Memory and Redemption
‘An object of history is that through which knowledge is constituted as the object’s rescue’
‘the living’are obliged to prepare a banquet for the past. The historian is the herald who invites the dead to the table’ Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Konvolut N
There is a well known teaching that appears several times in the Talmud and Midrash (JT Yoma 1:1, Yalkut Tehillim 886), which states that ‘any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt, it is considered as if that generation had itself destroyed the Temple’. Certainly this would seem to be a rather severe judgement, for as the Sefat Emet points out, many generations containing many great and righteous people have passed without the Temple being rebuilt, and it would be fairly extreme to say of them that they had personally destroyed the Temple. Actually, it would be fairly harsh to say of any innocent people that they had committed crimes of such magnitude in a reckoning of a non-event, that is, in the Temple not being rebuilt. Thus, the question for us, is whether there is some other way to understand this teaching, that might perhaps give a whole new way of looking at the Jewish tradition of historical mourning?
To some extent, this question is provoked by some of the more standard approaches found in some Jewish popluarl writings. For example, in this week’s LA Jewish Journal, a Rabbi affiliated with one of the ‘outreach’ programs writes:
The fact that Tisha B’Av falls in the summer is not just a stroke of bad luck. Gd deliberately destroyed the Temple in the summer. Summer, when the world is outside their closed homes and offices, taking vacations, having fun. Summer, when there is the greatest propensity for calamity, because of our carefree attitudes’
In other words, Tisha B’Av is not about remembering the trauma of war and destruction, not about the huge number of people murdered by an invading empire (some scholars estimate the number of dead during the second Temple destruction at about one million dead), not about human suffering at all, rather it serves the purpose, as, in this argument, does all religious practice, of being a divinely inspired ‘bummer’, to prevent you from having too much ‘fun’, ‘fun’ being obviously be a pretty bad thing if Gd needs to make orphans of so many children just to be a killjoy. Thus, we can say that the answer to the questions of our relation to the history of human suffering is not to be found in this approach.
An answer to our initial Midrashic question is proposed by the Sefat Emet, and answer that fits well into an approach to history in general presented by an almost Hasidic thinker, who was himself in the end a victim of the same class of tragedy commemorated by Tisha B’Av, Walter Benjamin. The Sefat Emet proposes that verb ‘rebuilt’ in the original quotation is not a one time affair. The rebuilding of the Temple, as it were, is a continuous process that transcends any one generation. Rather, he states:
‘The merit of each generation adds a bit of building to the rebuilding of the Temple, and this building continues for all the years of the diaspora, as the prayer states, ‘who rebuilds Jerusalem’ (in the Hebrew the verb is in the present tense).
Thus, there is some contribution by every generation, and as the Sefat Emet himself extends the reading, there is a brick in the wall contributed by every individual.
We can universalize this teaching, with the help of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, argues that the role of history is one of rescue, where the injustice perpetuated on the victims of history can be identified, learned from, and thus prevented in the present and future, thus serving as a kind of redemption of the past. The victims ‘have a retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers’. His approach to history
‘wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger… the Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins’
In summary, the goal of history, or for our purposes, the commemoration of historical events as a praxis, is meant to give meaning to, to rescue and redeem, the hopes and dreams of those who were trampled by the victorious, those ruling classes who are also those who generally get to write the ‘standard’ histories. By remembering and commemorating them, we are ‘endowed with a weak messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim’.
Returning to the teaching of the Sefat Emet, we learn that the rebuilding of the Temple cannot occur without the memory of all those generations who came before. Not just in terms of suffering, but each individual contribution in the varieties of yearning, to dreams more or less realized, all striving for justice, for a better life, for greater meaning- the memories of these are the individual bricks that make up the Rebuilt Temple. The rebuilding of the temple is not an erasure of all that came before, rather, it is its commemoration. Any generation that denies or ignores these cries from the past, thus, can be said to be like one who destroys the Temple. As per Benjamin:
‘For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably’.
Applying this reading to other texts dealing with the destruction of the Temple and its rebuilding, we may derive a whole new set of meanings. The Midrash Tanhuma (Nitzavim 61) states that redemption depends upon all of Israel being one ‘agudah’, being tied together; I would argue that this means all of Israel, past and present, tied by memory. The Yalkut (Tehillim 888) states that there is no redemption without the ‘ingathering of all the diasporas’; the term used is ‘galuyot’ rather than ‘golim’ which implies the places of diaspora rather than simply the people themselves arriving. We can suggest that the mention of diasporas as such in this context means to celebrate the diversity that is brought by all the forms of Jewish existence throughout the history in all the various places that such life was attempted; the different songs and forms of worship that were created by men and women throughout time and across cultures. These are the building materials out of which the Temple is rebuilt. Even the well known teaching, found in BT Megilla 15. which states ‘one who cites a teaching in the name of the one who taught it brings redemption to the world’ makes sense in this context, for it is the recollection of the spiritual moment of someone in the past that is, as we’ve seen, redemptive.
As an added support for this reading, I found in the Yismach Yisrael’s commentary on the Passover Hagadah, that he reads the daily prayer (found in the daily Amida, the silent prayer) of ‘gather up the diasporas’ as:
gather up all the exiles and iniquities that have been effected on your people (through all time) and have mercy upon us.
We may argue, that the consciousness of the consequences of human suffering throughout the ages may in fact lead to mercy upon ourselves and the others with whom we interact, and may that form of redemption come without any further delay