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The text we investigate is the ever-growing record of our recoverable past; through it, we discover, acknowledge — and yes, even feel — our personal connection to those who have preceded us.As a Jew committed to searching out the sacred dimension of every moment, place, and person, I see the excavation of the past as a spiritual practice.
We might conceive this integration of Jewish history and group memory (as expressed in text and ritual) as the “unpacking” of the collective lived experience of the Jewish people over time.
(By collective experience I refer to all retrievable aspects of Jewish history, including constituencies — such as women, gays, and lesbians — whose stories have been neglected or rendered invisible both by rabbis and historians.) Viewing our past through the lens of the classic rabbinic exegetical model known as Pa RDe S: peshat (the literal or contextual dimension), derash (homiletical), remez (allusive or allegorical), and sod (hidden or mystical), we can understand the historical dimension of human experience as the peshat, the critical starting point of exploration.
In this now canonical volume, Yerushalmi outlined the ways in which the historian confronts the unsorted and fragmented materials of the past and produces an account that is at odds with the narratives embedded in Jewish liturgy and ritual.
In contrast to the unity and coherence of collective memory, with its implied therapeutic function for Jewish society through the ages, critical research remains outside the matrix of popular Jewish ritual and practice; it is even at odds with some of its most resilient refrains, such as the centrality of divine providence in the experience of the Jewish people.
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The late Columbia University historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s book Zakhor is among the most influential recent books on the intersection between history and memory, the often uneasy relationship between what happened in the past and what is recalled.
Through it, we can deepen our consciousness by investigating the truth of our experience, noticing that which has escaped awareness.
We can make obvious connections that until now were latent.
More than ever, a steadfast commitment to historiography is beyond cavil and consonant with the Torah’s (admittedly mythological) imperative to remember. I am committed to the recollection of historical reality and the contextualization of sacred text and ritual.
Yet as a progressive religious Jew, I don’t consider Yerushalmi’s dichotomy between Jewish historiography and “collective memory” as inevitable.