In a wide ranging discussion, Bill Moyers talks with Jewish historian Yosef Yerushalmi about the Jewish people and their perception of history.
BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers and this is a special edition of Heritage. You’ll meet a man whose life and mind testify to the power of living past to ask questions we cannot escape today. His name is Yerushalmi; his mission is to remember.
BILL MOYERS: It is written in the eights verse of the eighth chapter of Job: For inquire, I pray thee, of the former generation. And apply thyself to that which their fathers have searched out — For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, Because our days on earth are a shadow — Shall not they teach thee, and tell thee, And utter words out of their heart?
In the thirty-second verse of the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, is it written: For ask now of the days past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from one end of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it?
The Hebrew word Zakhor -“Remember” -appears in the Bible, in one form or another, no less than one hundred and sixty-nine times. Zakhor, the Biblical command to remember, is at the heart of the Jewish experience, and one powerful reason for the survival of the Jewish people. It is both the title and subject of this important book by the scholar Yosef Yerushalmi. Dr. Yerushalmi is professor of Jewish history, culture and society, and Director of the Center for Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University. We talked in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.[interviewing] What was, historically, the significance to Jewish history of the scriptural command to remember?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: I think that that Biblical command to remember is one of the crucial commandments. Certainly as crucial in its own way as the Ten Commandments and the Decalogue. Yes? Because that command, not because it was a command stated in a verse, but because, if you wish, that command was so much part of the original fabric of Jewish religion from its very inception, call it Biblical religion, call it Judaism, I don’t care. At the core, is not the idea that there is simply one God as opposed to many gods? It is the nature of this God that was crucial.
Where the Hebrew religion or the Jewish religion separated itself from paganism was not in the number of gods-you can have one god, and have a thoroughly pagan conception of him-but was in a shift to history. In other words, where does God reveal himself, and the way he manifests himself in history, more than in the way, although they were not oblivious to that, more than in the way that he manifests himself in nature. Yes? Oh, there are wonderful Biblical verses. The heavens declare the glory of God. That, yes. But the crucial things are how He relates to mankind in the course of history, and how mankind responds to him. So it’s history and memory that become central to this particular faith.
BILL MOYERS: But even beyond the great divides of Jewish history, there was the command to remember you know the minute concrete genealogies, in obscure kings and rulers, and others. You know Job 8:8, where it talks about Jews learning the order of the generations and the events that have occurred, that includes a lot of miscellaneous.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: A lot of the miscellaneous was forgotten. There are even great kings of Israel in the Bible who get one paragraph. I mean, kings who, in political terms, were really very, very important. and the paragraph will end” … and so and so did evil in the sight of the Lord,” and that’s it, you know. Or there were other kinds of chronicles written which we do not have in the Biblical chronicles. And the rest of the deeds of King So-and-so, they are written in the chronicle of the Kings of Judah, for example, which we do not possess.
Apparently those chronicles dealt more with the profane exploits of these kings. but in the chronicles that we have in the Bible, which are, by the way, magnificent historical writing, there is a standard of selection, and a standard of judgment, these people are being judged within the context of this faith. Yes? That the surface of history is not always the crucial thing. It is not always the wars and the conquests that are the most important thing. If he did evil in the sight of the Lord, then he doesn’t rate, you see. So this is a very special kind of historical writing, very special kind of historiography.
BILL MOYERS: And the principle was?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: The principle …
BILL MOYERS: Of selectivity.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Was well. I don’t know if they enunciated a principle to begin with. They remembered that which was vital to remember, and that’s something we can only say in retrospect. But this capacity to remember, or this need to remember, this too, goes down through modern times, and this too goes into the secular sphere. Can I offer you one example of this? To me, one of the most moving things in terms of modern Jewish historians — there was a Jewish historian, a very eminent one In Poland, there was a whole group of, they were called the young historians, who were doing extraordinary work on the history of Jews of Eastern Europe. And one of these people, one these historians, his name was Emanuel Ringelblum. When the Germans invaded Poland In 1939, Ringelblum was not in Poland. I may be mistaken, but I think he was In Switzerland at the time. And Ringelblum said. I must get back to Poland, I must go to Warsaw. And he was warned not to go. I mean-what do you mean? You’re just going to go into the furnace, and he, in effect, said “No. If I’m an historian. I must be there when this is happening. So he was there. Made his way back to Poland, to Warsaw and he was there throughout the period of the Warsaw ghetto.
