One of my best friends and I disagree on the details of a rather insignificant historical event. He swears that he “bunked” a ball at Camp Ramah in Palmer in the annual softball game against Ramah Berkshires. I could swear that it wasn’t during the annual game against Berkshires, but in a game against the Palmer Police Department when we hit back-to-back homers, his hitting bunk 54 while mine cleared the left fielder’s head.
Does it matter who remembers this home run correctly?
Does it make a difference in the way we look back at our days spent at camp?
When is it important to understand exactly what happened (aka history), as opposed to being OK with mythology (aka memory)?
My example is a poor, poor, poor man’s metaphor for the dilemma presented by Yehuda Kurtzer, picking up where Yosef Chayim Yerushalmi left off in his history vs. memory conversation, in his book Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past. At a certain point, all of us have to come with grips with how we relate to the mythology, tradition, and events of “Jewish history” and we have to draw a distinction with what we know for sure, and what we’re taking on faith. Or, in Kurtzer’s words, we have to “reconcile [our] lived Jewishness with the knowledge of the fabrication of pieces of Jewish myth and memory” (p. 74).
Shuva is an intense exploration of this question through different lenses and frameworks. Reader beware: this is not an easy book, nor is it fast. Don’t be deceived by its 155 pages- you will need a month to take this book seriously and read it more than once.
But read it and you will be rewarded. I enjoyed it because the skeptic in me hates taking everything at face value and I like to question tradition and blind faith; I’m a history kind of guy, not a memory kind of guy. But with that being said, I love Judaism, prayer, and traditions in a way that doesn’t really mesh with my black-and-white view of fact vs. myth, or truth vs. fabrication.
This isn’t a total surprise, nor is it even a bad thing. What would the story of Israel’s fight for independence be for me without the mythology of Leon Uris’ Exodus? What would the story of Trumpeldor’s death at Tel Hai be without his famous (and maybe fabricated) line “Tov lamut b’ad artzenu,” (It is good to die for one’s country). Who would Abraham be without the midrash of his smashing his father’s idols? Whatever truth history might provide us with is inevitably blurred by both its recorders and by those who augment whatever record there is with a healthy amount of memory.
As Kurtzer noted, “No historical narrative has ever withstood the test of time intact. It is simply impossible to compete with evolving scientific (and pseudoscientific) methodologies that will continue, invariably, to find new ways to question the validity of the foregoing story…it is exceedingly hard not to look down at a past that we look back on” (p. 94)
Thankfully, Shuva does not force you into an existential crisis of faith or belief in Judaism and the history/memory continuum. As Kurtzer posits, “the eternal truth-claims of a text and its ability to inspire us have little to do with accuracy or perfection, much as none of us in our personal lives love perfect people. It comes in our charitable willingness to read a text and relate to it with love” (p. 76).
Kurtzer isn’t content with reviewing history and memory, though. He would like us to use them to figure out how in the Jewish future we can build constructs that channel the past in a way that is both authentic and inspiring.
Many of us remember the Heisenberg Principle from high school science. It holds, generally, that anything you observe is changed just from the process of observing it. In the case of Shuva, and Jewish history, the very fact that historians and critics have been trying to put their factual stamp on Jewish memory has changed our view of the collective past in a harmful way.
I’m with Kurtzer on this one. History alone is insufficient. We have to reclaim some of our most important memories from the scientific gaze of historians and use them to inspire the future.
Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past
Brandeis University Press
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