Yerushalmi tells us that Jewish history was not written from the time that the Bible was canonized until the emergence of the Wissenschaft school in the mid-19th century Germany.
It is not that Jewish scholars were not interested in the past. They were! Indeed, the injunction “Zakhor” (Remember) has always been a Jewish preoccupation. Yet, the rabbis did not write “history” in the ways that we—in our class, and in the American academy--think of history. Yerushalmi tells us that they spoke and wrote of events in the past, but did not see it necessary to narrate those stories in chronological sequence. Instead, they played with Time, “as though with an accordion, expanding and collapsing it at will” (p.17). (Remember Moses’ presence in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom). And in cases when the rabbis did tell of the past in chronological sequence – the particularities of the events under discussion did not hold importance.
Here is an essay a university student today might be asked to address: Describe the economic, political and cultural events that led to the vanquish of Jewish independence in 586 BCE (at the hands of the Babylonians) and in 70 CE (at the hands of the Romans). How do they compare?
For the rabbis, these socio-political details were of no interest. The two events were both commemorated on the 9th day of Av, and it was the moral messages--which can be read as one and the same for both events--which were seen as most relevant.
Rabbi Nahman (whose words were preserved in the seventh-century text Vayikra Rabba) took this same approach in his interpretation of Jacob’s dream. The angles who appeared in the dream were the rulers of various kingdoms: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Just as each rose up and came to rule over the Jews, each eventually came down. Fear thou no, O Jacob my servant, God told the patriarch upon his awakening (p.22). This message continued to resonate for Jews across the generations – Yerushalmi tells us. The particular socio-political causes for rise and fall of each kingdom were of no interest to the rabbis. Each historical epoch was collapsed into the previous. Indeed all the eras bled into a single story, embedded within the Biblical narrative itself.
Moving forward in time – from the Rabbinic period to the Middle Ages—Yerushalmi contends that Jews still did not write “history” the way we know it today.
He points to several works which people have argued are “histories” but he discredits each one. The works, for example, that provided a chronological survey of the transmission of rabbinic law are not really, “histories.” Why? Because they “did not come into being out of a desire to write or interpret the history of the Jewish people.” Rather, they were composed as a means to “refute those heretics from within and adversaries from without who denied the validity of the Oral Law.” (p.32) In other words, they are not really “histories” because they are polemical in nature, written with particular agendas in mind.
I think this is where Yerushalmi’s argument begins to get murky. He is suggesting, that there is such as thing as “pure” “unadulterated” history, which is motivated only by the desire to reconstruct the past, nothing more.
In contrast to history stands “memory.” If history is un-invested, dispassionate, and purely intellectually motivated; memory is the opposite. It is invested and emotional. It is evoked through experience – through the foods eaten at the Passover seder, through the mournful chanting of Lamentations on the 9th of Av, through the act of sitting in huts on Sukkot.
I do not believe the divide between history and memory is as strong as Yerushalmi suggests. Indeed, the Me’ah classroom defies this strict dichotomy. We study in an intellectual fashion, reading works produced in the American academy. Yet, we also learn and discuss together in the synagogue, and as a community. We analyze, but we also sing. In the space where we gather, there is room for both of these ways of engaging with the past.
At the end of his book, Yerushalmi mourns the erosion of Jewish group memory. Prior to the modern era, Jews constituted a cohesive community, knit together through their shared faith and through “an entire complex of interlocking social and religious institutions.” Bound together, they were able to transmit a common collective memory from one generation to the next.
This transmission eroded in the modern era. And now, who can step in to repair the breach?—he asks. Not the historian. She cannot heal the wounds that have been left in the wake of the rupture of community, faith and memory. Jews today who are in search of a past “patently do not want the past” that the historian offers - Yerushalmi explains.
So what is the solution? Is there any way in which the study of the past amongst those who have “fallen” out from under Judaism’s collective sacred canopy can serve as a comfort or a salve? Sadly, Yerushalmi tells us that he has no “catalogue of remedies.” Perhaps he would have been pleased, though, to come upon a Me’ah classroom; a place in which we build community in the present through the common study of the past.