• Email
  • Print

Memory and Its Discontents

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi
University of Washington Press, 144 pp., $17.50

Leo Strauss, political philosopher and Hebraic sage, in 1962 wrote a long preface for the English translation of his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion.1 Brooding on his book’s genesis, some thirty-five years after its composition, Strauss was moved to write his own intellectual elegy for German Jewry. In some sense, the preface is a classical essay on “Jewish History and Jewish Memory,” the subtitle of the eloquent and disturbing book by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi under review. Zakhor, the title, is the verb used throughout the Hebrew Bible whenever Israel is admonished: “Remember!” Strauss, a touch more implicitly than the Bible, also admonished us to remember:

The establishment of the state of Israel is the most profound modification of the Galut [the Diaspora or Exile] which has occurred, but it is not the end of the Galut: in the religious sense, and perhaps not only in the religious sense, the state of Israel is a part of the Galut. Finite, relative problems can be solved; infinite, absolute problems cannot be solved…it looks as if the Jewish people were the chosen people in the sense, at least, that the Jewish problem is the most manifest symbol of the human problem as a social or political problem.

Surveying the tradition of the critique of religion, early in his book on Spinoza, Strauss remarked on the Epicurean view of history:

Of past sorrows Epicurus takes no heed. He recalls his past only in so far as it is pleasurable. It is the decisive characteristic of the Epicurean that he is incapable of suffering from his past.

Nothing could be more un-Jewish, and one sees again why the great rabbis used “Epicurean” as a term of the greatest abuse. An Epicurean attitude toward memory is antithetical to Judaism. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi is an exemplary Jewish historian of the Jews, and with Zakhor he becomes an exemplary theorist of the troubling and possibly irreconcilable split between Jewish memory and Jewish historiography. Zakhor is a small book; it has barely one hundred pages of text, but it may well be a permanent contribution to Jewish speculation upon the dilemmas of Jewishness, and so it may join the canon of Jewish wisdom literature.

Yerushalmi, Salo Baron’s successor at Columbia, is deeply learned in all of Jewish history, but particularly so on the Marranos (the Sephardic Jews who were forced in the fifteenth century to convert to Christianity but continued secretly to maintain Jewish life), on the Inquisition, and indeed on all of Sephardic Jewry. The origin of Zakhor is an earlier essay by Yerushalmi, “Clio and the Jews,” the crucial portions of which he has incorporated here. Reading his earlier books, one finds the reflective pattern that led him to Zakhor. From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto2 chronicles the career of Isaac Cardoso, a seventeenth-century Marrano physician and defender of Judaism. The kernel of Zakhor is already present when Yerushalmi broods on the trauma of the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492:

…it had raised the perennial problem of Jewish exile and suffering to a new level of urgency. Jews in the sixteenth century had groped for a new understanding of the ancient enigmas, and had responded with novel departures in historiography, mysticism, and messianism. In the seventeenth century the messianic passion stimulated earlier by the spread of Lurianic Kabbalah would finally erupt in the worldwide explosion of the Sabbatian movement, with its concomitant antinomian elements.

In his vast “panorama in facsimile of five centuries of the printed Haggadah,” Haggadah and History3 Yerushalmi denies that the celebration of Passover is merely a study of Jewish nostalgias, and instead affirms a kind of union between Jewish memory and Jewish history:

However dimly perceived, in the end it is nothing less than the Jewish experience and conception of history that are celebrated here….

For Passover is preeminently the great historical festival of the Jewish people, and the Haggadah is its book of remembrance and redemption. Here the memory of the nation is annually renewed and replenished, and the collective hope sustained.

Jewish memory and Jewish history do not seem to have a vexed relationship here, but the reader can find the matter darkening in Yerushalmi’s grimly impressive The Lisbon Massacre of 1506.4 His subject in this masterly monograph is the unhappy dialectic of Jewish existence by which the Jews of exile perpetually sought everywhere an alliance with the ruling powers, thus further provoking the hatred of already dangerous masses. As Yerushalmi observes, the pattern is prevalent as far back as Hellenistic times, and has its contemporary relevances, in support of which he cites the late Hannah Arendt’s controversial second chapter in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The Jews and Society.” Though he did not say so, I surmise that Yerushalmi began to see in this unhappy pattern a prime instance of how Jewish memory and Jewish history fail to inform each other.

In Between Past and Future, Arendt made the most useful distinction I have found between the Greek concept of history and the Hebrew refusal of such a concept. Greek historiography, like Greek poetry, is concerned with greatness: “Through history men almost became the equals of nature, and only those events, deeds, or words that rose by themselves to the ever-present challenge of the natural universe were what we would call historical.”5 Against this historiography was Jewish memory, based “upon the altogether different teaching of the Hebrews, who always held that life itself is sacred, more sacred than anything else in the world, and that man is the supreme being on earth.” Memory, as Arendt taught elsewhere, can be a powerful mode of cognition, and with this teaching one can begin a reading of Yerushalmi’s Zakhor.

