I am in the midst of a short adult education series on the relationship of memory and these upcoming days. Rosh Hashanah is less than two weeks away.
‘When we say that a people remembers,’ wrote the great Jewish historian Yosef Yerushalmi in 1974, ‘we are really saying that a past has been actively transmitted to the present generation and that this past has been accepted as meaningful. Conversely, a people “forgets” when the generation that now possesses the past does not convey it to the next, or when the latter rejects what it receives and does not pass it onward, which is to say the same thing.’
Memory is about being in a chain of transmission, it is intrinsically connected to meaningfulness and committment. It’s a tremendously provocative, and persuasive, definition and it reminded me of one of my favourite ‘Louis’ stories. Our founder Rabbi, in his autobiography, wrote of his experiences at his first Yom Kippur at the smart and fancy New West End Synagogue, having just left the more Heimish surroundings of Golders Green. It is the eve of Yom Kippur and and Rabbi Jacobs and the third Lord such-and-such are chatting before the service began.
‘Time was pressing and I suggested that we go into the synagogue for Kol Nidre. The Lord replied that he did not want to enter the synagogue for a while and that he would explain why after the service. His explanation was that his grandfather, the first Lord, although a very observant Jew, did not hold with the Kol Nidre formula and used to wait patiently in the foyer until this part of the service was over. His son, the second Lord, less observant and a little indifferent to the whole question would still wait outside because his father had done so. The third Lord explained he personally didn’t understand what it was all about, but felt obliged to carry on the family tradition.’
Here is the question. Does the third Lord ‘remember?’ Is this a story of perpetuated memory or amnesia?
Part of the why I love this story so much is that it is clearly referring to one of the great Hasidic tales, one that ends Scholem’s masterful Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Here is that tale, as told by Scholem.
‘When the [founder of Chasidism] the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer and what he had set out to perform was done.
‘When, a generation later [his student] the Maggid was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say, ‘We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayer – and what he wanted done became reality.
‘Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said, ‘We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditation belonging the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs and that must be sufficient’ and sufficient it was.
‘But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he say down on his golden chair in his castle and said, ‘We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayer, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done.’’
A cliffhanger, again; is this memory or amnesia? The answer, like the fate of the Jewish people hangs by a hair’s breadth, as it always has done. ‘This is the position in which we find ourselves today,’ Scholem continues, ‘The story is not ended, it has not yet become history, and the secret life it holds can break out tomorrow in you or me.’ As we stand on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah I ask you to be open to secret life held within Judaism breaking out in you, like the Baal Shem’s fire. There are sparks and opportunities aplenty in these coming days to fuel a fire to burn through this time. Why not join me on Monday for the second, and concluding part of our journey into Jewish memory? After all you are already up-to-speed with where we got to last week.