Oblig­ed by Mem­o­ry: Lit­er­a­ture, Reli­gion, Ethics

Steven T. Katz; Alan Rosen, eds.
  • Review
By – June 25, 2012
The Torah com­mands us regard­ing Amalek, Remem­ber what Amalek did to you when you were on your way leav­ing Egypt…you shall not for­get.” (Deut. 25:17) So grave is the oblig­a­tion to remem­ber the suf­fer­ings inflict­ed on the Jews dur­ing their desert sojourn, the Torah empha­sizes this mitz­vah as both a pos­i­tive — remem­ber” and a neg­a­tive — do not for­get” — require­ment. If Amalek is the par­a­dig­mat­ic tor­men­tor and destroy­er of the Jews, the suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of Amalek” must be remem­bered and not for­got­ten as well. In our time, Amalek was rein­car­nat­ed in the per­son of Hitler and his Nazi mur­der­ers. 

Elie Wiesel, Nobel Lau­re­ate and acknowl­edged rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Holo­caust gen­er­a­tion, has set Mem­o­ry” as the cen­ter­piece of his opus and of his theological/​philosophical world view. In Wiesel’s own words: Mem­o­ry should become an irre­sistible pow­er, one that gives the dead their due, that tells their sto­ry — rather brings them back to tell their sto­ry, even if it was buried with them in an unknown place.” It is, there­fore, appro­pri­ate that Wiesel’s 70th birth­day should be com­mem­o­rat­ed with a Festschrift con­cerned with the role of mem­o­ry in lit­er­a­ture, reli­gion and ethics. 

The essays includ­ed in this vol­ume, which is based on a three day sym­po­sium enti­tled The Claims of Mem­o­ry” held at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, can be assigned to three main cat­e­gories. The first, Mem­o­ry and the Word” exam­ines the inter­face of his­tor­i­cal truth and nar­ra­tive rec­ol­lec­tion. In her con­vinc­ing­ly argued sub­mis­sion, Cyn­thia Ozick uses Ben­jamin Wilkomirski’s mem­oir, Frag­ments, as the par­a­dig­mat­ic exam­ple of fic­tion pre­sent­ing itself as authen­tic mem­o­ry. Oth­er aspects of lit­er­a­ture and mem­o­ry are addressed in essays by Susan Rubin Suleiman and Shlo­mo Breznitz. 

The sec­ond group of essays may be placed under the gen­er­al rubric of Divine Mem­o­ry.” In two papers by Paula Fredrik­sen, a pro­fes­sor of scrip­ture at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, and Nehemia Polen, pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish thought at Boston’s Hebrew Col­lege, the fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tion Does God Have a Mem­o­ry?” is explored by ref­er­ence to the Con­fes­sions of Augus­tine and the bib­li­cal book of Nehemi­ah. A third cat­e­go­ry of entries deals with the eth­i­cal dimen­sion of mem­o­ry under the title, His­to­ry, Mem­o­ry and Ethics.” John Sil­ber, pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and pres­i­dent emer­i­tus of Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, cau­tions the read­er about the poten­tial for mem­o­ry run amok” whether as a result of acts of omis­sion (the fail­ure to include all the rel­e­vant his­tor­i­cal data, as was the case at the com­mem­o­ra­tive site at Babi Yar) or acts of com­mis­sion, by import­ing acts into the his­tor­i­cal account, both of which cre­ate eth­i­cal dilem­mas with far­reach­ing consequences. 

Addi­tion­al aspects of the con­cept of mem­o­ry, specif­i­cal­ly in the con­text of the Holo­caust, are explored in essays by Jef­frey Mehlman, Nan­cy Har­rowitz, Geof­frey Hart­man and Alan L. Berg­er. In an After­ward, Elie Wiesel express­es his grat­i­tude to the con­trib­u­tors of Oblig­ed by Mem­o­ry, and his own deter­mi­na­tion to trans­mit the unimag­in­able hor­ror of the Holo­caust uni­verse and per­pet­u­ate the mem­o­ry of the voice­less vic­tims, despite his doubts con­cern­ing the effi­ca­cy of words to cap­ture this inde­scrib­able and sui gener­is reality.
Stephen H. Gar­rin is a past man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World and a past assis­tant to the direc­tor of the Jew­ish Book Council.

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