Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past

Brandeis University Press  2012


These two volumes address the important issue of imbuing meaning in Jewish life. One book deals with those whose observance may be meticulous but mechanical, the other treats the challenge of engaging modern Jews with a sense of Jewishness. The truth is that both books speak to both audiences. Many non-Orthodox Jews observe mitzvot and they too need to endow their performance with more spiritual input. Similarly, Orthodox Jews already committed to a Jewish lifestyle need to understand not only the significance of what they do but how the past influences Jewish destiny. In fact, Rabbi Rothstein spends quite a bit of time exploring the Jewish past. 

Rabbi Rothstein is a master teacher who marshals text upon text to build his case and make his point. He sets up his arguments, gives practical examples and demonstrates that the purpose of commandments is to create for humanity a God-consciousness that is constant and immanent. The rituals are the vehicles that create that realization and understanding. His main thesis is not original. There are Talmudic and kabbalistic antecedents. In the thirteenth century the Spanish author of the Sefer haHinukh (Book of Instruction) elaborated on the symbolism and inner meaning of the mitzvot. Rabbi Sampson Rafael Hirsch did the same in the nineteenth century. 

While the concept is not new, challenging twenty-first century Jews to rise to this standard is courageous. Being conscious of God every second of every day is not easy. Hasidism recognized this and developed the concept of dveikut (lit. attachment) referring to those unique individuals known as the pious ones (Tzaddikim) who could sustain this perpetual level of communion with God. However, what Rothstein means is that beyond the rituals, with their deeper meanings to plumb, all Jews should behave as if God is looking over their shoulder when they eat, when they engage in business, when they speak to their friends and their associates, when they pray, when they give charity, when no one is watching how they behave, when they are on vacation, when they speak to their children, spouses, and parents, etc. Rav Soloveitchik called it “God intoxication.” Just going through the motions isn’t enough. In theory he is absolutely correct. Putting it into practice may take some doing. 

Shuva offers an attempt to understand the connection between the Jewish people and the Jewish past, the ways in which memory and history relate and compete. How do we relate to Israel, the Holocaust, and to traditional ideas ? As Jews we know in some deep way that our past is essential, but we lack the critical tools necessary to understand our deep relationship to that past without either tearing it down or being obsessed with it. 

The loss of a connection to the past has generated confusion, anxiety, and concern among those modern Jews who lack such a connection passed on by memories, yet who still wish to connect Jewishly. Martin Buber recognized this as early as 1929 when he strongly recommended to the Lehrhaus in Berlin to create Jewish memories for a generation bereft of such experiences. However, since religious frameworks do not work for everyone, perhaps we ought to evaluate history instead of memory as the vehicle to relate to the past. 

Modern Jews tend to relate to the past through history, which relies on empirical demonstration and rational thought, rather than through memory, which is selective, and constructed. However, replacing memory with history does not build Jewish identity and creates a disconnect between Jews and their collective history. Kurtzer tries to fix this break. Drawing on many classical texts, he shows that “history” and “memory” are not exclusive and that the apparent dissonance between them can be fixed by a selective reclamation of the past and a translation of that past into purposefulness.

Some historians view all of Jewish history as “challenge and response.” The response of modern Jewry to the challenges of dealing with the past may very well dictate the future of those who are not oriented toward commanded-ness. How does our past direct us to live Jewishly in a pluralistic, universalistic society ? What is our relationship to commanded-ness ? How have we in the past and how can we in the future inhabit contradictory realities without needing to suppress one or the other? 

The buzzword ‘continuity’ implies passivity and nostalgia instead of a pro-active pursuit of a dynamic relationship to being Jewish. Continuity must have content. There must be some authenticity based on the past or based on some other source of commanded-ness. 

Myth and memory are a means of owning history rather than being rebuked by it. Kurtzer offers modern Jews some food for thought in this extended polemical essay. It is not clear if his solution is workable or even acceptable. The first step, as Saadyah Gaon wrote in the tenth century, is to get people to think about it seriously.

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Discussion Questions

Are there ethical costs involved with rehabilitating 'memory' instead of 'history?' If history supplanted memory from an evolutionary standpoint, why would we need to bring memory back?

Hurban: The Holocaust holds powerful sway over modern Jewish consciousness – but some say too much, while others say not enough.

  • Do you accept the book’s critique that the memory of the Holocaust as it currently manifests in Jewish life is flawed?
  •  How does the Holocaust feature in your memory? Do you have relatives or friends who survived the Holocaust? How different is it to ‘remember’ something Jewishly that you did not experience, than to remember something to which you have direct access?
  • What is the difference between storytelling and building memorials? Which preserves memory better, and which promotes memory better?

Teshuvah: The author describes a conversation between two Jewish leaders, one who sees herself as an ‘insider’ and one who sees herself as an ‘outsider;’ and the sense of envy that one felt for another.

  • With which of these Jewish stories do you identify?
  • Have you ever felt envy for someone else’s memories? Where do you think this sensation comes from?
  • What are the defining moments, stories or memories from your own past – real or imagined! – that you think are most essential to how you tell your own story? How has your memory of these events evolved over time?

The author repeatedly channels rabbinic texts and stories to tell a modern Jewish story using old templates and classical paradigms. Does it strengthen or weaken the novelty of the ideas that they are articulated in reference to ancient tales? Why do you think the author does this rather than making a more forceful “programmatic” argument?

In the epilogue the author falls short of being prescriptive about how to cultivate new attitudes towards memory in Jewish life. What initiatives or activities do you think could bring about a re-embrace of the past in the way the author describes?

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