Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Jewish Memory between Exile and History

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Jewish Memory between Exile and History

Article excerpt

IN HIS BOOK Zakbor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi notes that the writing of Jewish history necessarily means the negation of what he describes as "traditional Jewish memory," namely the consciousness of those whom such a historiography is supposed to represent: "To the degree that this historiography is indeed 'modern' and demands to be taken seriously, it must at least functionally repudiate premises that were basic to all Jewish conceptions of history m the past. In effect, it must stand m sharp opposition to its own subject matter, not on this or that detail, but concerning the vital core: the belief that divine providence is not only an ultimate but an active causal factor m Jewish history, and the related belief m the uniqueness of Jewish history itself."1 Moreover, Yerushalmi claims that "only in the modern era do we really find, for the first time, a Jewish historiography divorced from Jewish collective memory and, m crucial respects, thoroughly at odds with it" (p. 93).

Although I share some of the criticism that was addressed toward this statement, I find Yerushalmi's basic observation essential for a discussion of modern Jewish historical consciousness m the West. Nevertheless it seems that his insistence on the category of providence for the description of this tension is misleading and misses the point. The transformation of this essential concept is not exclusive to Jewish historiography, but a major aspect of modern perceptions of history and modern historiography m general. In fact, in terms of modern attitudes toward "providence," one can observe aspects of continuity with medieval perspectives as well.2 Moreover, following Amos Funkenstein's observations, we should re-examine the very distinction made by Yerushalmi between "traditional" and "modern" modes of memory and history, as well as the core distinction between History and Memory. By making these distinctions, he sometimes reproduces the modern perception of history rather than critically examining it from a Jewish point of view.3

In order to understand the tension embedded within the writing of "Jewish history," I would suggest shifting the focus and concentrating on the concept of exile and not on providence, although there are certainly points of conjunction between the two. The acceptance of the paradigm of modern historiography implies the active rejection of the historical consciousness that was the core of Jewish self-definition, and was expressed in the concept of exile. The attempt to narrate the exilic past of the Jews as autonomous and continuous actually stands m opposition to the main and common perception embodied in the concept, which rejects the existence of any meaningful history m this sense. Concentrating on the tension between "history" and "exile" definitely sharpens Yerushlami's point much more than the question of providence by emphasizing the polemical, counter Christian, dimensions of Jewish memory. Moreover, as I shall argue here, accepting the modern perception of history means, in essence, accepting the Christian one.

In fact, it is impossible to discuss the topic of " Jewish memory" without emphasizing the crucial role of the idea of exile in its construction. It is therefore quite striking that Yerushalmi hardly discusses the notion of exile in Zakhor. He does discuss of course major aspects associated with the concept of exile (as well as its messianic remedy), but without emphasizing this specific aspect as a key element of a distinctively Jewish memory.

In the first chapter of Zakbor Yerushalmi provides us with a description of the historical consciousness of exile, but without indicating any centrality of the idea in Jewish memory. His insightful discussion of the rabbinic perception of history (as demonstrated in the talmudic text itself), as well as the transition from biblical narrative to rabbinic discourse, reveals the denial of history on which the perception of exile is established. …

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