Spiritual Amnesia and the Jewish People
In the movie Memento, Lenny struggles with a condition that severely affects his memory. As the result of a traumatic event, Lenny does not have the ability to make new memories—he can begin a conversation only to forget what he is saying and who he is talking to ten minutes later. The film is a powerful reminder of how valuable memory is.
Our memory and our memories are precious to us. Consider the things we do (and the money we spend) in order to remember things we deem important. For instance, on an overseas trip, a typical tourist shoots three rolls of film each day in an effort to capture priceless memories in pictures. The shelves at our local grocery stores are stocked with memory blaster” bars and tea containing gengko biloba. To remind themselves of responsibilities, people used to tie strings around their fingers. Today we have fancy planners and PDAs that help remind us of important tasks and events…as long as we remember to look at the PDA!
People actively pursue the things they want to remember, and expect others to do the same. Excuses don’t cut it if you forget an important business meeting, or your anniversary, or the birthday of someone you love. The more important an assignment or occasion, the greater effort we need to make to remember it.
Yet, as much as our ability to remember tasks, events, and dates is helped by tea or technology, these things are not helpful tools for jogging our spiritual memory. A spiritual memory can only be exercised when someone considers spiritual matters to be relevant. These days, many cannot be bothered to think about spiritual things; many people seem to consider such subjects relatively unimportant to their daily routine.
As Jewish people, have we adopted this mindset, or is our spiritual memory intact? In a recent article titled “Jewish Amnesia,” Rabbi Berel Wein comments on the condition of our collective memory:
The Jewish people…always prided themselves on their acute sense of memory.…With such exacting memory we have…recalled the people who populated the generations of Israel, the great heroes and the despised villains, as well as the historical events of the time.
This sense of memory was based on the obligation of one generation to transmit not only its accumulated knowledge to the next generation, but more importantly, to transmit to future generations the very power of memory itself.…But something happened to us on the way to the modern world. A large section of the Jewish people developed a severe case of amnesia. The transmission of memory from one generation to the next was interrupted. In 19th century Europe, the Enlightenment destroyed all memory of the “old Jew” and replaced it with the “new Jew.” The “new Jew” was to be modern and strong and self-reliant. He was also to be atheistic, non-observant of Jewish tradition and lifestyle, and without any sense of long-term memory. His memory span reached backed to 1897 or 1948 or 1967 or only to 1994.…The “new Jew” travels to Nepal to find spirituality, in an attempt to replace the old memories. Such are the rewards of enforced amnesia.1
Rabbi Wein sees a link between our “amnesia” and present concerns regarding the assimilation and spiritual apathy of our people. He is not alone. An amplification of his diagnosis is seen in books such as Alan Dershowitz’s The Vanishing American Jew and Samuel Freedman’s Jew vs. Jew, which earnestly agonize over the present state as well as the fate of a Jewish population that is becoming increasingly oriented toward valuing their individual interests over their collective identity.
For Jewish people today, concepts such as the “chosenness” or “separateness” of our people have taken a backseat to protecting ideas like pluralism and diversity. The increasing number of Jewish people who are choosing to adopt other faiths such as Buddhism, New Age mysticism or Taoism, is evidence of this. Even more common are instances of Jewish people abandoning religion altogether for a “Jewish experience” that resembles Judaism in some cultural form, but is apathetic toward faith. God is relegated to the status of an ancient idea that has no relevance for us now.
Elliott Abrams points out, “It is now clear that it is not possible to transmit this irreligious Jewishness successfully, as the Hebrew prayers have it, l’dor vador—from one generation to the next.”2 Lisa Schiffman’s recently published musings and memoirs of her Jewish upbringing substantiate Abrams’ conclusion. The 35-year-old author summarizes the Jewish experience common to many in her generation. She begins her book, Generation J, by saying, “I hadn’t a clue about what it meant to be a Jew. I was lost, a Jew without a path…” and continues,
We were a generation of Jews who’d grown up on television, with Barbie, with rhinoplasty as a way of life. Assimilation wasn’t something we strove for; it was the condition into which we were born.3
Schiffman, Abrams and Wein are not the first to call our attention to the detachment of many of today’s Jews from our ancestors, or the spiritual vacuum that such a disconnection has created. We are frequently confronted with intermarriage statistics, information about the lack of Jewish education our children receive and studies that show more and more Jews are abandoning the synagogue—data that cause many to think that the physical and spiritual future of our people is uncertain at best.