And in the Warsaw ghetto, he organized people, he had emissaries in all parts of the city, it was a whole project, who would report to him daily what was happening everywhere in the ghetto and this was recorded. He perished, along with the rest. The archive was buried. It was dug up after the war.
Now, how does one explain this kind of phenomenon. Yes? There is no God in these records. There is no divine intervention. There is no divine providence. There is no theology. This is a record, a very vivid record of what happened in the Warsaw ghetto from day to day and from week to week. And yet. I cannot help but feel that those ancient commands of remember, that they somehow carry over through the centuries, even into that phenomenon in the Warsaw ghetto.
BILL MOYERS: And remembrance, one of your greatest teachers said, is the secret of redemption.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Yes, it is.
BILL MOYERS: Doesn’t every generation have to ask the question “what mean you by these stories?”
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Hopefully, ideally, yes. Every generation should ask this. But I would point out that these problems are not restricted to Jews alone. They may be more crucial in certain respects for Jews.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, but you have been the carrier of the memory.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Yes, but Jews are not unaffected by the world and by the cultures and by the spiritual currents around them, you know? And the decay of memory is a general modern phenomenon. The memory of many peoples is in disarray.
BILL MOYERS: “History has stopped.” George Orwell said in 1984.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Well, perhaps if not as brutally as that. I think it’s a fact. It’s a fact that general tradition has decayed, memory has decayed, the sense that people had of identification with the past has waned and I think this is as true for Americans and for Frenchmen and for others. The reason it is more crucial for the Jews is that Frenchmen and Americans have a territory which has its own, shall we say, monuments of memory to constantly remind you. Yes? A Frenchman can see the physical relics of his past in the most vivid way. He has Notre Dame de Paris and he has all of the other great cathedrals of France and he knows where the battles were fought, etc.
In the whole of Europe there’re only a handful of medieval synagogues that have survived altogether. Yes? You can travel to Spain and you can go to Toledo and there are two wonderful medieval synagogues there, but most of it is destroyed. In other words, the physical Jewish past has been wiped out. All of the great synagogues of Poland were burned, you see, so everything really depends, again, as it did at the beginning. It really depends on memory and memory. I need hardly say, is the most difficult and elusive thing to foster and to revive.
BILL MOYERS: There is that haunting question asked by George Seferis, which you quote. “Having known this fate of ours so well, wandering around among broken stones, 3 or 6 thousand years, searching in collapsed buildings that might have been our homes, trying to remember dates and heroic deeds, will we be able?”
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Will we be able, Mr. Moyers, is a question I ask myself constantly. I don’t have an answer for it. If there is one thing that impresses me in the study of history, it is the paradox of being prepared for the unexpected. By all logic, somebody living at the end of the nineteenth century would say, would have said that by the Eighties of the twentieth century, the Jewish people, without even envisioning the Holocaust, that the Jewish people simply through assimilation and simply through, to use our category-simply through forgetting would have largely assimilated. This has not happened.
I can tell you one thing. I can tell you that in 1790 and 1791-I’m just giving you a crude but vivid example -when the question of Jewish emancipation, shall the Jews be for the first time made citizens with equal rights and obligations, in any modern state, it happened in France, just at the time of the Revolution. There was a raging, huge debate for almost two years. in the French Revolutionary National Assembly. There were those who supported Jewish emancipation. There were those who opposed it. I recall one of the opponents of the Jewish emancipation, in 1790, got up in the National Assembly and he said, in essence, I’m not against making — “the cit” but think for a moment,” he said, “How can you make them citizens? Will you have Jews serving in the army? I should not like to be the commander of an army of Jews on the Sabbath.” What I’m trying to say is, in 1790, who would have thought, yes, that there was going to be something like a Jewish state, with a Jewish army? Now, we’re not talking about very long periods of history. We’re talking only some 200, 250 years ago. Yes? All of this has happened in such a short space of time. Who would have thought at that time, or even later, yes, that there would be chairs in Jewish history at secular universities. Who why even talk about 200 years? Who in the United States, in the 1930’s, if you know anything about the climate on the American campuses, would have thought that there would be the kind of proliferation of studies in Judaica, and Hebraica that there are today. Now this is a very minor paltry example, but there is a chastening lesson in it. I mean, the lesson is not to draw lessons too quickly or too closely, because you don’t know what is going to happen. You cannot predict forms and events and process.
BILL MOYERS: If you could pick one decisive period in history, in Jewish history, in which you could have been a witness, as a historian, from the ground up, what would it have been?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Off the top of my head, I think I should have liked to have been alive in the period following the destruction of the Second Temple.
