The challenges of collective Jewish memory

The challenges of collective Jewish memory

You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command this word to you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:9) Moses is speaking not to the generation of the Exodus, but to the generation born during the desert wanderings. Those hearing his words did not in fact have the experience of being enslaved; they cannot “remember.”

Whose experience is binding — that of the previous generation of slaves, or that of the generation born in freedom? Can what happened to one generation become the experience of another, so that they remain commanded “today”? Can we “remember” what we did not in fact witness or experience?

Deuteronomy embodies a fundamental paradox of religious experience. On the one hand, there is the validating and valuing of immediate experience: “We were slaves.”  On the other hand, that experience is assumed to be binding on the subsequent generations, who have and will have their own experiences.

There is a persistent debate in Jewish thought about revelation. One position holds that the revelation of the Torah at Sinai is the governing experience, and consequently any subsequent experiences of God can only be understood when looked at from the perspective of that root experience.

So for example, when the biblical prophets appear to denounce the Temple cult of sacrifice and insist that ethical behavior is what keeps us in right relationship with God, traditional commentators (who cannot imagine the prophets contravening Leviticus) hold that the prophets only denounced unethical behavior operating alongside the sacrificial system, not in place of it.

Others, however, see the prophetic tradition as a new religious stage, in which the call for ethics supersedes the rituals of sacrifice and in fact tries to replace them. From this perspective, revelation is an ongoing and (somewhat) open-ended possibility: God may speak in any generation, and may in fact say something new. “Thus says the Lord” is the proverbial two-edged sword.

In these weeks following Tisha b’Av, weeks of comfort and reconciliation, contemporary Jews are alerted to the opportunities as well as the difficulties of trying to understand contemporary experience through ancient lenses. The enormity of the Holocaust and the rise of the State of Israel are, potentially, exactly the kind of immediate experiences that can overwhelm previous understandings of similar moments from other eras of Jewish history.

The understandings of Jews who lived through the Holocaust, and those who were present at the birth of modern Israel, have often been determinative for them, even when those experiences diverge from ancient Jewish narratives of exile and redemption. Those events are imprinted on the ways modern Jews understand the meanings of God, Torah, and the people Israel — just as slavery and redemption stamped the generation of the Exodus in our Torah portion.   

But can those experiences become the experiences of those born after? Can the imperatives which arise from the Holocaust and from the birth of Israel be experienced in the same way by generations born now half a century or more after these enormous events?

Each generation must understand what came before; and each generation must ultimately accept that those who come after will only be able to travel just so far based on the experience of others. At some point, each generation must determine how to honor the past and remain faithful to it, while being open and responsive to its own experience and growing through it. 

Rabbi Richard Hirsh is assistant rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom, Cherry Hill.

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