Just A Thought: On Jewish memory

What makes Jews into Jews is a shared sense of memory.

The Passover Seder is an exercise in Jewish memory (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Passover Seder is an exercise in Jewish memory
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It is easy to dismiss the great events of the past as just history, stories that happened in a distant time that have little relevance to us. Sure, we learn the stories and are warned about those who don’t learn history being damned to repeat it. But no matter what, the disconnect is there.
This is the fundamental mistake we make in teaching our children. By turning the past into history, we do not enable them to internalize it properly. As famed scholar Yosef Haim Yerushalmi wrote, it’s not Jewish history that should concern us as much as Jewish memory. As Yerushalmi points out, the oddity is that although we are wrapped up in our own history, as it informs our sense of self, liturgy, rituals and holidays, there is in fact no actual word in Hebrew for history! The word that modern Hebrew uses is a modified form of the Greek. In Hebrew, the word that is used instead is “zachor,” remember.
Jewish memory, not Jewish history, is the operating system of Judaism. This does not mean that there is no value to Jewish history as an academic discipline.
A study of Jewish history yields a wealth of information on who we are and how we got here. Yet while Jewish history will teach us what Jews in the past wore or where they lived, Jewish memory will tell us what animated them. Jewish history might tell us the kind of wine Jews drank, while Jewish memory will explain why they scraped their pennies together to buy enough to make kiddush. It is only through an examination of Jewish memory that we understand the hopes and dreams of Israel throughout the generations.
The Passover Seder is an exercise in Jewish memory. Notice how there are no dates mentioned.
While historically the Exodus took place 3,300 years ago, we make no mention of this. On Seder night, it is unimportant.
And while the Pharaoh of the Exodus was most likely Ramses II, neither the Bible nor rabbinic sources preserve the memory of which Pharaoh it was. Those details are historical in nature and therefore do not concern us on this night.
We eat the matza and bitter herbs. We drink four cups of wine and physically recline like kings. No one in a history class would do that. What we are attempting to do by these acts is to preserve Jewish memory.
Thus, the reason a newly converted Jew can sit down at the Passover Seder and tell the story of the slavery of her ancestors in Egypt is that she has in fact joined Jewish memory.
Historically, her ancestors were never slaves in Egypt, but her conversion to Judaism was an insertion into Jewish memory.
It has been pointed out by many others before me that there is no such thing as a Jewish race or Jewish religion per se. While someone who rejects Jesus cannot count as a Christian, and while someone who denies Muhammad’s prophecy cannot be a Muslim, someone who denies God and spits on the Torah is still a Jew.
As for race, whereas an Asian cannot become black, and a black cannot become white, there is nothing barring anyone from any race to convert to Judaism. A kohen is prohibited from marrying a convert, but the prohibition does not extend to him marrying the daughter of one. In other words, if two blacks were to meet at the local synagogue’s conversion class, fall in love and marry after they’ve already converted, the black daughter they produce would be a native-born Jew and free to marry a kohen. This union may produce a black kohen who can serve as high priest in the rebuilt Temple. This black kohen would enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, representing all of Israel, a privilege not granted even to Jews who can trace their lineage all the way back to King David himself.
What this shows us is that what we need to teach is an all-embracing concept of Jewish peoplehood. We often lose sight of this. We define ourselves as religious or secular, or perhaps as humanist, Reform or hassidic. We are so sure that our camp is right, and that the problems we face would be solved, if only the other side saw things as we do. We are too quick to dig our heels into our side of the field and mock the others as deficient. This needs to end.
What makes Jews into Jews is a shared sense of memory. Ethiopian Jews and European Jews are brothers because we share the same sense of fate and destiny. We will lose that familial feeling if we forget who we are and where we come from.
The Passover Seder is probably the most universal of all Jewish practices, more so than the lighting of Hanukka candles and fasting on Yom Kippur. It is a way for us each year to press reset and clear the clutter and once again attach ourselves to our core memory.
■ The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.