BILL MOYERS: About 70 A.D.?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: After 70 A.D, any time in the next century, or the next few centuries. I think that is one of the great watersheds of Jewish history.
BILL MOYERS: What made it so?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Well. outwardly all of the major foundations of Jewish life seem to have been destroyed. The country was occupied by the Romans. A great revolt had been crushed. The Temple was destroyed, and the Temple was not only a religious but national symbol. And it seems to me that that was a time when the Jewish people faced a possibility of the deepest despair. I have no doubt that many succumbed to it. But we can say in retrospect that many did not succumb, and it is this, so to speak, ability to rise from the ruins, to recreate, to transpose values into new channels, to achieve a future where no future seems possible any more, I think that that is what both fascinates my mind and what tugs at my heart.
BILL MOYERS: It’s one thing to be a people if you are specifically and geographically located, and things are prosperous and well. It’s another thing to keep that sense of peoplehood when everything is coming apart.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Yes, I think that this is one of the themes, if you wish, that run through Jewish history. In this period, it simply-you find it at its most intense. Yes? But this capacity to sustain hope, I think, is an extraordinary and mysterious thing, and I think that we have yet to write the history of that.
BILL MOYERS: But it seems to someone who is not a Jew that recurrent hope has been a continuing motif, if not a lifeboat, of Jewish history, and yet you say we haven’t really defined what that hope is?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: I think hope is a very large term. I think there’s been an oscillation among the Jews, as among other peoples, by the way. I don’t think that Jewish history exists in isolation, that it has no parallels to other histories. I think there are parallels. I think there are certain specificities in Jewish history. But I think that one of the most interesting things about Jewish history is that you can study certain things in a more intense and pure form, and hence extrapolate from that into general history. In other words, I don’t think that hope, or despair, are Jewish prerogatives. Yes? There are many peoples, all peoples perhaps, oscillate between hope and despair.
BILL MOYERS: If you met a Jew from that period after the destruction of the Temple, this intensely excruciating, seminal time, in a sense, with modern Jewry, would you and he be able to say what you are in common as Jews?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Would we be able to say? I’m not sure. If by say you mean would we be able to define this thing in abstract terms, I don’t think so. But I think the best answer I can give to your questions is that we would recognize one another.
BILL MOYERS: What makes you think you would?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: That is part of the mystique that I, as a thoroughly rational historian, carry with me. That there are continuities in Jewish history that cannot always be defined, but that we will recognize one another in the sense that when I read texts from that period, they speak to me across the centuries. Whereas, if I were to sit down and say, now what is it precisely that links me in this hypothetical conversation with that Jew, I would be hard put to put it into words.
BILL MOYERS: But is there an idea of Judaism that historians are able to distill, which represents that note of recognition, that impulse to identify, that you just talked about?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: I think that the more we’ve studied, the more we’ve realized how hard it would be to distill a pure idea or a single essence of Judaism. Yes? We find many ideas in the history of Judaism. The question is, what unites them? What unites them is not one idea, which remains the same. Oh, I suppose you could say monotheism, one God. Yes? But that’s not enough to explain anything. That becomes almost a cliché, yes?
BILL MOYERS: That is not what you and the first century Jew would have known as the mystique of recognition?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: No. There are much more complex things that unite the generations. There is the sense of a shared experience. There is a sense in each generation that its destiny has been, in part, determined by past destinies. How to put it to you? There is a sense that in the end all of it is linked together by a thousand invisible links, even if one can only specify some of them at any particular time. There is a sense of recognition. When I said before that if I read a first century text that it can still speak to me, that is a statement that says several things. It says not only that I can read the language. It says that there is some kind of dialogue possible. You asked me if I would meet this Jew. My answer is I don’t have to meet this Jew. In other words, I don’t physically have to meet him.
BILL MOYERS: You have met him.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: I have met him through those texts, through certain traditions, through certain, if you wish, rituals. Through certain shared beliefs, although the nuances of those beliefs may be very different between the first century and the 20th century. But there is a sense that what happened to him, and what is happening to me, or what is happening to Jews today that this is part of one organic whole. And that is both the mystique, and I suppose one of the agenda of Jewish history. I don’t mean for this to sound mystical. If it sounds mystical, then that’s not my intention. This is a reality. It’s the same kind of reality where you can take a text, for example, a Biblical text, and if you look at a traditional Jewish Bible, you will find the text in the middle, and it will be surrounded by commentary, literally running all around the page. Those commentaries were written in many different centuries, in many different situations, by many different people. and yet, all of them are not only in a kind of dialogue with the fundamental text, in a sense, they are also in dialogue with one another. That’s where the continuities are.
