In Judaism, memory is a collective mandate, both in terms of what is recalled and how it is recalled. From the Deuteronomic injunctions to "remember the days of old" (32:7) and to "remember what Amalek did to you" (25:17) to the persistent theme of remembering "that you were slaves in Egypt," the content of Jewish memory has been the collective saga as first recorded in Scripture and as later recalled in collective, ritual settings.

Central to the meaning of the biblical past is the covenant, Israel's guarantee that history will follow a divine plan. Thus, the tremors that register most clearly are the breaches of covenant that Israel has been guilty of: "Remember, never forget, how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the wilderness" (Deut. 9:7). The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the exile from the land, and natural and national catastrophes are all seen as the consequence of God's retribution for the backsliding of his chosen people.

After the destruction of Solomon's Temple in 586 BCE, the biblical Book of Lamentations and prophetic consolations provided new forms of collective memory: individual and choral voices for ritual mourning and apocalyptic interpretations of exile and suffering (a visionary impulse carried further by Jewish apocalyptic writers in Palestine from about 200 BCE to 100 CE.).

With the destruction of Herod's Temple in 70 CE and the subsequent failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, the rabbis of Jabneh and Usha (the tannaim) triumphed as the sole arbiters of Jewish memory. Most of the apocalyptic writings were excluded from the biblical canon. Even the straightforward chronicles of the Maccabees were consigned to oblivion. Instead the rabbis proclaim Scripture as the blueprint of history past, present and future.

Through public fasts that celebrated God's historical intervention in nature; through public sermons that sought to link Scripture with the concrete life of everyday; through the creation of public rituals to commemorate the salvation and destruction of the biblical past, the rabbis were able to canonize, codify, and ritualize historical memory for all generations to come.

The rabbinic approach was to implode history, to cut it down to manageable size. Events were disassembled and reassembled according to biblical archetypes: the Flood, Sodom and Gemorrah, the Akedah (binding of Isaac), the Exodus, Sinai, the breaking of the tablets, the destruction of the Temple, the Exile, the restoration of Zion.

The rabbis selected, combined and arranged events to fit them on a continuum. Thus, the separate destructions of both Temples (586 BCE and 70 CE) were telescoped together, combined with other calamities which were linked to the same days....

In the Middle Ages, it was liturgy that became the central repository of group memory. A number of historical chronicles were written in the wake of the Crusades, and the Expulsion from Spain was the major catalyst for the first serious attempts at postbiblical Jewish historiography, yet both national calamities were commemorated mainly in synagogue ritual: in memorial prayers for the dead, in penitential poems, in additions to the liturgy for the ninth of Av.

Fasting and feasting remained the essential ways of recalling local events of special significance such as expulsions, plagues, or deliverance from danger....

What was remembered and recorded was not the factual data, but the meaning of the desecration. This meaning was shaped and expressed by analogies with earlier archetypes - such as kiddush ha-Shem (the public act of sanctifying God's name in times of persecution), the Akedah (binding of Isaac) and the Temple sacrifice.

With the spread of Kabbalah in the seventeenth century and its enormous impact on Hasidism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the spiritualization of history and the search for archetypal structures were revived, just when the modern, critical study of history began to take hold among western European Jews.

Scholars are divided as to the continued viability of Jewish group memory in the modern era. Some, pointing to the fragmentation of art and consciousness in the high culture of western Europe, conclude that group memory suffered an irreversible blow with emancipation. Others, drawing on the folklore, literature, art and politics of Jewish eastern Europe, argue that group memory was transformed and revitalized in secular mode.

The anti-traditionalist revolt, launched in eastern Europe by such intellectuals as S.Y. Abramowitsch (Mendele Mokher Seforim) and Hayyim Nahman Bialik, rejected the theological premise of history, but continued nonetheless to disassemble the czarist pogroms, the expulsions, and the mass exodus in terms of the ancient archetypes....

In the postwar era, to the extent that Jews have regrouped in large numbers, they have reshaped contemporary events into new archetypal patterns: hurban (destruction) has giving way to Shoah (Holocaust); the rebirth of the State of Israel has provided a concretized image of the ingathering of the exile and of the return to Zion.

More recently, the national reawakening of Soviet Jews is viewed as a latter-day exodus. Each of these three archetypes is celebrated with new communal rituals (public gatherings, parades, demonstrations), while the literary sources read at such occasions begin to take on liturgical significance.... The use of visual iconography in painting, sculpture and photography is a new vehicle of group memory in modern times. Images of exile and martyrdom, revolt and rebirth, have made the archetypes accessible to an audience increasingly cut off from written Jewish sources.

And so while the link between memory and covenant has been irrevocably broken, while individual actions are now celebrated along with those of the collective, while old archetypes are displaced by new ones, and while visual images supplant the written word, it would seem that group memory and archetypal thinking are still a viable form of Jewish self-expression.

sources An abridged version of Dr. Roskies' article entitled "Memory" which appeared in: Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original essays on critical concepts, movements, and beliefs, eds. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1987). It is is reprinted here by permission of the author.

David G. Roskies is Professor of Jewish Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is the author of Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture (1984), the companion volume The Literature of Destruction (1989), and A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (1995). Indiana University Press will publish his newest work, The Jewish Search for a Usable Past, in the spring of 1999.

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