Reflections on Yerushalmi’s ‘Zakhor’

Jewish memory has either eroded or remains triumphant among most Jews.

The western wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The western wall
I was a student of Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, but never a disciple.
After 10 months of study at the hesder yeshiva in Gush Etzion in the Judean Hills, I returned from Israel to the United States to matriculate at Columbia University on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the fall of 1983.
At the time, Yerushalmi’s study of Jewish history and Jewish memory – Zakhor – was gaining attention as a central text addressing the craft and challenges of writing Jewish history.
I enrolled in two of his classes on the history of the Jews of Spain – the lectures were outstanding and Yerushalmi’s assigned papers and exams were creative and memorable. Although I did not continue at Columbia for graduate studies in Jewish history in 1987, I left Morningside Heights with the knowledge that one of the outstanding Jewish historians of his generation appreciated and praised my essays and exams.
Yet, the anxiety of Yerushalmi’s influence on my worldview continues to trouble me, especially as articulated in his study of Jewish history and Jewish memory. I want to address why, more than 30 years later, I cannot embrace my professor’s understanding of the craft and role of the Jewish historian, as well as why I reject his notion that modernity poses an impossible challenge to the Jewish thinker as a rupture and chasm that separates the modern Jew from his ancient and medieval ancestors.
In Zakhor, Yerushalmi struggles with the questions that haunt any Jew who has been raised within tradition and later is thrust into the study of Judaism using the tools of the academy, primarily the historical investigation of the Jewish past.
While Yerushalmi does not reject the historical-critical approach to understanding Judaism and Jewish life – indeed, Yerushalmi never denies that he is an historian who employs the modern method – Zakhor reflects the author’s existential and professional struggle to find a meaningful place for the academic study of Jewish history in the intellectual, religious and social life of modern Jewry.
Yerushalmi’s primary argument in Zakhor is that a rupture exists between “history” and “memory” among Jews in the modern epoch. Utilizing this dichotomy, originally devised more than 50 years ago by Maurice Halbwachs, Yerushalmi argues that “although [Jewish historiography] constitutes the single most sustained Jewish intellectual effort in modern times, it has impinged so little upon modern Jewish thinking and perception generally.”
Jewish memory embodied in the mandate of “zakhor” in the Hebrew Bible – the “sacred” Jewish understanding of the past through tradition, ritual and the template of Exile and Redemption – has not been supplanted by the modern Jewish historians’ understanding of that same past. Jewish memory has either eroded or remains triumphant among most Jews. Yerushalmi recognizes “the chasm that separates modern Jewish historiography from all the ways in which Jews once concerned themselves with their past.” The historian of the Jewish people in the modern epoch has failed to provide an adequate response to the sacred memory of religious Jews or the rejection of Jewish history by “Yudka,” the fiery protagonist in the story “The Sermon” by Israeli writer Haim Hazaz.
“I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history,” Yudka cries out to his fellow kibbutzniks in protest. “Why the devil teach them about our ancestors’ shame? I would just say to them: Boys, from the day we were exiled from our land we’ve been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football.”
I find Yerushlami’s answer to Yudka to be inadequate. I am proposing in this essay two alternatives to the fierce denials of the protagonist in the Hazaz story.
In Zakhor the author assumes that “as a professional Jewish historian I am a new creature in Jewish history.
My lineage does not extend beyond the second decade of the nineteenth century, which makes me, if not illegitimate, at least a parvenu within the long history of the Jews.” This contributes to the atmosphere of despair that permeates Yerushalmi’s study. If the historian of the Jews is solely the product of the modern Wissenschaft des Judentums, the historian is then at a great disadvantage in competition with “collective memory” to win the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.
Yet, it is our obligation as historians of the Jewish people to question this assumption. Perhaps, in denying the continuity that exists between the pre-Wissenschaft understanding of Jewish history and that of modern historicism, Zakhor errs in proclaiming the seminal “rupture” that supposedly is a phenomenon of today.
Indeed, modern historians of the Jewish people have challenged Yerushalmi, arguing that the chasm between “Jewish memory” and “Jewish history” is not as yawning as Yerushalmi assumes.
This is not to say that Yerushlami’s pessimism is not totally warranted.
There will always be a chasm between the yeshiva and the academy. Hegelian synthesis is not the magic elixir that will cure all our existential, intellectual and religious maladies.
The attempt to synthesize Jewish History and Jewish Memory without any questions is simply futile. It is as fruitless an endeavor as trying to synthesize two automobiles that have collided head-on. One is not left with a shiny, brand new car as a result of the fusion. After the impact, all that one can see are two twisted and mangled wrecks, both unsalvageable. The vehicles’ drivers are either dead – or unconscious. Hegel would have made a lousy auto body repairman.
Yet, there is a reason for some hope in addressing the rupture between modernity and the past.
On two levels, there is continuity in Jewish history.
First, we have the tradition of the Jewish polemic. Zionism’s emphasis on the Jewish state being a “light unto the nations” and a recapturing of the glory of the Maccabees and Bar Kokhba have their origins in a long line of Jewish polemics that argued for the superiority of the Jewish people.
Whether Nahmanides’ triumphal account of his 1263 debate with Friar Paul in the court of the King of Aragon or the strident condemnation of Christianity found in the anonymous Ashkenazi “Nizzahon Vetus” – the exceptional nature of the Jewish people was a reality of the past and is the reality of Israel today.
The terms have changed – not all streams of Zionism argue for Jews as a “holy nation” or a people chosen by God. But the claims of being exceptional remain. Aside from Jacob Klatzkin, every Zionist thinker did more than just imagine a Jewish state that would settle for being third-rate.
The Zionist project was and continues to be a resurrection of the living.
Second, modern Emancipation – the granting of citizenship to Jews in the West – disrupted an ancient and medieval reality of Jews being identified as a nation, homeland or no homeland. Zionism addressed emancipation and offered a devastating critique that, in part, sealed the rupture between the past and the present. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has argued that pre-state Zionist institutions were “a replica of a medieval Kehillah.”
Shorsch states that “a political analysis of Zionist history reveals far more affinity with medieval models than Zionist rhetoric would ever suggest.”
That medieval autonomy was a dress rehearsal for Zionist sovereignty is not an outlandish assessment of Zionism and the rupture that it sealed between past and present. For all the talk of a chasm between Jewish past and Jewish present, between Jewish History and Jewish Memory – we must start discussing more about the bridges that connect us today to our ancestors. They are important. We need to acknowledge them and not throw our hands up in despair that leads to paralysis and nihilism.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.