BILL MOYERS: So this ongoing contest of interpretation, this dialogue, this debate by Jews trying to define the law, the experience, the faith, becomes the tradition.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Yes. All of that is the tradition, and if asked, I suppose I would respond that the best definition is that the whole history of Judaism is a history of interpretation. But it is not only the interpretation of a text, or a set of texts, it is also an ongoing interpretation of experience.
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Of Jewish history.
BILL MOYERS: Reality of life lived.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: In other words, Jewish history is not only the story of what happened. It is the history of how what happened was interpreted. And so long as there is a sense between the generations of continuity, then it doesn’t really matter that the interpretations of one age, and the interpretations of another age will be very different. All of these interpretations become, so to speak, part of the common heritage. Part of a common reservoir, yes? Out of which the latest generation can draw, and into which it can enter into dialogue with.
BILL MOYERS: So being a Jew has meant different things at different times, but never being able to escape the necessity of trying to define what being Jewish is.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: To define what Jewish-is the definitions have varied. You say there have been different interpretations, of course there have. In the Middle Ages, there were philosophers, for example, and there were mystics. there were cabalists. And the conception of Judaism that a philosopher had was quite different from the conception of Judaism that a mystic had, or let’s say a legal scholar had. And the conception of Judaism that, let us call them the intellectual elite had was different from that which the masses or the folk had. Yes? What bound them together were certain vehicles and modes that could be shared by mystics, philosophers, jurists, intellectuals, common people. I’m fond of telling my students what you have to understand is that Maimonides and the shoemaker in Cairo probably had very different notions of what God was. The interesting this is that both of them were able to pray together in the same service, in the Cairo synagogue. Yes? Both said the same words. Both said the same prayers. In saying them, each one may have had a very different conception of what these words mean, but the words bound them together, and the words continue over the centuries, at least until modern times. In modern times, of course, things begin to unravel.
BILL MOYERS: Why, why? What’s you explanation for that?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: The Jewish people has been subject from at least the end of the 18th century to such trauma, and to such shocks -I don’t only mean persecution. Emancipation was a shock. Emancipation was an enormous shock. Western Jews had to make a leap in the space of a generation that the rest of Europe made in the course of centuries, from an essentially medieval mode of life and mentality, into modernity, into modern Western culture. Yes? With all of the shaking up that such an accelerated leap implies. And yes, there were persecutions in Eastern Europe, and the Arab lands, and the culminating persecution which was the destruction of European Jewry, the destruction of one-third of the Jewish people. That there should be Jews who no longer believe in God, or say they no longer beijeve.in God, is no surprise, if the God of Israel is the God of history. The surprise is, everything depends on how you look at things. If you look at it from a different angle, the surprise is that so many Jews who “don’t believe in God,” still want to be Jews. Fiercely want to be Jews. Insist on their Jewish identity. Will reject any aspersion, or any attempt on the part of anyone, for the sake of abstract definition, to say, no, you are no longer a Jew. Where will it all end, I don’t know. We’re too much in the middle of things. We’re too much in medias res.
BILL MOYERS: In?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: In the middle of-in the midst of a flux
BILL MOYERS: In passage.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: In passage. I suppose that every moment in history is by definition in passage. but somehow some moments are more in passage than other moments are in passage.
BILL MOYERS: Well, didn’t that happen at this time that you said would be the critical period in which you would like to have been a witness? There’s a radical discontinuity, is there not, between the Jews of the Hebrew Bible, and the Jews who come after the destruction of the Temple?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI:No, there is not a radical discontinuity. A radical discontinuity really is posited, it’s almost, I would say, a Christian concept to make so sharp a division, or so sharp a dichotomy between the Biblical Hebrews and the post-Biblical Jews. Jews, in terms of their own self-perception, have never felt that, and I think rightly so. What happens after the destruction? There’s no Temple. There’s no Temple, there are no sacrifices. Many Jews are in despair. They say “God is totally removed from us. We have no sacrifices. We have no way of communicating with God.” One of the leaders of that generation. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, says, “No, but you still have prayer.” Now prayer was not invented after the destruction of the Second Temple. While the Temple stood there were both -there were sacrifices and prayer. Here is the continuity. With the destruction of the Temple, there are no more sacrifices. What Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai is saying to the Jews of his generation, and to future generations is, that prayer will do. That is enough. Prayer. Charity. Acts of kindness. These are sufficient, yes, to establish communication between the Jewish people and God. This does not mean that they renounce the hope for restoration of the Temple. That is kept. The mode in which the ancient rituals were practiced, this is remembered, and this is inscribed in text. But that becomes a Messianic hope, for the end of time. Someday, when the Temple will be restored, all this all of this will be restored. But in the interim, the Jewish people is not bereft.
