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
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....
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....
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.
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