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Yerushalmi on memory & history

The first book assigned for the medival Jewish history class I'm taking is Yosef Haim Yerushalmi's Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. It's short but powerful. Because I learn best through writing, I jotted down some of the passages which spoke to me most deeply, and offer them here with some commentary -- if this is interesting to you, please read on!

"The Jews, after all," Yerushalmi writes, "have the reputation of being at once the most historically oriented of peoples and as possessing the longest and most tenacious of memories... We should at least want to know what kind of history the Jews have valued, what, out of their past, they chose to remember, and how they preserved, transmitted, and revitalized that which was recalled."

Yerushalmi writes that "[m]emory is always problematic, usually deceptive, sometimes treacherous...Yet the Hebrew Bible seems to have no hesitations in commanding memory. Its injunctions to remember are unconditional, and even when not commanded, remembrance is always pivotal." But the Biblical injunction to remember has, he argues, little to do with history or with curiosity about the past. We're commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt and to remember the revelation of Torah at Sinai, and these are not historical events.

Yerushalmi goes on to argue that in Talmudic times, memory remained essentially ahistorical. Even into the medieval era, the relationship between memory and history in the Jewish community was not one we would recognize today.

We find in almost all branches of Jewish literature in the Middle Ages a wealth of thought on the position of the Jewish people in history, of ideas of Jewish history, of often profound and sometimes daring reflections on exile and redemption, but comparatively little interest in recording the ongoing historical experience of the Jews. There is much on the meaning of Jewish history; there is little historiography. Interpretations of history, whether explicit or veiled, can be encountered in works of philosophy, homiletics, biblical exegesis, law, mysticism, most often without a single mention of actual historical events or personalities, and with no attempt to relate to them.

Yerushalmi attributes this to the ahistorical character of rabbinic thinking which shaped Jewish priorities and possibilities. Talmudic Judaism was, he argues, the substructure for all of medieval Jewish life and creativity, and the sages of the Talmud were essentially uninterested in history as we understand it today. Exile and suffering were understood as fundamentally religious experiences, occasioned by the Jewish community's sins -- not by anonymous or areligious historical forces.

Close contact with Arabic culture sparked all kinds of new Jewish creativity: works in philosophy, science, linguistics, secular and mystical Hebrew poetry, none of which had precedents in the Talmudic era. But oddly, although Islamic civilization excelled in historiography, Jewish culture of that same era neglected history. Maimonides considered reading "profane history" (e.g. secular history, history understood as separate from the actions and influence of divinity) to be a waste of time.

By the 16th century, Ibn Verga described the reading of secular historical chronicles as a Christian custom -- which may offer another insight into why Jews of that era weren't following suit. If studying history was something Christians did, then it stood to reason that Jews wouldn't do likewise.

For medieval Jews, Yerushalmi writes, two "pasts" were important: the distant past (the Second Temple period, and the Temple's fall) and the very recent past (persecutions or experiences which had arisen in living memory.) In their understanding, "persecution and suffering [were] the result of the condition of being in exile, and exile itself [was] the bitter fruit of ancient sins."

Occasionally in medieval Jewish historical writing there is evidence of an awareness that something entirely new was happening. For instance, the four Hebrew chronicles of the Crusades, written in the 12th century, offer "a palpable sense of the terrifying shift in the relations between Jewry and Christendom that had ended in the destruction of entire Jewish communities[.]" But even that destruction, which was horrific on an unprecedented scale, was understood through the lens of Torah narrative. It was compared with the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, in a way which allowed the cold comfort of thinking 'well, if we are being sacrificed, it must be because we are so pure.' The theology looks pretty problematic from here, but I can see how it might have offered some scant comfort at the time.

Yerushalmi writes that "Holy days, rituals, liturgies -- all are like musical notations which, in themselves, cannot convey the nuances and textures of live performance." (What a great sentence! It reminds me of Reb Zalman's assertion that the written liturgy is like a recipe in a cookbook -- in order to really taste its sweetness, you have to bring it to life with heart and song.) But holidays, rituals and liturgies were largely how memory was enacted in medieval times.

We may safely assume, for example, that what was 'remembered' had little or nothing to do with historical knowledge in any sense that we would assign to such a phrase. The Jews who mourned in the synagogue over the loss of the Temple all knew a date of the month, but I doubt if most knew or cared about the exact year when either the First or Second Temples were destroyed, let alone the tactics and weapons employed. They knew that Babylonians and then Romans had been the destroyers, but neither Babylon nor Rome could have been historical realities for them. The memories articulated in dirges of great poetic power were elemental and moving, but phrased in modes that simply bypass our notions of 'knowing history.'