BILL MOYERS: The prayer becomes-
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Prayer is sufficient, without sacrifice. So when you ask me, is there a radical difference between Biblical Jews and post-Biblical Jews, no, there isn’t. Except that certain things become more prominent. Certain values are transvalued, or transmuted. A new emphasis is given. but the continuities are all there.
BILL MOYERS: Did anything happen in that period to the idea of the Jews as a chosen people?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: No. No. The notion of the Jews as chosen people is a constant. Again, until modern times, and even in modern times among large segments of Jewish people. Because that is bound to the notion of the Covenant. The notion of the Covenant is a notion within Judaism of an eternal covenant. In other words, even if the Jews are punished by being sent forth into exile, even if the Temple is destroyed, even if they are being chastened for what they have or have not allegedly done, the covenant remains eternal. God has not rejected the Jewish people. He is only punishing them as a father will punish his sons, without ceasing to be their father.
BILL MOYERS: I thought this might have been the answer to the question that you would have given, what is it that survives from generation to generation. And it seems to me that it is this idea of covenant, this idea of chosenness, that through centuries has tied the Jewish experience and memory of that experience together.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Mr. Moyers, the reason I squirm, and don’t want to accept any one idea, be it chosenness or any of the other ideas that we’ve thrown out, is precisely because, as you enter into modern times, or if you want to look at contemporary Jewry today, yes? There are many Jews who certainly do not preserve the tradition in any traditional sense. There are Jews who do not define themselves religiously. There are Jews who become thoroughly secularized, yes? Yet the amazing thing, and what defies all of these definitions is the fact that these many thousands of Jews in the world, in the United States and elsewhere, not only consider themselves Jews, but still feel part of this entire organic complex, and part of this continuity, which is Jewish history. I think that’s the hardest thing to understand. But one can’t begin to understand it unless one does not travel the route of saying Judaism. is any particular idea. Once Judaism is defined in that kind of dogmatic way, then by definition, again, any Jew who does not accept those ideas, yes, would hypothetically no longer be a Jew. But patently these thousands of Jews, perhaps millions, are Jews indeed.
BILL MOYERS: One of my friends, who is Jewish, made reference to himself as a secular Jew. And I said, “But, what do you mean by that?” Arid he said, “Well, I’m no longer religious, but I’m still deeply involved in and affected by this history, this culture.” And then I could see he was disturbed by it, and I had to ask him nothing, but he went on to say, “Well, I guess I guess there’s a contradiction in that. I mean, can you dip into Judaism,” he said, “selectively?” Is there a controversy at the heart of this?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: A difficulty with definition, or a problem of consistency, I think this is part and parcel of being a Jew today. I suspect that our vision of the Jewish people in the past IS also a bit too simplistic. In general, you as a Christian would know that to have faith does not mean that one does not have problems. Yes? Or that there is not all kinds of anguish, even for the religious man, or for the man who has faith. But as far as contemporary Jewry is concerned, these problems are real, the problems like your friend expressed. But they in no way affect the fundamental fact that he feels himself a Jew, that he feels himself part of a history that is larger than his own immediate personal history, that in some manifest or obscure way, he feels himself part of something that might be called Jewish destiny. That that which happens to other Jews in some way affects him, whether directly or indirectly. That he may be secular, he may no longer believe in God, he may no longer believe in the Covenant, I suspect, again, although I don’t know him, that-he may not go to synagogue, regularly, he may never go to synagogue, I suspect that, for example, certain Jewish holidays in some transmuted or transformed way, are still practiced by him in his home. Notably, for example, Passover. Passover is a holiday which has shown an enormous resiliency, and even “secular” Jews will have a Passover Seder.
