From the Introduction of The Creation of Jewish Identity: From the Biblical Era to the Second Temple Period.

A great many Jewish holidays and practices, in their earliest understanding, reflect the great innovation of Biblical religion. The Bible emphasized historical events in contrast to nature. Other ancient Near Eastern religions stressed the latter. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel noted, in the Jewish tradition, faith is memory. Heschel notes:

“When we want to understand ourselves, to find out what is most precious in our lives, we search our memory…That only is valuable in our experience which s worth remembering. Remembrance is the touchstone of all actions. Memory is a source of faith. To have faith is to remember. Jewish faith is a recollection of that which happened to Israel in the past…Recollection is a holy act; we sanctify the present by remembering the past.”[1]

The observances of Jewish holidays and various Jewish practices articulate theological ideas reflective of collective Jewish memory.

For example, Jews celebrate Passover because they remember that God brought them out of Egypt. Jews observe the commandment of circumcision because they recall that their forefather Abraham was commanded to do so. They commemorate the holiday of Sukkot because they evoke the journey of their ancestors in the wilderness. These are just a few examples.

One might assume that Jews and Judaism naturally emphasize the history of the Jewish people. Until the modern era, this was surprisingly not the case. In his work Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi argues that what has been understood as history in Jewish circles from the Biblical era until reasonably recent times is considerably different than what the modern reader might expect in light of Jewish emphasis placed on memory.

Until the modern era, a general lack of interest in historical events detached from the Jewish community's theological concerns was typical. As the medieval Jewish historian Solomon Ibn Verga noted, an interest in history was seen as a Christian custom. Verga was the author of Shevet Yehuda, the first prominent Jewish historiography work in the modern period. [2]

According to Yerushalmi, the seeming disconnect between memory, history, and historiography, i.e., the writing of history, is astonishing. Surprisingly, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, an emphasis, or better said, a command to remember is given.[3] But what Jews remembered or chose to remember is critical. The actual recording of historical events was anything but the primary vehicle through which the Jewish people preserved their collective memory and identity.[4] Yerushalmi highlights the distinction between Jewish memory and Jewish historiography.

He points to various Biblical texts, e.g., Deuteronomy 25:5-9; Deuteronomy 6:10-12; Joshua 4:6-7, etc., to note that while the Bible is focused on remembering the historical acts of God’s providence on behalf of Israel, they are nevertheless often connected to the lives of specific individuals in all of their detail.

The Creation of Jewish Identity

Yerushalmi asserts that Jewish memory is selective. Some kings and significant events do not necessarily merit attention, while others do. This stands in contrast with so much of the Biblical text that focuses on none other than major incidents and great individuals presented in historical narratives.

To understand the reason for the disconnect between history and memory, Yerushalmi contends that part of this may lie in our understanding of history as drawn from the Greeks. The Greeks themselves appear to have failed to achieve a sense of the meaning of history as a whole.[5] Herein lays the significant contribution of Jews to historiography.[6]

The meaning of Jewish history is the principal concern. Yosef Yerushalmi argues for Jewish religion's complicated nature with memory and its simultaneous selectiveness in its records. Yerushalmi points to the familiar phrase “written in the books of the annals of the kings” found in the books of Kings and Chronicles and contrasts that with the case of those monarchs who were seen to have acted wickedly. For example, we find the familiar refrain,

“…he [Manasseh] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”[7]

The Biblical concern with memory is tied to the notion of a holy people. It is not attached to all the specific events that may have transpired in King Manasseh's case over a remarkable reign that stretched over fifty-five years.

Yerushalmi argues for the delineation between meaning in history, the memory of the past, and history writing. The Greeks were inspired to know the past if, for nothing else, out of curiosity. The sacred texts of Israel established the religious imperative of remembering to the entire Jewish community. But to what purpose?

All this was stated simply to highlight one important issue. Jewish identity is intrinsically based on the memory of events. However, the events' historical nature as we think of them may or may not coincide in the modern era. Still, the memory of the past is intrinsic to what Jewishness is and how it is perceived. Therefore, Jews from Morocco can connect with Ethiopian Jews or with Russian Jews, etc. Because whatever ethnic, social, and even racial differences exist, there is a shared memory of the past. Those who join the Jewish people as converts adopt the memory of the family they have joined.

Detractors may charge such memory is invented. It is not. There is plenty of archeological and textual evidence to support the Jewish people's existence through history, regardless of whether a person is a member of the Jewish people or not. However, the idea of memory transcends historical issues. It allows us to understand how people living in the 21st century can still link themselves to people from the Bronze Age.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1951), 162-163.

[2] Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 34.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Drawing upon Yehezkel Kaufmann, Yerushalmi notes: “If Herodotus was the father of history, the fathers of meaning in history were the Jews.” And the “meaning” assigned to historical events are largely the basis on which events are “recorded” by Jews until the modern Era.

[7] II Kings 21:2.

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Posted by Rabbi Dr. Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez the director of Yeshivat Meor Enaim. He is the author of The Creation of Jewish Identity: From the Biblical Era to the Second Temple Period and 19 additional books on various Jewish topics. If you purchase through our link, Yeshivat Meor Enaim gets a commission to help continue our mission.