The Command to Remember
Creating Collective Memory as a Moral Imperative
By: Nance M. Adler
Originally published in HaYidion March 2014
We have all heard the adage – “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” I would like to add to it “Those who don’t remember their people’s history are doomed.” Much of how we are to behave as Jews is based in our remembering. Both God and our own modern experience exhort us to “Never forget” – we are to remember what was done to us and work to keep it from happening to others. If we don’t know what was done, we can’t participate in this work to better the world. In the Torah we are reminded numerous times to “remember that you were strangers (or slaves) in Egypt” and as a consequence of that memory we are to treat others better than we were treated. We are to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our gates. We are to treat others as we want to be treated and we are to remember it was God who helped us escape and be faithful to God as a consequence of this memory. The study of history – or even the idea of history – comes late to Judaism. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his book Zakhor differentiates between “collective memory” and history. Yerushalmi points out that memory is a religious commandment in Judaism. The root zakhor appears 169 times in Torah. What God commands in the Torah is collective memory. It is looking at an experience as if it happened to you rather than in its proper historical setting. The best example of this is the Pesah Seder. We do not say “The father of my ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” We say “My father was a wandering Aramean.” We say God took “me” out of Egypt. The Pesah story is told as personal memory. It is also the most widely observed Jewish ritual. Secular, unaffiliated, otherwise totally assimilated Jews hold and attend seders – this collective memory experience speaks to them and reminds them of who they are and how they are supposed to be in the world.
For Jews, as Yerushalmi points out, up until quite late, all of history was seen as collective memory. It was all seen as a playing out of God’s plan for God’s chosen people and all connected no matter how far apart in time events occurred. In my sixth grade Jewmanities class I combine teaching the stories of Tanach with the teaching of history. We look at the early kings of Israel as the Jewish archetypes they have become – memory – and then we look at them in their historical setting and as real people. We look at the prophets and their warnings of divine punishment and then learn about the Assyrians and the historical events of the conquering of ancient Israel and the destruction of the First Temple. By seeing our story both as history and memory, connections can be made and lessons learned beyond what doing it as one or the other allows. One of the most valuable things, in my opinion, about the heroes of the Tanahk is that they are real people. To learn about Solomon as only wise and to not see that he also made bad decisions, mostly connected to women, makes it hard to connect to him as a role model. Knowing that our problems were also the problems of our ancestors makes their experiences and lessons apply to our experiences. This is the power of collective memory. Knowing how your people have handled problems – how Jews handle problems – allows you to make Jewishly informed choices in all areas of life.
Our history teaches us what it means to be a Jew – the good and the bad of it. Much of Jewish history is depressing and awful. It is regularly debated just how appropriate it is to even teach it to various age groups. Parents ask me why I want to make their kid hate being a Jew by teaching about the Shoah or the Inquisition or other dark episodes of our history. A seventh grader recently asked why we always learned about such depressing stuff. He wanted to know when we were going to learn something “sunny” about Jewish history. Unfortunately, seventh grade JSS is 70 CE – Middle Ages, so, other than the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry and Babylonian Jewry, there isn’t a lot of sunshine. But, there are still lessons to be learned here that should make students value their Judaism and want to cling to it as strongly as their ancestors, who did so often at cost of life. How much in life today is worth dying for? To Jews in Ancient Israel, Spain, Babylonia, the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Europe, Germany and so many other times and places, the meaning and value of being Jewish was clearly a prize worth protecting and nurturing even when the cost was high. Loss of privilege and loss of life were not enough to dissuade Jews from being Jewish in those places, but today not getting to attend a concert on a Friday night is enough to make a kid wish he wasn’t Jewish. So, how do we inspire a deep and abiding love and value for being Jewish? For me, it is through the teaching of Jewish history and memory; in creating a sense that all of Jewish experience is part of my Jewish experience and figuring out how to understand that so I can be a part of making the world a place where some of those experiences will never again occur. Sharing in the collective memory of one’s people allows one to partake in the ongoing history of that people in a way that will hopefully one day allow “never forget” to become a true “never again.” By remembering and teaching our students to remember as well, we can perhaps one day place those events in the historical past where they belong.