BILL MOYERS: Like Christians that go-to the caroling service on Christmas Eve in the church, who never come any other time.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: That may be. Or Jews who come on the Day of Atonement. But I would go deeper than that. I wouldn’t know it. I don’t-It’s for you to say about those who go to the caroling services, but I will tell you that although Jews themselves, who tend to be very self-critical, have tendency to talk about those once-a-year Jews who come to synagogue on the Day of Atonement, I myself don’t disparage this. Because I know that something is drawing them there. What is it? I mean, they don’t have to go. Yes? But they go. Is it merely an atavism? Is it merely something out of the past? Is it merely because their parents went, or they saw their grandparents going? I don’t know. It will vary with the individual. All I know is that even once a year on that particular, powerful day, which is the Day of Atonement, with its powerful ritual and its powerful liturgy , it still has the capacity to draw even the Jew who is, shall we say, on the remotest edge of Jewishness. Like, can I give you one example? One of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century was Franz Rosenzweig in Germany. Franz Rosenzweig was on the verge – he was- came from an assimilated Jewish family. He was on the verge of converting, conversion to Christianity. And he wrote his mother, telling her that he was going to do this, because a cousin of his had convinced him philosophically of the necessity for religion, and the only religion that seemed possible to him as an assimilated Jew in Germany at that time -we’re talking about after World War 1-was Christianity, because that was also identified with the culture in which he grew up. However, he told his mother, he does not want to enter Christianity as a pagan, he wants to enter Christianity as a Jew. And so he would symbolically go on Yom Kippur, on the Day of Atonement, to services in Berlin. And he did. He went to a small orthodox synagogue and spent the whole day there, and when he walked out, he decided he could no longer convert to Christianity, that he must return to Judaism, and he became one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. Now I cannot psychoanalyze him. I will never meet him. He’s by the way, a hypothetical Jew I would love to meet, too, not only that Jew from the first century. But I ask myself, what was there? What was latent? What kind of power was there, and what was happening in that synagogue on that day, in Berlin, decades ago, that this assimilated German Jew, who was about to convert to Christianity, German Jewish intellectual, walks into the synagogue, stays there all day, and at the end of the day decides to return to Jewish tradition and to reaffirm his Jewish faith. I can’t answer that. I’m just saying that these are things that make-
BILL MOYERS: Surely you have an intuition. Some-what do you think might have happened? You go, obviously, to services on Yom Kippur.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: I do. But I’ve never been in the situation of Franz Rosenzweig. In other words, I have not come from the periphery to the center. I grew up in the center, you see.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, but what is it that appeals to you that you think might have tugged at him?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Again you ask me things that I cannot put into words. I don’t think it’s merely something intellectual, although I think that, if one sat down and closely read through the liturgy on the Day of Atonement, one could, on an intellectual level, come up with very, very interesting things. I mean, this is an enormously impressive orchestration of ritual and liturgy. There is a famous book by a great German scholar, not a Jew, Rudolf Otto, called The Idea of the Holy, in general about the phenomenon of the holy in religion, in which one of his prime examples of the experience of the awesomeness, which is part of holiness. In other words, holiness not as-there’s somebody upstairs who’s taking care of you, but holiness as an awesome experience of the divine. One of his prime examples in that book, which was written originally in German, and translated into English, is the Jewish liturgy of the Day of Atonement. So one can do that. And yet, I suspect that having done that, one still will not grasp that elusive thing that happened to Rosenzweig. Part of it is there in what I’ve just talked about. Part of it may have been there in that -I find myself using the word mysterious more with you today that I ever have in my life. Part of it is that experience of standing within the community of Israel, of doing something that other peoples do not do, of collectively confessing one’s guilt. Yes? There is no “I” in the confession. Yes? It is for the sins which we have committed before you. So standing within the contemporary community on this holiest of all days of the Jewish calendar, and at the same time, I suspect-but again, you’re forcing me to put into words things that I don’t know, I can only speculate about them -the verticality of it. I think there are moments when ~ne stands in a synagogue -and I speak, by the way, not as an orthodox or a particularly religious Jew -I think that even the most secularized Jew will have the experience sometimes in certain kinds of synagogues, and certain kinds of services -of course there are many different kinds today, yes? -where one has the experience of precisely that which we began to talk about at the outset, this mysterious link of the generations, the feeling that one is not standing alone. that one is standing there with all the mighty generations of Israel in the past. You know, there’s an old — midrash, there’s an old rabbinic —
BILL MOYERS: Teaching?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Teaching, or exegesis if you wish, or legend that at Sinai, and please don’t ask me to analyze this one to death because like poetry, there are some truths that can only be stated in that form, if you wish, in the form of myth. All right? Here is the myth. The myth is that when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai that the souls of all the unborn generations of Jews, for all ages to come, were present. And that just as those Jews who were physically alive at the time, accepted that covenant, so in effect did all future generations. Now, if you look at this logically, it’s absurd. And yet there is a truth in it. And it is a truth that is expressed, if you wish, mythically and poetically, but it is a truth, that strangely enough, even what I call the Jew who has gone farthest out into the periphery, can sometimes experience. I think these are the hardest things to explain to non-Jews. Lately I was dabbling again in Freud, for example. Yes? Freud, when he became engaged told his fiancÈe that he will have none of these rituals in the house. Yes? What Freud wrote about religion in general, and about Judaism in particular, in Moses and Monotheism, you know, yes? And yet Freud, throughout his life, expressed his identity as a Jew, his solidarity with other Jews. The jokesinthat wonderful little book on jokes and their relation to the unconscious are Jewish jokes.
