Past Imperfect?


We Jews, traditionally, are an ahistoric people. That’s not to say that we don’t have a history; praise the Lord, we have plenty! But the rabbis of the Talmud did not see their job as doing history. For the rabbinic leaders and decisors of old, history was not front and center; the rabbinic leadership asked not “What happened?” but rather “How can we set a context, a chronological order, for the events in the Hebrew Bible and by extension for the halacha, the normative system that governs the life of the individual and the community?”

The rabbis of the Talmud were not interested in history for its own sake. But are we?

It’s one of the many tackled by the Hartman Institute’s Yehuda Kurtzer in his provocative book, “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past” (Brandeis University Press). Are Jews about history, or about memory? It is the interplay of history and memory that has grabbed the attention of generations of scholars, theologians and rabbinic leaders.

Among those who have delved deeply into the relationship of history and memory in the Jewish experience was the late historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi; his notion was that history and memory, often conflated, are very different activities, with different purposes, goals, processes. Indeed, Yerushalmi, in his pathfinding 1982 volume “Zakhor,” made the case for the idea that history and memory are oppositional: memory interprets the past selectively; history seeks to be comprehensive in recovering, assessing and analyzing data. Yerushalmi put on his own historian’s yarmulke and harked back to the rabbis of the Talmud in his novel argument: whereas Jews once related to their past solely through memory, “the disjunctions of the Enlightenment brought about a turn to history instead.” Selective, hortatory, literary memory replaced by scientific, empirical history.

Kurtzer’s “Shuva’ is in large measure an analysis and critique of the Yerushalmi notion. Do we embrace the past, via memory? Or do we understand the past, via history? Yerushalmi’s declaration that Jewish memory is dead, that the turn from memory to history is permanent and immutable, doesn’t work for Kurtzer. Indeed, the book’s subtitle, “The Future of the Jewish Past,” sets forth Kurtzer’s agenda: the history-memory dynamic is but a vehicle for looking toward the next stage — the Jewish future — in which the ideological frameworks developed in Jewish thought and practice over the centuries can enable “the absorbing of the changing world into ongoing definitions of Jewishness.” Kurtzer is clear with respect to his own prejudice: he does not like “our constant archiving of our past,” and would much prefer “investing in the humanity in our stories that echo in our souls.”

But how do we do this, Kurtzer asks? With history replacing memory we have lost a connection to our past, and we are confused and anxious. Further, pluralism and universalism, fueled by history, make it more difficult for some to live Jewishly. And normative religion does not work for everyone. What’s the answer?

Kurtzer makes a good effort to square the circle. In consecutive chapters, “Shuva” examines central motifs of the Jewish experience as they are contoured in history and recontoured for contemporary Jews. “Mitzvah,” Yir’ah,” “Ahava,” “Hurban,” “Teshuva”—“commandedness,” “awe,” ‘love,” “cataclysm,” ” returning” — these are the concrete manifestations of the Jewish experience. If we understand these, argues Kurtzer, we can understand our profound relationship to our past without becoming obsessed with that past or driven to tear it down.

Kurtzer’s proposition may be a tough one for modern Jews. The modern experience is one in which we are informed by the rational thought and battered by the empirical data that we encounter as “history.” Kurtzer asserts, however, that we cannot simply replace memory with history and not have a crisis in Jewish identity. In fact, sociologists have been telling this to American Jews for decades. “Continuity,” a buzzword we know all too well, is to Kurtzer a passive pursuit, suffused with nostalgia, instead of the pro-active pursuit of a workable history-memory dynamic that it ought be. “Shuva” tells the community that, absent the content of “Mitzvah” (“Commandedness”), continuity is worthless. Jewish communal professionals, take note!

“History” and “memory” are not mutually exclusive, argues “Shuva”; we just have to be selective in what we reclaim from our past — especially from the five motifs that are at the core of the book. Dissonance is OK, Kurtzer suggests; cacophony is not; he makes the case that our traditions and practice interweave history and memory in a way that, if not entirely pleasing to the ear, are not grating.

“Shuva” is not without flaws. It’s a dense book — not necessarily a bad thing, except when denseness gets in the way of the reader, which is sometimes the case in this book. And it is over-written; the editor’s blue pencil might have been more frequently wielded in shaping the book. But Kurtzer is an erudite guy, and the reader will be rewarded in working through the author’s many sources.

In his peroration to the reader, Kurtzer asks whether the Jewish people can go back to Sinai. His response: “Shuva” — “Return” — restore our core values and commitments, articulated in our history, given meaning by our memory, in order to move into the future. Memory is a means of owning history. It’s a lesson well worth heeding.

Jerome A. Chanes, a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of four books and numerous articles on Jewish history, public affairs, and sociology.