Related to language is the wider issue of memory, which Judaism traditionally emphasizes very strongly. Starting with the Torah text, we are continually enjoined to remember many different things that are seen as relevant to the collective identity of the Jewish people. We must remember that we were slaves in Egypt; we must remember the Shabbat to keep it holy; we must remember our enemies as exemplified by Amalek. Our history is studded with fast days and feast days that are meant to recall for us long distant events both positive and negative. Almost all of our festivals have a historical aspect that we are commanded to recall. Our very liturgy is full of phrases calculated to remind us of a host of different things, including the fact that the Jews’ true land is Eretz Israel rather than the Diaspora lands in which we have so often lived.
The emphasis on historical memory is understandable, for without it a people is doomed to live only in the present. Without memory indeed a people can hardly be a people because, if there is little understanding of a collective’s common roots in the past, there can hardly be a meaningful communal consciousness.
If this is true of a people living in a particular locality, how much more is it true of a people like the Jews who, for most of their history, have been scattered throughout the world, divided into many different groups, without even a common locality to give them a sense of connection. If the Jews throughout the world had no consciousness of a common history that united them, would they be able to feel that they were in any way part of a single group?
Jews have been living in Eastern Europe for six or seven hundred years and in Yemen, for thousands of years. There has been virtually no cultural contact between the two groups. The experiences that each has gone through over those long centuries have been so different that they may consider themselves to have very little in common with each other. Their separation has been so complete that they have even lost whatever physical resemblance (body type, skin colour, facial features) that they might once have possessed. If they have anything that can possibly provide them with a sense of commonalty and common fate, memory seems to be the key. Without a consciousness in both groups of such stories as the deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the Torah and the ancient temples, would they have anything at all in common?
A central question for Jews today is this: in a world in which so many people (especially, but by no means exclusively, the younger generation) live very largely in the present, how capable are we of feeling a common bond with Jews in other countries? Is common memory indeed such an important factor in the development of a mutual connection?
Addressing the assimilated Jewish population in Germany, the great Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, once suggested that memory was a key to a Jew’s in the modern world:
The child, discovering his or her identity, comes to know that he or she is limited in space: the adult, that he or she is unlimited in time. As we discover our identity, our desire for eternity guides our range of vision beyond the span of our own life. Stirred by the awesomeness of eternity, we feel within ourselves the existence of something enduring. We experience it still more keenly, when we envision the line of mothers and father that have led up to us…The People are for us a community of people who were, are and will be a community of the dead, the living and the yet unborn - who, together constitute a unity.
It is this unity that to young people is the foundation of their identity, this identity which is fitted as a link into the great chain. Whatever all the people in this chain have created and will create, they conceive to be the work of their own particular being. Whatever they have experienced and will experience the individual conceives to be his or her own destiny. The past of the People is her or his personal memory, the future of the People his or her personal task. The way of the People is the basis of our understanding of ourselves.
When out of our deepest self-knowledge we have thus affirmed ourselves, when we have said ‘yes’ to ourselves and to our whole Jewish existence, then our feelings will no longer be the feelings of individuals. Every one of us will feel that we are the people, for we will feel the People within ourselves.
Let us now examine the issue of collective Jewish memory.