BILL MOYERS: Jewish jokes.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI:How is one to explain all of this. Yes? By any norm, by any normal criteria, yes? Freud does not quality, in terms of rigid definitions as being a Jew. And yet he was. And felt himself to be so. And he himself, by the way, mystery is not my term alone. He used that. He talked about the mysteriousness of what is it precisely that has made the Jewish people what they are.
BILL MOYERS: But he gets awfully close to describing it in terms of memory, that the memory-it’s more than circumstance of birth. It is the memory, the memory we both apprehend and the memory that apprehends us.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Yes. The real question then becomes not a question of this or that text. Not this or that abstract definition of Judaism. I think we’re zeroing in on something. The question then becomes one of the vitality of memory. Yes? What is remembered? Now obviously not everything can be remembered.
BILL MOYERS: Everybody’s memory is selective, and certainly a people with this long of a history.
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Precisely. But are there certain things that can be transmitted in memory. Freud certainly remembers. There are many things that he remembers. Freud, on occasion, this totally secular anti-religious Jew, yes, will quote the Bible in key places. In talking about other things, where you realize that the Bible is, in a sense, a living text for him.
BILL MOYERS: Given this command to remember that is so inherently a part of Jewish history, why didn’t Israel become a nation of historians, instead of a nation of priests and prophets?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: Because what the historian recreates in all good conscience, is not the past that the mass of Jews recognize, all right?
BILL MOYERS: You mean — the divine
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: It is not only the divine. Yes? There are certain how shall we say? There are certain conceptions of the past that are very vital in Jewish collective memory, which, perhaps upon critical investigation, might prove to be unhistorical. Now, to the modern historian, that is the sole and utmost criterion. Did this really happen that way? Collective memory is not interested in did it really happen this way. This is how the event was remembered, and because it was remembered in a certain way, it developed and it, in itself, the memory became an historical force. In other words, what does matter to the mass of Jews exactly what the date of the Exodus from Egypt was? At what point was the Red cross — the Red Sea crossed? Did the waters really part? You know? These are not essential questions. These are not crucial questions for collective memory of a people. Ultimately memory does not depend on the recording of events. Memory has other channels, and has other vehicles, through which it can express itself. and in which the past can be recalled.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, you yourself said many Jews today are in search of a past. but they patently do not want the Past that is offered by the historians. In your book you say that the image of the Holocaust is not being shaped on the historians’ anvil but in the novelist’s crucible. What do you mean by that? Can history not deal with it?
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: I think you are probably aware that the Holocaust has already generated more historical research than any other single episode in the whole of Jewish history. We would not have enough years in which to read everything that has already been produced in terms of documentation, in terms of studies. In terms of the activities of the various great centers like Yad Vashem in Israel, or the Wiener Library in London, or here in the United States. The question is, how much impact has all this had on the consciousness of Jews? This basic, historical research, with all of its rigor, how much impact has it had on my – on contemporary Jewish consciousness and more important, in terms of how Jews perceive the Holocaust? Jews at large, and I’m making a generalization now, my feeling that Jews at large, okay certain amount of documentation, yes, just to know the basic facts, for which one good, you know, overall history of the Holocaust will suffice. What they want is a meaning to all this. They want to know that it means something. What does it mean that this terrible thing happened? And there, since we no longer have great mystics to give true mystical answers, or great philosophers to give great philosophical answers, I think I said that the surrogate, a substitute is in the work of the novelists. And I think that the novelists like Elie Weisel, like Andre Schwarz-Bart who wrote that incredible noble The Last of the Just, Le Demier des Justes, like the Israeli novelist, not born in Israel but working in Israel, Aharon Appelfe1d, like Nellie Sachs who won the Nobel Prize. In the absence of the kind of answers that the tradition, when it was whole, was able, in its vitality to give, that the temporary substitute is the novel.