Zakhor is divided into four chapters, tracing in turn the fortunes of Jewish memory and Jewish history in their Biblical and rabbinical origins, in the Middle Ages, in the wake of the Spanish Expulsion, and in our time. All four chapters are remarkable, but I find the first the most memorable. Yerushalmi begins by emphasizing that “only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.” But is there a peculiar or particular Hebrew psychology of memory? The first book mentioned in Yerushalmi’s notes is Memory and Tradition in Israel by Brevard S. Childs (London, 1962), which decides against the idea of a uniquely Hebraic mode of memory, while also insisting that zakhor, as a word, has a much wider range than “remember” has in English, since in Hebrew to remember is also to act (a parallel to the Hebrew davhar, translated as logos but meaning “act” and “thing” as well as “word”).

Yerushalmi shrewdly emphasizes the uniquely selective nature of Hebrew memory, which calls for a particular kind of acting rather than for any curiosity about the past: “Israel is told only that it must be a kingdom of priests and a holy people; nowhere is it suggested that it become a nation of historians.” Heroic individuals or even national deeds do not matter, and Yerushalmi notes that many Biblical narratives are scandals or disgraces if judged on the basis of their likely effect upon national pride. God’s acts and Israel’s responses matter, and nothing else. If that is what matters, then the priest and the prophet become the masters of memory and historians become unlikely figures. And yet so much of the Bible is distinguished historical narrative, narrative that is human in scale, concrete in fact and detail, mostly chronological, and rarely as fictive or legendary as it may look. This paradox prompts one of Yerushalmi’s central formulations:

…meaning in history, memory of the past, and the writing of history are by no means to be equated. In the Bible, to be sure, the three elements are linked, they overlap at critical points, and, in general, they are held together in a web of delicate and reciprocal relationships. In postbiblical Judaism, as we shall see, they pull asunder. Even in the Bible, however, historiography is but one expression of the awareness that history is meaningful and of the need to remember, and neither meaning nor memory ultimately depends upon it. The meaning of history is explored more directly and more deeply in the prophets than in the actual historical narratives; the collective memory is transmitted more actively through ritual than through chronicle.

Prophet and priest deal in sacred history, and when the canon of the Bible was closed by the rabbis, at about the year 100 of the Common Era, then the Jews seem almost to have stopped writing even sacred history. The works of Josephus, written between the late Seventies and the early Nineties of the Common Era, vanished from among the Jews. Yerushalmi remarks that “it would be almost fifteen centuries before another Jew would actually call himself an historian.” The rabbis who founded the Judaism that we know, the religion of Akiba, lost all interest in mundane history. They had the written and the oral law, and they trusted in the covenant, which assured them the future. Roman history, Parthian history, even the contemporary Jewish history of the Hasmoneans and the Herodians, were scarcely worthy of rabbinical scrutiny.

When the great Akiba, as an old man, proclaimed Bar Kochba the Messiah, helping thus to bring on the great massacres by the Romans, the Jewish disaster of the second century CE, he gave his rabbinical colleagues the last encouragement they needed to forget contemporary history forever. After that, as Yerushalmi strongly says, the rabbis “obviously felt they had all the history they required.” Judaism kept its belief in the meaning of history, while teaching habits of thought that were and are profoundly ahistorical. A Jew might be a poet or a philosopher or a kabbalist speculator as well as a rabbi, but for fifteen centuries he would not think of being a historian.

In his second chapter, on the transmission of Jewish memory in the Middle Ages, Yerushalmi remarks that even the ahistorical character of rabbinic thinking in itself cannot account for medieval Jewry’s sense that reading or writing history was merely what Maimonides called it, a “waste of time.” Jewish memory moved instead through ritual and liturgy, and in rabbinic custom and law, fairly well fixed after the year 500 CE, when the Talmud achieved its definitive form. Yerushalmi identifies four particular vehicles of medieval Jewish memory: new penitential prayers inserted into the liturgy; “memorial books” in each community; “Second Purims,” to celebrate fresh deliverance; and special fast days, for the catastrophes from which there had been no deliverance. Together with the modes of spiritual creativity open to medieval Jewry—halakhah (law), kabbalah, and philosophy—these modes of memory subsumed all the possibilities of history.

