Collective Memory

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

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As always, it was the subjective reality, not the verifiable facts of destruction, that set the norm and gave rise to new responses. What was remembered and recorded was not the factual data but the meaning of the desecration.

This meaning, in turn, was shaped and expressed by analogies with earlier archetypes. The Hadrianic persecutions had given rise to the archetype of kiddush ha-Shem, defined in the Talmud as the public act of sanctifying God's name in times of persecution (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 74). Kiddush ha-Shememerged after the Crusades in combination with two other archetypes. The Akedah and the Temple sacrifice were enlisted by the survivors of the First and Second Crusades in order to view as vicarious atonement the voluntary death of those who had resisted forced conversion.

Similarly, the Marrano experience in 16th-century Spain and Portugal was legitimated in terms of Esther hiding her identity--a pun on Esther-hester (Hebrew for "hiding")--from King Ahasuerus. With the spread of kabbalah [mysticism] in the 17th century and its enormous impact on Hasidism in the 18th and 19th centuries, the spiritualization of history and the search for archetypal structures were revived just when the modern critical study of history began to take hold among western European Jews.

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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.