“Zakhor” by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi— Jewish Memory and Historiography

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory”,  University of Washington Press, 1996 reissue. Jewish Memory and Historiography Amos Lassen “Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi wrote “Zakhor” in  an it is a brilliant and fundamentally new appraisal of collective Jewish historical memory and opens up new horizons of thinking. While this is not an easy read, it is informative and beautifully written. “Zakhor” presents some obvious conclusions about the role of history in Jewish collective life. Yerushalmi explains that the Jewish people never produced history like the Greeks did and that the bible, although treated as a “history” of both the world and the Jews, really has no resemblance or similarity to the ancient conception of history. The teachers and leaders who created Rabbinical Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in the first century did not have an interest in history. They referenced life in the Roman world, but only in the context of explaining points of Jewish law. There was a brief time in Spain during the Middle Ages when Jews produced what could be called history, but it was short and fleeting. It was not until the early 19th century that Then, Jewish scholars turned a critical eyes upon Jewish history.

This work has four major chapters each of which deals with a certain period of Jewish history, and its approach to Jewish memory. Yerushalmi begins with an exploration of the biblical and rabbinic foundations for writing history and remembering it. At this stage, the process of remembering is connected with the recording of, and participation in history.

In the second phase of the Middle Ages Yerushalmi outlines the major division which dominates the work, between processes of collective memorization through ritual and religious practice which are not connected with everyday historical happening and between the writing of history which is connected with historical happening. Yerushalmi says that from the time of the fall of the Second Temple and most especially in this period of the Middle Ages, the Jews remember without remembering historical events. Collective remembrance (which he says distinguishes the Jewish Religion) is done without writing the history of the people. The history of the people is avoided.  Rambam saw the writing of history as a low form of intellectual endeavor. The process of collective remembering is done through the living of the Jewish holidays each of which connects to historical memory. The third period comes immediately after the expulsion from Spain at the beginning of the sixteenth century and there is a return to looking at the actual events of contemporary history but this by framing them in world- historical narratives. The modern period ushers in a return to attending to the events of Jewish history. Here the writing of history or ‘historiography’ becomes a subject of Jewish interest as the Jews are move away from being a ‘faith- community’ in the fullest sense of the word.

Yerushalmi looks at the very interesting question of the way different kinds of Jews today construct different kinds of narratives of Jewish history as a whole. He argues that what has been understood as history in Jewish circles from the Biblical era until fairly recent times is considerably different than what the modern reader might expect in light of the importance of and emphasis placed on memory. Until recently there was a general lack of interest in historical events that were disconnected to the theological concerns of the Jewish community and writing history during the Middles Ages was seen as a “Christian” custom.

The seeming disconnect between memory, history, and histography is surprising since our Bible  commands us to remember. For Yerushalmi, the principal goal of remembering is to understand the relationship of Jews to their past and the place of the historian in that relationship. Yerushalmi claims that Jewish memory is selective and rulers and great events do not necessarily merit attention. This stands simultaneously with so much of the Biblical text that focuses on none other than great events and great individuals presented in historical narratives.
Yerushalmi feels that the nature of Judaism’s uneasy relationship with history is further seen by an almost wholesale dismissal of historical works after the writing of Josephus’ Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities at the end of the 1st century of the Common Era. Yet here Yerushalmi does not address the very process of canon formation which in part might explain the why certain historical events are retained as the sacred texts of Israel.
Yerushalmi sees the delineation between meaning in history, memory of the past, and the writing of history as the most important aspects of our history and this is in contrast to the Greeks who were inspired to “know” if for nothing else out of curiosity. Our bible establishes the religious imperative of remembering to the entire Jewish community and this is the most important contribution of Yerushalmi’s work

Leave a Reply