In the sixteenth century, in the wake of the Spanish Expulsion, suddenly some of the Jews turned to historical writing again, a resurgence that Yerushalmi addresses in his third chapter. His conclusion, though, is that this phenomenon was ephemeral, and abruptly faded away, in sharp contrast to the other great intellectual reaction of exiled Iberian Jewry, the Lurianic Kabbalah, which rapidly spread from Safed in Galilee to dominate Jewish spiritual life almost everywhere. Gnostic myth, and not history, provided the extra strength that Jewish memory needed for Jewry to survive its latest catastrophe. Yerushalmi is precise on this triumph of Kabbalah:

Clearly, the bulk of Jewry was unprepared to tolerate history in immanent terms. It is as though, with the culminating tragedy of the expulsion from Spain, Jewish history had become opaque, and could not yield a satisfactory meaning even when, as among most of the historians, it was viewed religiously. Patently, however, Jews were spiritually and psychologically prepared for that which Lurianic Kabbalah afforded them—a mythic interpretation of history that lay beyond history….

What remains then for Yerushalmi, in his last chapter, is what he aptly calls “Modern Dilemmas,” with the quasi-Freudian subtitle “Historiography and Its Discontents,” since modern Jewish historians are not the heirs of the rabbis or the kabbalists, but rather of Barthold Niebuhr and Leopold von Ranke. That is to say (though Yerushalmi does not say it) that historiography, of all the modern disciplines practiced by Jewish scholars, is necessarily the most Gentile. But that is not in itself a major discontent, since Yerushalmi rightly observes that “the primary intellectual encounter between Judaism and modern culture has lain precisely in a mutual preoccupation with the historicity of things,” With Jewish group memory now in sharp decay, “history becomes what it had never been before—the faith of fallen Jews.” And there Yerushalmi locates one of the discontents both in the nineteenth century and now. Scripture has been replaced by history as the validating arbiter of Jewish ideologies, and the replacement, he believes, has yielded chaos.

Yerushalmi goes on to trace deeper discontents in contemporary Jewish historiography, which he sees as standing in opposition to its own subject matter, since it cannot credit God’s will as the active cause behind Jewish events, and it cannot regard Jewish history as being unique. Spinoza, as interpreted by Leo Strauss, is thus, after all, the only Jewish precursor of modern Jewish historiography, which has followed him in secularizing what had been sacred history. A further discontent, also prophesied by Spinoza, now becomes evident: Judaism itself has been historicized, by Gentile and Jewish historians alike. With that process well advanced, Jewish memory and Jewish history begin to oppose each other, and there Yerushalmi finds his crucial dilemma.

The total coherence of a scholarly Jewish history, whatever that will turn out to be, will be very different from the lost coherence of Jewish memory at its strongest, which was messianic and so redemptive. Literature and ideology compete to occupy the abyss that Jewish memory has become; Jewish historical research, as Yerushalmi admits, has no effect upon contemporary Jewish visions of the past. The Jews, now as before, remain fundamentally ahistorical. Yerushalmi wryly says of them that they “await a new, metahistorical myth, for which the novel provides at least a temporary modern surrogate.” Post-Holocaust Jewry, Yerushalmi concludes, resembles the generations that followed the Spanish Expulsion, and so also will choose myth over history.

Perhaps Yerushalmi, for all his realism, is too hopeful. Contemporary Jewish novelists and ideologues seem to me simply not strong enough to replace lost Jewish memory. The late Gershom Scholem was the closest equivalent to a modern Isaac Luria that we had, but he deliberately and evasively carried his scholarship only to the borders of a new myth of exile, and finally did not dare to cross over from history to a redemptive messianic hope. We do not know, Scholem said, why certain sparks survived, even while so much of Jewry fell away. Perhaps the myth or myths that yet will rekindle Jewish memory, here in the West, can be found in the lives and works of Freud and Kafka, and in Scholem’s also. We do not know.

The Jews were a religion that became a people, rather than a people that became a religion. We will not know what is or is not contemporary Jewish culture until we can examine it retrospectively. Freud, Kafka, and Scholem may yet seem as much high Jewish culture as we have had in this century. Yerushalmi’s wisdom is most relevant and welcome when he urges the modern Jewish historian to “understand the degree to which he himself is a product of rupture.” But this is true also of all modern Jewish intellectuals. As Yerushalmi says, once aware of this, we are not only bound to accept it, but we will be free to use it.

  1. 1

    Now available in paperback from Schocken Books.

  2. 2

    Columbia University Press, 1971; new edition, University of Washington Press, 1981.

  3. 3

    Jewish Publication Society of America, 1975.

  4. 4

    Hebrew Union College, 1976.

  5. 5

    Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (Viking, revised edition, 1968), pp.47-48.

  • Email
  • Print