Religion as a Chain of Memory – Daniele Hervieu-Leger

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?

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7 responses to “Religion as a Chain of Memory – Daniele Hervieu-Leger

  1. I can’t help but recall the comment by a former colleague with whom I was discussing Hervieu-Leger a few years ago (during the height of the second Intifada). ‘Chains of memory are lyrical and evocative,” he said, “but what are they doing blowing themselves up in shopping malls?”
    It’s kind of flip, I know, but his comment stayed with me for its pointing to a kind of aestheticization of all kinds of things that takes place in the polite forums of academic study of religion, not only of Islam, but Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and on (and admittedly, I’m sure I’m as guilty of that as anyone).

  2. Yehudah,
    Wouldn’t your comment apply equally well to Durkheim, Berger, or even Ader Hayakar?

  3. Good question – I don’t think it would apply to Durkheim, for whom the coercive sides of community are never far away. Berger I’m not sure. As for Rav Kook, yes it would apply to much of him, and we’re living with the consequences. Of course he was aware of the dark sides of things, and much more than we usually think, but there’s no denying the overwhelmingly optimistic tenor of his thought in the theologically key years of 1904-19, which certainly cast how he was read by Rav Zvi Yehudah et al.

  4. There is always the implication something wanting in constructed selected memories, because they generally serve some political/religious program. But I think the situation for the individual is different. The recent history of Jews has been so unsettled, so many people frum-from- birth are descended from parents of different backgrounds; add in the ideology imposed by the yeshivas and the exposure to secular culture in various degrees, and the formation of identities are no longer a natural process. We are not landed gentry or peasants with a settled way of life. How people grow up, how they put it all together is no simple matter. And whether the process is conscious or not, there isn’t much choice but to construct an identity. We can imagine the traditions of grandparents as say Oberlander and Russian, or Litvish and American Orthodox. No end to the possible complexities. Or try a chassidish elementary school, a charedi –American HS, a stay in the Mir Jerusalem and college, professional school and a job downtown. If Henry James could make a career of negotiating between American and English refined taste, how much more complex are the spaces between our post-Holocaust inherited traditions. And this process is ongoing. As we learn more, grow older it is natural to reshuffle the weights we have assigned to the various influences in our lives, as well as our opinions about others different from us. I realize part of being charedi is that identities are more preset, with fewer choices. But because of the narcissism of small differences I think the process today, even if attenuated, has similar experiential qualities. Everyone knows the absolute existential seriousness in choosing a hat, and the even more serious life choice of not wearing a hat. Sociologists might say these are mere markers defining the different communities, without inner religious substance. Maybe. But becoming an individual, finding one’s own way within an abundance of “shulchan aruchs” is a serious, deep part of life, even if one would not call this process religious. .

    • Have the times really changed that much? I’m not sure we aren’t just confined by modernism’s myopia. The Jewish experience is fractured to be sure (as always). A public discussion of return – as a revolt against the promises of assimilation with the inherent loss of identity in post-capitalist society, surely leads many to BT experiences and we bring with it a desire for a collective memory to merge with our individual/coerced memory of media. The new revolution might be tradition though a dialectical and materialist tradition to bridge our secular knowledge.

  5. Yehudah,
    What did you like about the book? How well do you think it applies to certain aspects of the modern Jewish experience?

  6. Collective memory is the felt experience of being part of the Jewish people, its history and destiny, and how one lives one’s life, structured identity. The re-establishment of a Jewish state, Jewish sovereignty is the political manifistation of the Jewish people which, along with the Ingathering to Eretz Yisrael heralds the Third Jewish Commonwealth. That archeologists find evidence of prior Jewish civilizations which document written texts strengthens the case for Jewish peoplehood and sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael. Collective memory from a Jewish perspective only has meaning in the context of committment to Jewish practice and Jewish learning.

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