Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Mississippi Fred MacDowell
Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's classic big-little book ZAKHOR is subtitled 'Jewish History and Jewish Memory'; and that is what it is, an exploration of the fact that Jewish history and Jewish collective memory diverges and converges. The book begins with a reminder that to remember is commanded in the Torah, "altogether the verb zakhar appears one hundred and sixty-nine times" in Tanakh.

And yet, as many of us are fully aware, the two--Jewish memory and Jewish history--do not always converge. This is today typified by the phenomenon of the 'Artscrollization' of east European Jewish history. While many of us who've caught the history bug deplore it, the simple truth is that the only way they can and do get away with it is because of the failure of collective Jewish memory. If everyone knew that the portrait of recent and distant Jewish history was being distorted then we would all reply, as in the 'Kuzari proof', "Hey, I don't remember that. My grandfather never told me that. You're making it up." The facts are that this doesn't occur. Only those of us who've chased down the history know it. In fact, I don't think there is much of a conscious effort to rewrite history. I think that in many cases, probably, the revisionists are wholly unaware that they're doing anything but recording history--they're recording memory.

This is only a recent example. Whether Jewish memory 'forgot' centuries of the Bayit Sheni period or all but forgot an entire Diaspora Jewish culture, the Hellenic Jewish world typified by Philo of Alexandria, this concept of the disconnect between memory and history is very old--and is NOT a Jewish phenomenon in the least bit. (As an aside, the culture that was Jewish Hellenism is preserved only in tantalizing hints in the tradition, like the references to the Great Synagogue of Alexandria or the curious and notoriously ambiguous attitudes towards the Greek language and the Septuagint in the Talmud--these only became clear, or more clear, when the existence of that culture was essentially rediscovered in modern times. Imagine if in 2000 years Judaism in America was forgotten almost entirely--no Lakewood, Yeshiva University, Schottenstein Edition or Groucho Marx.)

A perfect example is the Jewish view of how the Talmud was written or edited or published or whatever you want to call it. The fact is, Jewish memory did not really preserve this information. To begin with, contrary to popular belief, the Talmud doesn't say (Rav Ashi and Ravin sof hora'ah is not the information that is missing). The little we do know comes primarily from the famous Iggeret R. Sharira Gaon, the 10th century letter, in which Sharira Gaon answered a query about the Talmud's origin. Were it not for the curiosity of Jews in Kairuan what the 10th century ge'onic view of this question would not be known to us. It is from R. Sherira that we learn of the existence of the mysterious Saboraim, the rabbis who, depending on your point of view, put the finishing touches on the Talmud or did much more than that.(More than one or two rabbis mentioned by name in the Talmud were Saboraim; the opening Gemara Kiddushin was Saboraic, according to R. Sherira.)

The trouble is that there are two versions of R. Sherira's letter! One Spanish and one French. In the French version the Mishna and Talmud were not written until after the crucial eras in question (e.g., the Mishna was composed about 200 CE, but wasn't written until the Talmud too was written centuries later--for that matter, according to this version of the letter, the Talmud was composed but not written until after the Talmudic period.) In the Spanish version, they were written at the same time as they were composed. So we just don't know. But how can we not know? Answer: you can't ask a kashya on a ma'aseh. These 'details' were forgotten, and attempted reconstructions by later authories like the Rambam (or critical Talmudic scholars) are not the result of Jewish memory regarding the Talmud's origin.

Many of us have been to a pesach seder in which someone offered an explanation of the story of the tannaim who have to be told that its time to recite keriat shema by their students. The explanation is that they were shut into a room without a window, because that seder was during an era of Roman persecution. This vort is an example of a modern attempt to recover history. Suffice it to say, the story says nothing about Roman persecution or if the room had windows. But even at traditional sedorim the modern urge to anchor the story into history is there. I assure you that a thousand years ago no one suggested Roman persecution as an element in this story (or the Lag Ba-'omer one).

Yerushalmi writes that "only in the modern era do we really find, for the first time, a Jewish historiography divorced from Jewish collective memory, and, in certain crucial respects, thoroughly at odds with it."

Yerushalmi gets it exactly right when he says that "modern Jewish historiography cannot address itself to those Jews who have never "fallen." The potential dialogue of the historian is with those who, consciously or unwittingly, have tasted the forbidden fruit and can never be the same."

I am among those who have 'fallen', who have the history bug. I bet many of us are too. It makes for some discomfort that haunts us.

Haloscan comments


Post a Comment

<< Home