Remember Always- First Thought’s on Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory

Outside both the USHMM and Yad Vashem is the statement “Remember Always “ attributed to the Eighteenth century mystic  the Baal Shem Tov. The original statement of the Besht was “Remember God Always.”  The context and purpose of the original was removed.  The source for this change is the writings of Elie Wiesel who sees memory by itself as redemptive.  He considers memory greater than Justice, greater than truth, and restoring the past. Hence the obligation is to remember “always.” But is memory always good?

The Yale theologian Miroslav Volf in his important work The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (2006) notes that many times remembrance elicits a desire for revenge—either on ourselves or on others. Rejecting Wiesel’s simply plea for memory, Volf illustrates with many personals stories that memory is ambiguous; it can be used as a justification to be mean to others, to remain depressed and embittered for life or it even can even lead one to become a perpetrator of evil upon another.

 Volf also points out how memory of a wrong can lead to viewing the world in Manichean terms. “In memory, a wrongdoing often does not remain an isolated stain on the [wrongdoer’s] character…it spreads over and colors his entire character. Must I not try to contain that spreading?” Through merely remembering, we begin falling into a cycle of sadism or masochism under the guise of geopolitical and personal safety.

What Jews need, following Volf, is an approach to memory that is future oriented toward learning the right lessons.  What are the right lesson for survivors and their families, for culture and education, and for morally responding?

For those personally dealing with tragic memories, right remembering involves not allowing traumatic memories to dominate our identity, but reframing those memories for personal healing, having the truth of the traumas acknowledged. We need to avoid the negative use of memory by those who are victimized which perpetuates the evil that is done by the original wrong doers. To prevent an endless cycle of repaying evil for evil, we must seek a way to redeem the memories of what we have suffered at the hands of others.

For those involved in culture or education, the goal is to go beyond the fragility and faultiness of person all memory and seek historical memory through study, inquiry, and teaching. The goal is to seek truth understand the data contained in the documents, archives, and artifacts, then to seek the historical causes. Legends and personal trauma should not replace knowledge in our op-eds, classrooms, and public discussion. We should learn how factually incorrect are almost all of our contemporary analogies to the Holocaust. 

On the moral plane, what does it take to remember for positive effects of justice, rather than destructive effects? How can we utilize traumatic memories as a means of solidarity with victims and as an impetus for protecting victims from further violence?

As a generation that no longer deals directly with survivors, we are not at the mercy of our memories. We are stronger than them in that we play a part in shaping them. Volf likens the totality of our memories to a quilt. What is sewn in and discarded, what is prominently featured on the quilt, and what material constitutes background depends on how we sew our memories together. Memory is not all powerful in forming who we are; we ourselves shape our memories. Survivors needed a fragile memory for its recover of self and dignity, a therapeutic process of their own experience. But those raised in the lap of prosperity and security need memory first of all to be truthful  to the events and then we need it to offer a lesson.

Jews can use the story of the Exodus as a “meta-memory” through which Jews rightly remember. The great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught that  Israel’s memories of the Exodus are to serve as the basis for their treatment of aliens and strangers. The Exodus also serves as the basis for a continuity that teaches its past in order to pass it on to the next generation. The meta-memory of Tisha beAv is a memory of the need for restoration and national redemption after tragedy. 

At the same time, more problematic are the texts about memory as a means for vengeance, for example against the Amalekites, urging use to go out and find an Amalelkite to beat up. The answer isn’t how well you teach, it’s how well you’re able to draw the correct lessons. This is where the problem of exemplary memory begins.  Memory translates into action, but how and what we choose to remember maintains a clear relationship to what we do.

Emmanuel Levinas concurs that memory is about our actions not our emotions.  Levinas thinks that the Holocaust has little to do with the perpetual problem of theodicy-why does God allow evil to occur?. The lesson of the Holocaust is that we need to take responsibility for the future. We shouldn’t allow Hitler a posthumous victory by allowing further genocides where people are slaughtered or reduced to a sub-human state. 

Levinas modifies the words of the Holocaust theologian Emil Fackenheim who said the message of absolute evil was that the Jewish people should survive. In contrast, Levinas demands that we need to make sure it does not happen to anyone, anywhere again. Levinas says the true meaning is that we need to take responsibility not to allow a genocide to continue to occur anywhere, always.

We should remember always, but memory without context and purpose may not always be for the good. It is easy to see that our public discussions would benefit from the truth of historical objectivity and greater study.

But how to remember rightly for justice is harder to establish context that will allow us to remember rightly.  How do we read our text for justice and not vengeance?  How do we balance our particular Jewish concerns with our pressing need to stop further genocides? How can we insure that memory is for restoring human dignity and not for making post-traumatic survivors of us all? And most importantly, we should ask ourselves Levinas’  question: how can we move from banal facebook posts that turn genocide into institutionalized cliché to responsibility action.

