comment about memory being forgetting? “The brain's function is to choose from the past, to diminish it, to simplify it, to utilize it, but not to preserve it.” He's not the only one to consider that idea. The author George Eliot once said “If we could hear the squirrel's heartbeat, the sound of the grass growing, we should die of that roar” We require the ability to block out certain information. And our brain has within it the tools to manufacture certain chemicals (cannabinoids for those of you in the know) that enable just that. This chemical gets released in particular in women during childbirth. No woman would put up with having a second child if she could thoroughly remember what she went experienced releasing the first. Forgetting is crucial to be able to live in the present.

Or, as Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire has written:

It is only by forgetting that we ever really drop the thread of time and approach the experience of living in the present moment, so elusive in ordinary hours. And the wonder of that experience, perhaps more than any other, seems to be at the very heart of the human desire to change consciousness….11

Memory is the enemy of wonder, which abides nowhere else but in the present. That is why, unless you are a child, wonder depends on forgetting-on a process, that is, of subtraction.12

My favorite candidate for the position of governor of Texas was once asked: “Do you think it's really important whether or not you let go of the past?” To which he answered:

Since I'm a person of the Jewish persuasion, let me give you the tedious, evasive, Talmudic answer to your question. Do you think it's really important to let go of the past?13

We must live in the present in order to be able to move toward the future with purpose. And while no individual who has lived through the experience of the death camps wants to remember it, we each know that it is something that we cannot afford to forget.

Can We Jews Have Too Much Memory?

We have been called by Rabbi Leo Baeck “The people of the great memory”.14 He imagined this as a positive feature, but, perhaps some of those memories get in the way.

In France recently there has been a good deal of discussion attempting to compare Hitler's Nazi Germany with Stalin's Communist Russia. Some French commentators have complained of what they call “Exorbitant” Jewish Memory.15 They claim that when we Jews remind people of our victimization, this is a “surfeit” of memory that tries to rasie the value of our memories of the Nazi period in place of the actual historical events.16

According to Carolyn J. Dean who has studied this:

Jewish memory of the Holocaust offends against and distorts the historical truth embodied by humanist values. [It] implicitly establishes that since there are more “universal” and more “particular” ways of suffering and dying, there are also different kinds of victims: those who suffer in silence and those who proclaim their agony loudly; those whose voices are drowned out and those whose voices are heard; those who reach out to the community of suffering humanity and those who claim to have suffered “uniquely.”17

Let's take a closer look at that comparison:



suffer in silence

proclaim their agony loudly

voices are drowned out

voices are heard

reach out to the community of suffering humanity

claim to have suffered “uniquely”

There are those whose memories are good and those whose memories are bad! Can you guess into which column our “Jewish” memories fall?

Other writers continue in this vein between “literal” and “exemplary” memories and call us Jews literal, not extracting an example from our experience of the Sho'a.18 (This sounds too much like the ancient Christians complaining that Jews are of the flesh, but they are of the spirit.) Others get downright nasty, suggesting that our “memory is born of a distorted and regressive collective psychology” and that “by commemorating the Holocaust [as we] do, we do to ourselves what the Nazis did to us: we transform our slaughter into the meaning of our existence.19 These writers go so far as to claim that we use the memory of the Holocaust as an alibi for “inaction before contemporary catastrophes”.20 We are even accused of genocide because of our memories!

Jewish memory is genocidal because it fails to conceive itself as one among a community of human “memories” of suffering groups that have all been or are potential targets.21

On what planet do these thinkers live?

[with apologies to Andrew Lloyd Webber]


All alone in the ovens

Have we Jews lost our memory

Life was difficult then

I remember the time I knew what happiness was

Let the memory live again.

Life Goes On… Meaning and Memory

But, to counter these contemporary and contemptible French writers, we Jews have been struggling with the meaning of the Sho'a.

Perhaps surprising to us who live in the modern world, Haredi Jews did not find the Sho'a to be a transformative event. The fact that individuals with a single paternal Jewish grandfather (those who by classic Jewish standards would not be considered Jews) were murdered by the Nazis as Jews, and that (innocent) infants of Chassidic (classically observant!) families were tossed alive into the ovens to save the Nazis the 2 cents it would have cost to gas them first - did not cause the Satmar leader Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum to think that anything had changed:

Because of our sinfulness we have suffered greatly, suffering as bitter as wormwood, worse than any [suffering] Israel has known since it became a people...22

Teitelbaum identified the primary sin this time as the “awful heresy” of our modernity!