In Memento we watch as Lenny eventually chooses to embrace his memory impairment, which leads him down a destructive path. Instead of trying to overcome his memory disorder, he gives in and opts for a life of distorted recollection and delusion. He abandons his life before the incident that caused his affliction, only to wander into a nebulous future, directionless and hopeless. Likewise, many today seem willing to accept our severance from our spiritual roots. There are those who fear that by allowing this memory loss, Judaism will similarly become a shadow of her former self. Daniel Gordis writes:
Ours is the first generation in which huge numbers of Jews left the world of Jewish life without even giving it much thought, lured away by the currents of a culture that makes Judaism seem of little consequence.…We have no clear conception of what might be special or important about our culture, our religion or our way of life. We have no clue as to why we matter.4
Must we resign ourselves to the spiritual vacuum that our amnesia has created? Or is there a way to overcome spiritual amnesia, assimilation and apathy? In order to answer these questions, we must realize that, contrary to what Rabbi Wein stated, our amnesia is not the direct result of modernism. Spiritual amnesia began way before the Enlightenment. In fact, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, this memory disorder has plagued our people for several millennia. Recognizing this will hopefully give us some perspective on how to remedy the problem.
A HISTORY OF MEMORY LOSS
The first person to warn us about the potential problem of “spiritual amnesia” was Moses. As the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses reminded them of all the Lord had done for them—bringing them out of Egypt, protecting them in the wilderness, giving them his law—and in light of where the people had been and where they were heading, Moses cautioned them:
…do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.…Be careful not to forget the covenant of the LORD your God that he made with you.…After you have had children and grandchildren and have lived in the land a long time—if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God and provoking him to anger, I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you this day that you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.
(Deuteronomy 4:9, 23-31, emphasis added)
Moses did not merely suggest that the people recall their Lord and his commandments. He was making a positive statement, giving an active command: Zachor (Remember)!
Moses had good reason to remind Israel to remember. Several events that took place in the wilderness evidenced that Israel was susceptible to forgetfulness. Perhaps the most grievous instance of poor memory was the incident with the golden calf.
While Moses was away on the mountain with the Lord, receiving his instruction for the assembly, the people turned to his brother Aaron, saying that they did not know where Moses was or if he would return. They demanded that Aaron make for them a golden god like the Egyptians worshiped. Moses vividly recounts how he came down from the mountain carrying the tablets of the Lord’s covenant with him, only to find that the Israelites had already forgotten their God and made an idol (Deuteronomy 9:7-27). It had only taken 40 days for Israel to forget that it was God who led them out of bondage.
If only the Israelites had recalled the awesome way in which the Lord led them out of Egypt, they would have trusted that Moses would return. But their short-term memory loss kept them from having faith, and it kept them from responding in gratitude rather than grumbling. Thus began a turbulent relationship between our people and our God.
Moses’ warnings against spiritual amnesia echo throughout the Tanakh in the constant refrain of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Ezekiel, as they frequently tell Israel what will happen to her as a result of her forgetfulness. In fact, the entire Hebrew Scriptures can be seen as a pattern: the Lord performs wonders for Israel, Israel is thankful for a time, but then she forgets, falls away and worships other gods; the Lord gets angry at her and punishes her, but he doesn’t destroy her. This cycle of events repeats over and over again, making the reader wonder why the people didn’t just listen the first time?
Yet, it seems as though we have inherited this memory impairment from our ancestors. During the wilderness experience, the Israelites often complained to Moses. Instead of saying, “God is saving us,” they said, in effect, “You’re killing us!” They forgot that the God who had delivered them from Egypt was still with them. Like them, we also tend to ask where God is in this situation and that situation. We perceive that God is absent, perhaps because we don’t choose to remember his presence. We indulge our “selective memories”; our minds easily recall the bad things that have happened to us, but we neglect to remember the many ways in which God has been with us and spared us from complete destruction over the span of four millennia. Once again we find ourselves in a cycle of forgetfulness.