5 responses to “Remember Always- First Thought’s on Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory

  1. Two comments: 1)I have problems with universalizing the Holocaust so that we the Jewish people have a special need or obligation to prevent future genocides. There have been more than a few genocides since WW2. In none of these situations did Jews or the State of Israel play a prominent or even significant role in stopping the murders and rapes. Mao caused the death of 40-70 million people during his reign. The estimate is that 5 million were murdered in the Congo, close to a million in Rwanda, up to 3 million in Cambodia. East Timor,Bosnia, Darfur, the Sudan, Ivory Coast…the list goes on. My point is simple…it is not a good idea to suggest we have a special role to play in preventing genocides when we have a 65 year record of doing nothing. When Jews do get worked up, as was the case with the Jewish Neo-Conservatives in Iraq and now Iran, there were articles and lobbying that did influence American policy. 2) I once met a man who was in the city where my father was born when the Nazis invaded. All the Jews there were murdered with a few exceptions. He ran away into the forests and survived to become a real estate mogul. I asked him what lesson he learnt from his experience. He answered with a big smile on his face “Location, location, location!” For me the lesson of the Holocaust is to run away before it’s too late. If it is now 1939 as Netanyahu keeps on saying, Jews should leave Israel for safer places.

  2. Another compelling post.

    I appreciate the need to pursue objective accuracy over subjective memory–in general. But would the slight uptick or downtick on the evil meter that better accuracy would bring really be meaningful in the context of the mind-blowing evil of the Holocaust? (Or am I misunderstanding the post?)

  3. Avi- Many of those who call to remember do not care about actual facts or historic causality. It is not about weighing evil, which cannot be measured. But the goal is not confuse the role of subjective memory in the synagogue or survivor family with the need for objective memory in the textbook. Much of the subjective memory is wildly incorrect.
    You want to see my prior post on Miller’s book on Hirsch’s years in Moravia,
    EJ- Maybe you should write a response to Beinart- that everyone should move out of Israel for safety?

  4. C’v…all I said is if it is 1939, then Jews should leave. But I think saying it’s 1939 is false, and Netanyahu is politicizing the Holocaust. A good way of seeing the many ways Jerusalem is not Vilna is to read Prof. Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.”

    Speaking of Beinart, why not a post on the acceptance and rejection of his book. I am sure you saw the piece in Jewish Ideas Daily on how the Evangelicals are beginning to rething their position on the Palestinians.

  5. This posts shifts from book review to normative stuff really fast. Thus it ends up conflating at least three kinds of memory. Liturgical memory is what Levinas seems to be addressing in terms of the Exodus and Tisha BeAv. Then there’s the weird survivor memories that aren’t or can’t be totally true because they’re exaggerated, self serving, or just misunderstandings. A third category called Elie Wiesel memory, which draws on the patois of the first kind of memory and the inaccuracies of the second to create a literary genre of memory. There are different normative pitfalls to each of the three memories. This is true even though all of them can be contrasted with “History.” Without being exhaustive of all normative issues, I think the normative pitfalls are distinct in each case.
    Liturgy suffers from the problem of ossification and translation. Its not readily assimilable to normative purposes without translation. This is why we don’t get really bloodthirsty around parshas Zachor. Because we need to transpose Amalek from one idiom to another to get Amalek= Ahmidinejad. And that work of transposition is also a work of mistranslation. If Amalek is Ahmi, then Amalek is Ahmidinejad outside of the rhythms of liturgical time in which Amalek is Amalek. Sadly, Ahmi never fully mythologizes himself into a live Amalek in the Torah. So we could have a Holocaustian liturgy of kinnot which are eventually as alive as the kinnot for the Jews of the Crusades. This is not to say that liturgical memory has no positive contributions to make to a normative project. But its not really the way to get people to do stuff. It might build group cohesion or help coordinate people’s actions (eg we all meet at shul on shavout and hatch a plan to kill Ahmi) but its not going to be a simple thing.
    (I am assuming prayer has no perlocutionary effects– however if it does its possible that reading the 13 attributes of mercy may lead to the deaths of the enemies of Israel or something. Which would be interesting to see.)
    The delicate and ever passing memories of survivors are harder for me to criticize. Its hard to say these lead to hate. After all, rational listeners can contextualize survivors words and realize that they are traumatized by terrible persecutions. I do not think the Manichean worldview which twinges the apocalyptic fringes of some Jews today comes from survivors at all. In fact, one could argue that the current obsession with 1939 comes from the children emigre writers who dodged the bullet of the Holocaust. Subsequently, they decided that they could have prevented it. There’s something like a fetishization of history that leads to its hypostatization in this move, where if only the right people would’ve been empowered at some cinematic and utterly decisive juncture, the whole thing would’ve happened differently. It reminds me of the ability to get a “do over” which was common to nintendo games of my youth. I guess the underpinnings of this fetishization of decisive historical moments stem from some ability to separate history into two discrete substances: the phenomenon of history itself, and the failed Labor party hacks who actually enacted that history, and then substitute the latter with heroic and farsighted experts in hindsight.
    Whatever the case may be, it seems like survivors testimonies form a living memory which is contextualized and domesticated by historians with utter regularity but which still has some power (often overrated) to connect people in mystical ways with past things. So what’s wrong with that? It doesn’t prevent genocide in Cambodia? OK. That’s because survivors were busy working in NJ real estate and didn’t have time to prevent genocide in Cambodia. Is the normative upshot of this that people who suffered genocide need to take the time and effort to prevent it in far flung corners of the world? That sounds like an awful lot of trouble for people who lost years of their lives fleeing genocide!
    I will not comment on the third genre of memory except to note that it seems to bear the brunt of the criticism here. Its unfortunate that one literary genre, through whatever accidental circumstances, became so popular. But again, its hard to see why this contains special normative value. The hunger games is about economic exploitation, but no one goes out to prevent economic exploitation or gladiator contests based on the hunger games. Similarly, the books of Wiesel deal with the holocaust. Sadly, they aren’t a panacea for preventing future holocausts.

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