This has been the season of remembrances. Twice in the past few weeks we have recited the Yizkor prayer in the synagogue in memory of relatives and friends no longer with us. And throughout the holy days the liturgy concentrated on our need — and God’s — to remember. We remembered our deeds, prayed for forgiveness and hoped for God’s selective memory to see the good in us and not the bad.
Memory is at the core of Jewish tradition. In his classic book, “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory,” the late, great scholar, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, argues that only in Judaism is the injunction to remember a religious imperative for an entire people. The verb “zakhor,” remembered, appears in the Bible 169 times, he points out, usually with God or Israel as its subject. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” we are commanded. Or, “Remember what Amalek did to you.” Or, time and again, “Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” As Jews we remember, therefore we are.
Remembering how badly we were treated as strangers in Egypt, we learn to treat others with kindness; remembering events at Sinai, we are able to transmit our history and beliefs from generation to generation.
In Jewish life, we keep our history and memory alive by re-reading our sacred texts over and over. On Simchat Torah, we completed the book of Deuteronomy and instantly began the book of Genesis again. We also keep memory vital by re-enacting our history. We don’t simply speak about the life our ancestors led in the wilderness, we relive it, as we did these past weeks, by eating and sleeping in sukkahs, symbolic of the fragile structures that sheltered them.
But here’s a question: are there times in our history when we need to move beyond memory? Or, put another way, how do we balance memory with reality? One of the key “commandments” of contemporary life has been to remember what Germany did to our people in the 20th century. “Never forget” is a slogan we have taken seriously, building holocaust memorials, teaching the history of that horrific period in our Jewish schools and insisting that it be included in public education as well. Thousands of memoirs by Holocaust survivors have been published and their oral histories have been recorded and stored.
Yet not long after that most brutal event, Jews, like other people, began to accommodate to a post-war Germany. In Israel, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to accept reparations from the West German government in 1952, just seven years after the end of the Second World War. The battle that exploded over that agreement almost split the country, with opposition leader Menachem Begin organizing a violent demonstration against it. Yet reality — Israel desperately needed the money — won out over memory, as it did some eight years later when Ben-Gurion began buying weapons from West German’s Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and later established diplomatic relations between the two countries.
This was a “different” Germany, Ben-Gurion insisted, not the nation of murderers the Nazis had created. Although the Holocaust must never be forgotten, he said, there were occasions when one needed to “uproot” old feelings and “look to the future.”
The future transformed Germany into one of Israel’s best friends. Ashamed of their past, new generations of Germans have stood by Israel even when other countries have not. Yet there are moments when memory suddenly jostles that good image. Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre, when Palestinian terrorists murdered Israel’s athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich. Newly released documents from the Israeli state archives show Israel’s intelligence chief at the time decrying the laxity of the German police in dealing with the terrorists. “The Germans place no value on human life,” he said. Such information instantly hurls Jewish thoughts back into that country’s dark history and unsettles our confidence in its friendship.
Very recently, the outcry in Germany against circumcision and vociferous calls to ban it as harmful to infants have stirred dreadful memories of the days when Jewish men trying to escape the Nazis were quickly identified by their circumcisions and sent off to death camps. The government has prevented any circumcision ban from taking place, but for many of us, German hostility toward this ritual evokes bitter associations.
To be sure, it is unfair to judge today’s Germany by the past. Young Germans cannot be held responsible for their grandparents or great grandparents’ behavior. Here, as in other situations, we need to balance remembering with reality. Yet, Jewish memory is long and deep, lying as it does at the heart of our tradition. And if, in remembering, we find ourselves forced to remain vigilant even under the best of circumstances, well, that’s not such a bad thing.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.