Biblically, there was never any question asked: “Why were we slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt?” The biblical concern was with “What are we to learn from the experience of having been slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt?” Similarly, I am not concerned that R. Joel Teitelbaum believes he knows why we experienced the Sho'a. I want to know what we are to do in the future… and becoming a “traditionoid” Jew is not one of the options the same as continuing to make sacrifices on a altar somewhere was not one of the options when the Temple was destroyed.

Among us modern Jews, one of the first lessons to have been suggested was expressed by Rabbi Emil Fackenheim. We are probably familiar with his statement about the “Commanding Voice of Auschwitz” and what he called the “614th Commandment”:

…we are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, secondly, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler's victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories 23

Most people have focused only on the first two parts of Fackenheim's with its strict “survivalism”. This is wrong. The second portion of his command is equally important. And, while Fackenheim did not add a “generalization” in the way that the Biblical author added a general lesson from our experience in Egypt: “Don't allow this to happen to anyone else!” Fackenheim does insist that we continue to live as though the world has meaning.

More recently, Rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein has taught that an important lesson to learn from the experience of the Sho'a is that “Whether or not you believe in God, believe those who threaten to kill you.” Though Rubenstein does not add the generalization himself, this is also extendable to be understood by anyone: “Believe those who threaten to kill you.”

Much of the actual response to Fackenheim and Rubenstein has been focused in the phrase “Never Again”. It has been applied to not permitting the State of Israel to be destroyed. I think that this is the “particular” that causes such intense problems for those French intellectuals.

Why our “official” theologians and philosophers seem to have been unable to generalize from the experience, I cannot answer. However, even before the horror in the middle of the twentieth century it seemed that there was one Jew who intuited what might come and was able to generalize in advance! Before World War II, a Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin became intrigued by the mass slaying of Armenians by the Turks. He worked to get the League of Nations to ban what he called "barbarity" and "vandalism", and coined the term “genocide” in 1943.

And so, it does not surprise me that the Rally to Save Darfur Now, held last Sunday (September 17, 2006) at Central Park in Manhattan was organized by “Modernized” “non-Rabbinic”, “non-congregational” Jews:

And, apparently neither was the president of Sudan surprised that it was Jews who organized the event when he complained that the demand for a UN force was a "Zionist conspiracy"24

We know, as in the recent words of Nobel Prize winner (Literature 2002) Imre Kertesz:

Remembrance of the Holocaust is important to stop such things from happening again. But, in fact, nothing has happened since Auschwitz that would prevent another Auschwitz from happening. On the contrary. Before Auschwitz, the extermination camp was unimaginable. Today, it can be imagined. Because Auschwitz really happened, it has permeated our imagination, become a permanent part of us. What we are able to imagine - because it really happened - can happen again.

We, “the people”, the Jewish people ourselves, have begun the process of establishing the generalized lesson of our recent transformative historical event.

To paraphrase the Bible: “Because of our experience with genocide… we can not, and will not allow it to happen to any other people.”

We may be unable to stop the memories of any particular day, from careening around in our overactive brains, preventing our sleep. But, we can learn from our memories, focus our energies, and act so that the people of Darfur… and no other people suffers the horrors that we know really happened.

Apply what you remember from that time in September

When the moon was new

And you stood as a Jew

[Of course I sing the songs and we have a poster sized version of the medieval poem that we read responsively, and I have a large version of the “table of suffering”.]

[And then I pass out “Not on my watch” bracelets for everyone.]

1 [with apologies to Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones]

2 Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind (1911)

3 Baruch Halpern; The first historians; the Hebrew Bible and History ©1988

4 Zakhor; University of Washington Press; Seattle, London; ©1982; {9}

5 Philosophy of History

6 from Reason in Common Sense, the first volume of his The Life of Reason

7 Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi; Zakhor; 43

8 Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi; Zakhor; 62 [emphasis mine]

9 “The Mission to the Jews in the Middle Ages and the Popes” published in Italy, 1942

10 Larry Hoffman “Does God Remember?” {66}

11 Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire p. 162

12 Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire p.168

13 Kinky Friedman, Blast From the Past ©1998 p204

14 I may be wrong on the attribution, but nobody would (could?) confirm or deny it.

15 Carolyn J. Dean,“Recent French Discourses on Stalinism, Nazism and “Exorbitant” Jewish Memory”; p. 43

16 Ibid, p. 46

17 Ibid, p. 61

18 Ibid, p. 63

19 Ibid, p. 67

20 Ibid, p. 69

21 Ibid. p. 71

22 Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism (1996 by The University of Chicago), p. 124.

23 Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World, p. 213.

24 The Guardian “Poisonous politics” Leader, Friday September 22, 2006

©Mark Hurvitz