Shu­va: The Future of the Jew­ish Past

  • Review
By – April 27, 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.

Addi­tion­al Books Fea­tured in Review


Read Yehu­da’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

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?

Wal­lace Greene, Ph.D., has held sev­er­al uni­ver­si­ty appoint­ments, and cur­rent­ly writes and lec­tures on Jew­ish and his­tor­i­cal subjects.

Discussion Questions