And the work of such novelist Jews who read these novels somehow without getting an answer, somehow get some kind of answer, because there is some kind of paradoxical meaning that flows through these novels that cannot be gotten from the more sober work of the historian, who wants to go into the question of you know, exactly when was the Final Solution adopted? How was it affected? What was the mechanism? How did the concentration camp and the death camp work? What was the response of-These are not the questions that are troubling Jews. I think Jews at large feel, or want to feel and this I think is thoroughly understandable, that, an event of this magnitude must have some meaning beyond itself. That it cannot stop just with the fact of saying. “Well. you know. certain forces arose in Germany and they conquered half of Europe, and a third of the Jewish people was killed. And that’s it and there is nothing beyond that. There is no further door to open. There is no transcendent meaning to this. The universe does not change because of this, much as you would like to.” I don’t think that most Jews, in their heads — and here I think it cuts across secular or religious -prepared to accept this kind of thing. The trauma is too great for that. I also happen to believe, although I said that the novelist affects the Jews more than the historian does in respect to the Holocaust, also think that it’s premature, despite the impatience of Jews and others to have an answer to this almost unanswerable question. I think it is premature. And there too if history teaches me anything, it teaches me that it is premature.
Forty years is a very long time. but forty years under the aspect of history is a very short time. One or two generations are not enough. We go back to past Jewish catastrophes — the expulsion from Spain. The answer did not come or an answer was not proposed by the generation that lived through it or by their children. It came in the time of their children and their children’s children. in the form of a new mystical myth which again we don’t have to discuss now. But there is a kind of delayed reaction in history that we don’t pay attention to. And I speak now not only as a Jew. I speak as a Western human being. And I believe, Mr. Moyers, that you and I and others do not know and cannot possibly imagine yet what the spiritual consequences of the Holocaust will be on the future generations both Jews and non-Jews. I’m in contact with some analysts. psychoanalysts in Germany who are beginning, beginning to explore the impact of the Nazi period, but on the children. And it’s extraordinary how, in subterranean ways, that thing which has been repressed, continues somehow to percolate in subterranean channels. And who knows what form it will take, who knows in what way it will emerge. and who knows what spiritual toll or mental toll it has already taken. Here in the United States there has been a tremendous of work done on the children of survivors who were not there. When I give a course occasionally I give a survey course in Modern Jewish History. I give pretty much an undergraduate course. I give latitude in term papers. You know, choose anything that seems reasonable. I’m always stunned to see how many students, born in America, not children of Holocaust survivors, a belated generation, late generation, not already, close to the events-how many of them choose to write on some topic connected with the Holocaust. And I don’t know the answer why. All I know is, what we see on the surface is only the surface and the after effects of this, what I call, tremendous trauma not only for the Jewish people, but this tremendous trauma for Western civilization. That its consequences will be very far reaching but whose nature I cannot possibly begin to guess at the moment.
BILL MOYERS: Even the journalist has to acknowledge that ultimately truth is metaphor and I think for that experience, we are all looking for the metaphor. In fact, we’re all looking, whether we admit it or not, for the meaning in the Jewish experience for all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike. Can the historian attempt –
YOSEF YERUSHALMI: I don’t know if we can offer that. I do think that if Jewish history is looked at in certain ways — I’ve always believed that its significance far transcends its subject matter. I think in modern times, the Jewish experience has, in many ways, anticipated the experience of mankind in a larger context. I think that, you know, the point has been made by others, Jews had to grapple with the “secular city” before other people were talking about it. Jews have experienced genocide. I don’t say that theirs is the only one, on the contrary. But a genocide that now seems to — like a boil that has ruptured — that seems to have spilled out in different pans of the world. Jews have had to cope with the notion of annihilation and now, I say this with no glee whatever, and now, the world can conceive of the possibility of annihilation. I’m not linking the two together causally. Perhaps I could put it better if I said. Jews — I have never believed that Jews have a monopoly on persecution. I know of many other peoples that have been persecuted and terribly persecuted and slaughtered. But I think where the Jewish experience becomes interesting is that, precisely, the history of the Jews is longer and worldwide, more ubiquitous than the history of other peoples, and the Jews have been so articulate about their experience. When we read history, we read history of the victors. The Jews are one of the few peoples who were defeated; who in their defeat, were able to articulate what they felt and how they responded. and I would even go beyond that, who even-and perhaps this is something the world did not forgive them-who in their defeat, did not admit to being inferior. but on the contrary, felt superior to those who had defeated them. So it is, at the very least, interesting
BILL MOYERS: For Heritage Conversations. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 15, 2015.