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.