Reflecting on Yom Ha-Shoah 2016

Yom Ha-Shoah began yesterday evening and runs through this evening. I’m not going to brief you on what Yom Ha-Shoah is. You can get that, among other places, here.

Of more concern to me is how we talk about it now.

A while back, I observed that Koren Publishers, which is more or less a Modern Orthodox-aligned company, uses a banner in its Yom Ha-Shoah marketing that I found particularly worrying. The banner includes the following graphic (this is from two years ago, but I received an email ad from Koren only a few days ago, and it used the same image):

Koren Publishers - Amalek image

The Hebrew above reads, zakhor et asher-asah l’kha Amalek–“remember what Amalek did to you.” The Bible presents Amalek as the most dire of the Israelites’ opponents–a people whom the Israelites are commanded to annihilate. Failing to kill Agag, the Amalekite king, is the last straw for King Saul in I Samuel: the story of the witch at En-Dor, where Saul drags Samuel’s spirit back from Sheol, relates that it is because Saul failed to annihilate Amalek that Saul’s rule would soon end.

I’m still as bothered by this identification of…well, who, exactly?…with Amalek. It’s not clear who is being identified as Amalek: Germans? All Germans? Some Germans? All Nazis? All perpetrators in all countries? The heirs of the perpetrators, physical or spiritual? (Even if it’s all perpetrators, the perpetrator label is subject these days to an awful lot of debate and slippage.)

Are we only supposed to remember? Or are we supposed to do something?

Not much of this is different from my post two years ago about Koren’s banner. I was dismayed then, as now, with the human implications of tagging anyone alive with the Amalek label. But I think I appreciate better now what it is we ought to do instead.

The historian Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi used the word zakhor as the title of his book by that name. Yerushalmi’s book explores the history of Jewish interaction with historiography. He notes that, in Jewish life, there’s very little real effort at writing history until the 1800s with the advent of the Wissenschaft des Judentums–the scientific study of Judaism. Communities that produced what were apparently historical writings more often than not used fixed tropes. For example, a community that celebrated deliverance from an anti-Jewish mob or that survived some episode of persecution might record that in a scroll that largely paralleled the Book of Esther. This isn’t true historiography or an effort to remember what “really” happened; it is myth-making and partaking in established myths. (A contemporary example of this kind of myth-making is the production of biographies of prominent rabbis that are sold as children’s books aimed at Haredi children; the lives of these rabbis are strikingly similar in some ways.)

Yerushalmi’s observation is that for a tradition that insists upon memory and remembering, Judaism has spent an awful lot of energy remembering incorrectly. An interesting thing about this process of partaking in the myths by applying them to contemporary events is that–as we see with Koren’s banner for Yom Ha-Shoah–Jewish communities engage in this process even with events in their own time. This is a fascinating phenomenon, when one thinks about it: the mythical framework is laid overtop historical events, and the true facts of the events gives way to the myth. We know that the Nazis, or all perpetrators, or…whoever…is not Amalek; but the role of Amalek is assigned to those who are not Amalek, the facts notwithstanding.

We read Zakhor in the IISHJ rabbinic program when we study modern Jewish history, and observe that Humanistic Jews generally take the side of history. Rather than identify present events (or any historical events) with established myths as a form of remembering, we instead err on the side of historical fact.

I’m not sure this helps us much. I don’t think history “repeats itself,” or that it necessarily provides “lessons.” But I don’t think that Humanistic Jews can’t also employ the events of Jewish history to engage in our own myth-making.

Humanistic Jews will not, then, view with urgency the biblical instruction to remember what Amalek did when the Israelites fled Egypt–not least because there’s really no physical evidence to support an Exodus having occurred, which complicates both Passover and the Amalek story. But the Tanakh is our book, too, and we can participate in the myth differently.

Jewish life is replete with injunctions to remember: we can remember differently.

We can remember that in most generations, Jews have had enemies. We can remember that we suffered at their hands. And in remembering, we can strive to live up to our values–our concern for the reality of history, of course, but also our concern for truly valuing the other.

Truly valuing the other may mean remembering the suffering inflicted upon us by those labeled as Amalek–but it requires that we not impose needless suffering ourselves.

What does it mean for a Secular Humanistic Jew to remember what “Amalek” did? It means recognizing a past replete with–but not solely composed of–persecution, and learning better values from that past than revenge.

Why? Because those who have persecuted us are not Amalek. And even if they were, taking seriously the notion of annihilating an entire people is a vile affront to our values.

If there’s a lesson to Yom Ha-Shoah–a myth of Jewish history to be remembered, in the spirit of the biblical injunction, zakhor–let it be that.