BREAKING THE CYCLE: THE REMEDY OF REMEMBRANCE
According to our Scripture, forgetting our past has negative consequences, not just for us, but also for future generations. Our ancestors’ poor memory of God’s protection and provision in the past caused them to have a distorted perspective of the present, and it caused them and their children to miss out on the blessings of God. If we could only remember the multitude of ways in which God has reached out to us, we would feel a connection to him, and to each other.
So to ask if there is hope for those who are despondent about the current and future states of Jewish people, is to ask, Is there a cure for our spiritual amnesia? Normally, to cure amnesia, doctors attempt to establish associations or connections with the past, usually by repetitive suggestion. The same should be done in our case.
Baruch Spinoza said, “If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past.” Our ancestors painstakingly recorded our history, all of it, the good the bad and the ugly, so we could understand our past and prepare for the future. Yet, few look to the Hebrew Scriptures for answers to their questions about their identity. Generation J author Lisa Schiffman tried to connect with her Jewish heritage. She immersed herself in a mikvah, visited a humanistic Judaism holiday service, and tried fasting on Yom Kippur, but the one thing she didn’t choose to do as part of her search was to read the Bible. How can we ignore a book that is so central to our identity, a book that has safeguarded the memory of our people for thousands of years?
Michael Medved, national film critic, once said, “Eating bagels and watching Woody Allen movies won’t insure the future of Judaism, but studying Torah can.”5 When we turn to our Scriptures, we see that our people have made mistakes, and that we share in the consequences of those mistakes. But we also see how God has continually delivered, protected and loved his people. The Bible gives us a context, a frame of reference in which we see ourselves at the core of the heart of the Creator of the universe. The Bible gives us the most compelling motivation to treat our amnesia.
The Scriptures remind us that we are a people with a purpose. God made a covenant with Abraham, saying, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God later elaborated on this covenant, promising to make us a “kingdom of priests” and a “light to the nations” (Exodus 19:6; Isaiah 60:3). We were called out from among the nations to bring the knowledge of the one true God to the rest of the world. In return, we would receive his blessing.
God has not forgotten this covenant he made with us. He confirms this over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures:
But if…you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the LORD your God and obey him. For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath.
Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.
Even though we have repeatedly turned our backs on God, he loves us, and still wants us to be his ambassadors to the rest of the world. But we cannot fulfill this destiny unless we turn back to our God and turn back to our Scriptures. How can we share God with others until we remember him ourselves?
As we see in our Scriptures, the good news is that even though our memories fail us and we fail to remember, God’s memory is perfect. When we remember him and return to him, we can expect him to remember all of the promises he made to us.
In the Tanakh, when people wanted to reconcile with God, they received his forgiveness when they approached him with a contrite heart and made sacrifices to atone for their sins. But even as God instituted this means of atonement, he also promised to send a redeemer whose sacrifice would reconcile a forgetful people to their God if only they would accept him. Two thousand years ago, right before the Temple was destroyed (and the means for observing the sacrificial system with it), God, faithful to the promise he made to send a Redeemer to Zion (Isaiah 59:20), sent to our world one who would die as the perfect sacrifice for our sin.
…God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, [Messiah] died for us. (Romans 5:8)
That Messiah is Yeshua (Jesus). Through him, our sins can be forgiven. Those of us who believe in him do so because we remember the prophecies that were made about his coming. Yeshua is the ultimate reminder that God is faithful to his promises, and to us. His death and resurrection are meant to be a sign to the whole world that ours is the one true God. Who better to carry the message that the Messiah has come than us, the Jewish people?
It’s not too late to reverse the effects of amnesia and rediscover the plans God has for us. In some cases, this will require a re-learning of our history, and re-examining of the promises God made and fulfilled. But, in light of what is at stake, is this not worth doing?
1. “Jewish Amnesia” by Berel Wein Web Site
2. Elliott Abrams, “Can Jews Survive?” National Review, 19 May 1997, p. 38.
3. Schiffman, Lisa. Generation J. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999, p. 6.
4. Gordis, Daniel. Does the World Need the Jews? New York: Scribner, 1997, p. 23.
5. Natalie Weinstein, “Stop Worrying about Christian right, movie critic says.” Northern California Jewish Bulletin, 13 January 1995.