The Jew Without Memory
by LABA Rabbinic Fellow Kendell Pinkney
Several years ago, I was fortunate to travel to Stockholm with a group of young American and European Jewish lay leaders and entrepreneurs to take part in a Jewish life program. The program was described as a week-long intensive where we would discuss “big Jewish ideas,” study with renowned thinkers, and ask vital questions about the essential qualities of Jewish identity. While all of this intrigued me enough to purchase a plane ticket, I must admit that I was much more interested in experiencing a Stockholm sunset at 10:00 in the evening. The reality is that programs that promote themselves under the banner of “big ideas” and “vital questions” are rarely as deep as they proclaim. More often, it is a chance for well-intentioned Jewish professionals to demonstrate why their niche program matters and for well heeled funders to pat themselves on the back for caring about the Jewish people. Thankfully — mercifully — this program was worthwhile.
The week began with reading the creation myth. From there, we hopped over to Levinas, Rosenzweig and Buber. We played a Jewish identity card game that was surprisingly revealing and engaging. Not to mention, we also made the requisite trips to the local pubs and lovely parks around Stockholm. Of all the experiences that now stick in my brain, however, there was one conversation that stands out. Somewhere in the midst of our week-long trip, all the participants were sitting about in an airy meeting room with coffee and tea and snacks sitting just off to the side. Then one person raised what was the simplest question of the week: What is the most important element of Judaism?
Immediately, people protested. “The question is too essentialist!” “It lacks nuance!” Etc. And then a moment later, of course, people began answering and defending their positions. “Tradition,” one participant asserted “that is the essential thing.” “Avodat hashem” said another. “Learning and culture,” blurted one of the few European creative types. “Prayer!” “No! Peoplehood!” — on and on it went. As others landed on conclusions and debated. I quietly felt something stir inside me. Not a response. Not an argument. But a question to the very question that had been posed. “What is a Jew without memory?”
Memory is often a thing that we take for granted. It is something that we have access to every day and, assuming that we are in good health, we imagine that our capacity for memory will accompany us throughout our lives. What is more, our tradition emphasizes memory. I’d venture to guess that some of those reading could point to any number of biblical, liturgical, or rabbinic instances where we Jews are compelled to remember. But just because memory is commanded of us, doesn’t mean that memory is easy. Quite the contrary. Remembering is one of the most difficult and complicated things we do as Jews and as human beings. There is no better example of this than the Hanukkah story, which goes something like this.
Just over two millennia ago, a miraculous thing happened in Judea. As reported in the Gemara, Greek forces swaggered into the Jerusalem Temple, where they defiled all the oils that were there. When the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them, they searched and found only enough pure oil to light the candelabrum for only one day. Seemingly out of a sense of nostalgia, they lit it anyway, and miraculously, the oil lasted eight days.
This is the story of Hanukkah that I have taught to hosts of young, often mildly disinterested and highly assimilated Jewish children in the leafy, progressive synagogues of Brooklyn. This story feels nice, albeit kinda weak (The oil lasts longer than expected?? That’s the miracle?!) Even better, it is inspiring — any reasonable Hebrew school teacher can pick out themes of resilience, light and joy. In spite of that, this story has always left me feeling a bit icky, because while it is a lovely story, it covers up a story that is much more complicated and upsetting.
That story goes something like this: Just over two millennia ago, a horrible thing happened in Judea. A Syrian-Greek king sent forces into Jerusalem and demanded that Judeans abandon the ways of their ancestors. Some Judeans were eager to follow the king’s decree because it already matched their lifestyles. These Judeans were highly assimilated. They saw a certain value in Greek civic life and culture, and they desired to interact more seamlessly with the surrounding, Hellenistic city-states. Others Judeans, however, were not so impressed. The Hasmoneans, a family clan from the town of Modi’in, rejected the Greek decrees. After multiple rounds of guerrilla warfare, they liberated Judea. In the process of “winning the war,” however, they “burned with zeal” and slaughtered several of their fellow Judeans who they judged to be disloyal to the ways of their ancestors.
Like I said, remembering is one of the most difficult and complicated things we do as Jews. These two stories behind Hanukkah are very different: The first is mythic. The second is historical. One points towards ritual. The other points toward socio-politics. One demonstrates the miracle of Divine chosenness. The other demonstrates how the rhetoric of chosenness can be as sharp and deadly as a sword.
In the chasm between these two stories, it is easy to see just how incompatible they are. A holiday that is partly known for Jews killing other Jews, even in the context of resisting a foreign power, is an impossible memory to preserve via rituals and canonical texts. To do so would feel perverse. And the rabbis — the master narrative-builders that they are — get this all too well. Thus, instead of following one of the primary directives of the Jewish tradition, “to remember,” they choose to forget. This act of forgetting makes sense. It is also troubling, because it implicitly conveys that it is important to remember those aspects of Jewish tradition and history that are identity building, and to forget those aspects of Jewish history that are complicated and potentially identity threatening. Though I honestly cannot say I would have made the same choice as our forebears, I certainly don’t envy the choices that they felt they had to make out of a sense of ensuring Jewish peoplehood. Such choices are a burden, even as they try to construct a future that will turn those choices into a blessing. In the end, all of this meditation on the different stories of Hanukkah bring me back to that question that stirred inside of me all those years ago in Stockholm: What is a Jew without memory? I think I have an answer now. And the answer depends on what that Jew is seeking to remember.
Upcoming Virtual Hanukkah Events
Playing With Light
Event host: The 14th Street Y
Monday, December 14, 2020 | 5:30 PM | Register here
Let’s keep our lights growing and glowing on the 5th night of Hanukkah. Join artist Linda White, musician Maria Lemire and storyteller Shawn Shafner for an interactive celebration with songs, games, and community. Build a beautiful menorah with any nine objects already in your house, and watch the light grow and grow!