Collective Memory

Communal remembering was constructed on the basis of traditional Jewish archetypes.

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Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

In Judaism, memory is a collective mandate, both in terms of what is recalled and how it is recalled. From the Deuteronomic injunctions to "remember the days of old" (32:7) and to "remember what Amalek did to you" (25: 17) to the persistent theme of remembering "that you were slaves in Egypt," the content of Jewish memory has been the collective saga as first recorded in Scripture and as later recalled in collective, ritual settings.

Central to the meaning of the biblical past is the covenant, Israel's guarantee that history will follow a divine plan. Thus, the tremors that register most clearly are the breaches of covenant that Israel has been guilty of: "Remember, never forget, how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the wilderness" (Deuteronomy 9:7). The destructions of the Temple in Jerusalem, the exile from the land, and natural and national catastrophes are all seen as the consequence of God's retribution for the backslidings of his chosen people.

This theme of guilt, retribution, and exile is most forcefully articulated in the two Tokhehah (literally: reproof) sections of Scripture, Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, which later generations invariably returned to in times of unprecedented disaster.

After the destruction of Solomon's Temple (hurban ha-bayit) in 586 B.C.E., the biblical Book of Lamentations and prophetic consolation provided new forms of collective memory. The Book of Lamentations orchestrated a documentary account of Jerusalem's siege and destruction into individual and choral voices ideally suited for ritual mourning, while the prophets of the exile, notably Ezekiel and Second Isaiah, viewed the exile archetypally, in terms of visionary battles (Gog and Magog), resurrection (the Valley of the Dry Bones), a new Temple, and a new Exodus.

This visionary impulse was carried further by Jewish apocalyptic writers who flourished in Palestine from about 200 B.C.E. to 100 C.E. Through their pseudepigraphic approach, the apocalyptic writers projected a vision of the imminent End of Days as shaped by an esoteric and highly mythic reading of biblical prophecy.

Rabbinic Innovations

With the destruction of Herod's Temple in 70 C.E. and the subsequent failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, the rabbis of Jabneh and Usha (the tannaim) triumphed as the sole arbiters of Jewish memory. Most of the apocalyptic writings were excluded from the biblical canon. Even the straightforward chronicles of the Maccabees were consigned to oblivion.

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David G. Roskies

David G. Roskies is the Sol and Evelyn Henkind Chair in Yiddish Literature and Culture and professor of Jewish Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary.