When rabbis or religious institutions mention the word history what they really mean is historical memory, how the history is used to construct a contemporary religious position. Popular accounts of Jewish history have precious little history and original content, rather they only use selected pieces of memory by which to understand current reality. The study of Jewish history in its tradition building function, therefore, is not historiography but the study of “Collective Memory.” So I was glad to see the recent anthology Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, Daniel Levy, eds. The Collective Memory Reader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xviii + 497 pp. It will become the new starting point as the basic textbook in the field surveying several dozen works from the 1920’s to today focussing on the creation of this new field in the last 20 years and its application to religion and the memory of the Holocaust. The seminal work was Maurice Halbwachs’s 1925 study, Social Frameworks of Memory and collective memory became a field with British sociologist Paul Connerton’s landmark analysis, How Societies Remember(1989). Jews discussions seem to have became frozen with Yerushalmi’s mention of Halbwachs in Zakhor, but an entire new approach to religious history has arisen.
Oliver Roy relies on this literature, especially Religion as a Chain of Memory – Daniele Hervieu-Leger (French edition, 1993). Reading the book has been on my to do list for a while, so after my four posts about Roy, (here, here, here, and here) it was a good tie in.
According to Hervieu-Leger, modern societies define religion by a chain of belief– a tradition, a chain of memory, an envisioned past. There is no longer a direct experience of God or the creation of hierophantic moments. In the modern era, many have trouble relating to the chain of tradition. When one is successful, then one has religion.
In the current era – belief has two elements: the personal experiential element which was called in 1990’s “the sacred”, and now is called the “spiritual” based on experience; and the “religious” element based on the tradition and memory. To say that one is spiritual but not religious or religious but not spiritual is to grasp only one pole of religion. Organized religion when it is successful is about constructing a sense of tradition and tie in with the past. This divide causes current forms of “religion” to be rationalized in the Weber sense of no longer having presence of the divine, now pastors, rabbis, and priest follow abstract rules.
The point of her reflections is that religion today means collective memory and the goal is that, when successful, it is mobilized and is the normative. The collective memory regulates and transcends the individual memory
This functions not just in the classic ritual such as the Passover seder but also in a variety of cultural, political and contemporary moments. For example, specific memories of the Holocaust, state of Israel, Eastern European Jewry, and the formation of one’s denomination is bound up with this collective memory called religion.
Hervieu-Leger points out the crumbling of former religious memory which was tied to the local and agricultural in modern societies. Some of it undergoes homogenization and for others there is a sense of fragmentation. Movement creates loss of memory and the need for new memory, rural to urban, country to country. Collective memory is tied to place- some of us are ruptured from Eastern European roots, but then also removed from earlier places of settlement. Movement of people to new enclaves creates a need for new collective memories.
Collective memories can be pre-existent the person, for example to be told by a follower of Rav Kook that one’s soul and memory is tied up in the land of Israel preexists actual memories. The collective memory transcends the individual- pre-exists even the visit to the land.
She thinks that there has been a gradual loss of the personal god and metaphorization or symbolization of all religious objects. In the chain of religion the links are horizontal through time and vertical toward metaphysics. This symbolization allows material objects to create memory and they can be most effective with sales and product tie-ins. There is a need for the objects to be emblems objects that bring that past to memory. Think of dancing Hasidim in living room paintings in secular Jewish homes or the huge amount of stuff that people bring back from Israel to create a new memory.
She quotes Dominique Schnapper, which was in turn used by Roy, that symbols are no longer meaning but a sign of belonging. In the most advanced societies, religious symbols are now entirely social and organizational demarcation.
Hervieu-Leger cites Certeau on how signs and practices are broken, signs can wander off or become scattered.
Those who enter in a religion as a convert or baal teshuvah show a different chain of memory and a greater purity that is outside of the prior social memory. The sectarian is modernizing by dissolving the actual tradition. This dissolving of society allows greater ecclesiasticism, transferring memory of the tradition to the clergy. Since one now wills oneself religious, this creates infinite possibilities for constructed memory. She discusses BT’s in 1970’s who sought not just a return but a new identity rejecting their past and assuming a counter cultural return to the tradition of an imagined Europe- a culture they felt that missed in their own up bring. The second wave of BT’s sought a way to change from life in the secular world and a change in their own lives.They constructed many alternate and personal memories of the past, hasidism, litvish, or even an imagined but inaccurate vision of modern Orthodoxy.
Notice how the memory of medieval Ashkenaz favored by many mid twentieth century thinkers, Baron, Katz, Finkelstein, Agus, Assaf, has faded. Current research by Robert Chazen is not making a cultural splash because Ashkenaz is not the focus of the current constructed chain of tradition. Neither is the constructed memory of the Shtetl used much anymore.
In modern Orthodox circles, some look for historical memory to Maimonides and Nahamnides, or a romanticized Volozhin, other to the religious Zionist project, others have as their memory the Hatam Sofer’s rejection of Reform and others their memory goes only as far back as their buying a Rinat Yisrael Siddur when they spent a few months in Israel in the 1970s’s. Some look back to eastern Europe and the power of the local rabbi other look at the same people and see the lack of power and need for accommodation. Rabbi Belkin used to invoke Philo of Alexandria, Maimonides, Spanish-Portuguese, and Mendelsohn/ Hirsch/Shadal.
Currently, Hasidism, Breslov, and the Besht are used by many for a bewildering variety of forms of chains of tradition. Art Green and others have created collective memories of Neo-Hasidism.
So what periods and figures does everyone use in their collective memory? Do they work? Why?
Didn’t Kurtzer win the Brandeis “Next Big Idea” with a plan for reworking Jewish cultural memory into something usable?
And I return to Certeau’s questions about signs that wander off or become scattered. What the criteria when these new collectives memories has swerved too far from a course?