The Passover Seder is the quintessential exercise of Jewish group memory. When we retell the story of the Exodus, we fuse past and present. We symbolically re-enact the story and in so doing we enter into it. In every generation, each of us is to regard her/himself as though s/he had personally been liberated from Egypt. This may be the paradigmatic Jewish understanding of memory and history. So how was memory guarded and preserved in medieval Jewish communities, if not in the historiographic ways we recognize today?

In many Ashkenazic communities, "Memorial Books" were kept, archives of the community in which were inscribed the names of communal leaders and records of persecutions and martyrs. In many communities "Second Purims" were celebrated -- after the survival of the community in some attempted persecution, a poem would be composed celebrating that survival, and the poem would be distributed to other nearby communities for reading and celebration (much as the megillah of Esther is read each year at Purim, chronicling and celebrating the survival of the Jews of Shushan.)

Medieval Jewish communities also instituted special fast days to remember the more bitter occasions when there was no deliverance. After the first accusation of ritual murder in continental Europe (Blois, 1171), Rabbenu Tam instituted a communal fast-day of mourning, which lasted well into the 17th century. After the Cossack pogroms led by Bogdan Chmielnitzky in 1648 (the "Chmielnicki Uprising"), the 20th of Sivan became a fast day which was still observed until the eve of World War II -- the catastrophe which dwarfed all of the previous Jewish communal destructions.

In the sixteenth century, Jewish historiography began to emerge in a major way -- arguably in response to the "great catastrophe that had put an abrupt end to open Jewish life in the Iberian peninsula," the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 and the forced mass conversion of Portuguese Jews five years later. The Spanish Expulsion was something unprecedented, and the Jewish response to it was unprecedented: for the first time since Yosippon (who was understood within the Jewish community to have been Josephus), some Jews began writing history qua history. But most Jews of that era were still, Yerushalmi argues, more interested in maintaining traditional attitudes toward history. And the flowering of Lurianic Kabbalah, which also arose in response to the Spanish Expulsion, offered a mystical (rather than historical) way of understanding the Jewish people's suffering. Creation, Luria argued, was essentially broken and needed mystical repair. The appropriate response to suffering was mystical devotion, not analysis of historical events.

The picture begins to change with the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) and the shifts occasioned by Jewish emancipation.

Modern Jewish historiography began precipitously out of that assimilation from without and collapse from within which characterized the sudden emergence of Jews out of the ghetto. It originated, not as scholarly curiosity, but as ideology, one of a gamut of responses to the crisis of Jewish emancipation and the struggle to attain it.

I do not use the term "assimilation" in a negative sense. I have already stressed that the creative assimilation of initially foreign influences has often fructified the Jewish people. The culture of Spanish Jewry is only the bes tknown, but far from the only example of this. What is new in the absorption by Jews of the historicist perspectives of nineteenth-century European culture is not the fact of the encounter, but its content and consequences.

Modern historiography, Yerushalmi writes, rejects the core Jewish belief that "divine providence has been not only an ultimate but an active causal factor in Jewish history," and the related belief in the uniqueness of Jewish history itself. Memory and modern historiography stand in radically different relationship to the past. With the rise of modern historiography, there has also been a loss -- a loss of the classical Jewish paradigm of memory and meaning. Nothing, argues Yerushalmi, has replaced "the coherence and meaning with which a powerful messianic faith once imbued both Jewish past and future."

Today Jewry lives a bifurcated life. As a result of emancipation in the diaspora and national sovereignty in Israel Jews have fully re-entered the mainstream of history, and yet their perception of how they got there and where they are is most often more mythical than real. Myth and memory condition action. There are myths that are life-sustaining and deserve to be reinterpreted for our age. There are some that lead astray and must be redefined. Others are dangerous and must be exposed.

For me, I think, what's most interesting are what he calls "the myths which are life-sustaining and deserve to be reinterpreted for our age." Not surprisingly, that's where I tend to focus. But I'm also moved by Yerushalmi's suggestion that healing may be found through a closer look at our brokenness:

Perhaps the time has come to look more closely at ruptures, breaches, breaks, to identify them more precisely, to see how Jews endured them, to understand that not everyting of value that existed before a break was either salvaged or metamorphosed, but was lost, and that often some of what fell by the wayside can become, through our retrieval, meaningful to us.

May it be so, in our days, speedily and soon.